This question has been asked many times on the net and the information provided is unreliable and mostly wrong.

What I am aiming to understand is what is lacking in compost that we can't just add it to make it the same composition as a rich soil?

  • Is it the amount of time that is needed to completely break it down?
  • Are there some special ingredients that are built below the surface that can't be organically added to the compost mix?
  • Is there some special conversion process that happens underground that makes it different from compost?
  • 11
    Pure compost would be nearly 100% organic matter. Soils have an inorganic component (minerals, rock particles, etc). You could build "rich soil" by mixing compost, sand, silt, clay, etc in the right proportions, depending on what kind of soil you want to build. Are you looking for something beyond this?
    – bstpierre
    Aug 20, 2012 at 2:50
  • @bstpierre - Is the difference between compost and rich soil just mixing in some inorganic material and minerals? If that is the correct answer I am happy to accept it. There is a huge range of answers to this question on the net along with many unbelievable claims. If it is as simple as you are saying please add it as an answer. I think this is an important question for the site considering the amount of misinformation out there.
    – going
    Aug 20, 2012 at 3:28
  • 3
    What bstpierre has commented is probably the simplest, most accurate answer to what appears to be a simple question from you, but actually touches on a very complicated subject, i.e., the composition of soils. Soil profiles round the world vary enormously, and Soil Science is a subject all of its own. There is no straightforward, short answer to your question other than the one bstpierre has given, or at least, I can't think of one without writing a book. Over to you bstpierre...
    – Bamboo
    Aug 20, 2012 at 9:05

3 Answers 3


As with any complex systems, there are no universally accepted definitions, so let's see the differences from this points of view:

  • soil a) = naturally occurring granular covering on the surface of Earth, capable of supporting life
  • soil b) = substrat plants are growing from
  • compost = partially decomposed organic matter, human-made fertilizer and soil amendment

I hope it is clear that from this point of view, "compost" is one of the things you can add to "soil" to make it "rich" and not the other way round.

But well, if you really wanted to cover the ground with glass and put some compost on top of it, the "things" / components / elements to add to make a rich soil from it would be:

  • inorganic matter - plants need more minerals to be healthy than just from compost that contains mostly carbon and nitrogen compounds
  • soil life - bacteria that feed from plant's roots, roots themselves, fungi, worms, ...
  • keeping the right water / air composition (compost is usually just right except it lacks anaerobic layers with anaerobic bacteria further down from the surface)

Also soil is much more open, complex and stable system - part of an ecosystem, organic matter is dynamically renewing from dying roots, fallen leaves, ... - than compost - a gardener creates it, it has several stages and finally adds it to soil and it becomes soil.


(Expanding my comment a bit. Disclaimer: I'm not a soils scientist, just a guy who reads about gardening and related topics a lot.)

I commented:

Pure compost would be nearly 100% organic matter. Soils have an inorganic component (minerals, rock particles, etc). You could build "rich soil" by mixing compost, sand, silt, clay, etc in the right proportions, depending on what kind of soil you want to build.

There are tons of different kinds of soils on earth, and they can be divided up in numerous ways. Sand vs Silt vs Clay (i.e. by particle size). Organic matter content (low vs high). For growing purposes, we often also talk about soil pH (acidic vs alkaline).

It's very much a possibility to "design" a soil that suits your needs. See my favorite recipe for potting soil, which mixes garden soil with sand to get the desired grain size (for drainage purposes) and then adds compost (for plant nutrients and organic matter), lime (to raise pH), and mineral fertilizers (plant nutrients).

You could do the same thing on a large scale by having three dump trucks swing by your house and deliver one load each of composted manure, sand, and topsoil(*). Add a few bags of lime and some mineral fertilizers and then all you'll need is a bulldozer to mix it and spread it around your lawn.

(*) "Topsoil" is kind of begging the question, I guess. You could get really specific and order up precise quantities of sand/silt/clay in the desired proportions. When I'm mixing potting soil, I just go by how it feels in my hands so that it's the "right" consistency.

  • 1
    I'd add to that by saying that 'soil', the earth's covering, so to speak, is formed from different parent materials - alluvial, rock, glacial, etc., so there's variation there. The top layer (topsoil) also varies dramatically - the parent/s has some influence, but the top metre (roughly) will contain humus of different kinds in varying degrees. It's also the interface between air, gas, life forms, water and sunlight, and that differs according to all the other factors. If you just want to make your own potting soil, that's much easier, as Bstpierre describes.
    – Bamboo
    Aug 21, 2012 at 10:46

I like to think of this more in terms of functions:

  • When you say 'soil', think geology, as in the earth has many types of soils, clay, rock, sand, etc. Largely mineral. The top layer (top soil) "should" be where plants grow and therefore it "should" contain organic/biological matter.

  • However, humans have been removing topsoil for the sake of having a firm stable, mostly flat surface for building. Compost is stuff humans make by putting various kinds of organic/biological matter together to replace the top soil we systemically remove. If we didn't remove the top soil and left plants where they grow, we would not need so much compost.

  • Compost by itself is not enough for plants to grow in. Compost has a function wherein it contains the invisible microbial lifeforms which can break down the structure of hard, mineral-laden soil (think geology again) and render it into something plants can take up by their roots, leaves, etc. That function would be the work of topsoil if we left it alone, but since we removed it we need to replace it with something like compost.

  • Not all compost works as well as top soil because it needs the microbial life to do the job. Some compost doesn't provide a very good home to the microbes and so fails to work as a replacement for topsoil.

  • You could improve your answer by structuring it, like using line-breaks and formatting to make it easier readable and to address the OP's questions more distinctively.
    – dakab
    Mar 9, 2017 at 19:08
  • Compost is created by microbial action, so what microbes are there in soil, but not compost, that makes compost unsuitable? May 4, 2017 at 15:37
  • Compost is artificial in a sense, as in plastic bags of compost sold at the nursery that have been sitting there letting the microbes contained therein die from lack of moisture or from heat. But if you open the bag and allow it exposure to water, air and soil, microbial life can return.
    – leafnstone
    May 4, 2017 at 15:48
  • Does this mean that when I have a bunch of vegetable plants growing in flower pots or grow bags, I just need to compost the soil once before planting the seeds and then the microbes would do their stuff to make the soil like top soil, and I wouldn't have to keep adding more compost?
    – Nav
    Apr 10, 2018 at 7:50
  • Make sure your soil stays "alive". Water it with a little compost tea and mulch the surface. Look for indications of soil health such as the presence of earthworms.
    – leafnstone
    May 3, 2018 at 14:37

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service and acknowledge you have read our privacy policy.

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.