Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Buying Bulk Compost

Removing the grass from the entrance bed was the first step in a long line of work to complete the flower bed.  After the sod was removed I intended to dig out any garbage that had popped up with the sod and also do some weeding.  I believe this area was used to dispose of garbage in previous years and I'm always finding pieces of glass and other odd items in the dirt. 

Note that I say intended.

Nothing ever goes as planned does it?  Instead I got caught up in finishing the vegetable garden and working on other beds that we had created.  The weeds grew long and the dirt grew hard in my entrance bed.  And then the compost arrived and there was no time to clear the bed.  It seems I will be finding broken glass among my posies for years to come.

I had ordered three yards of compost to be dumped on this bed in order to replace some of the top soil that was removed with the sod.  I also expected it would add humus and nutrients to the soil, making my flowers happy.  What I didn't know is that three yards isn't nearly as much as it sounds like.  This is the pile that was delivered.

Funny, it doesn't look as big as I had thought
Perhaps some of you have ordered compost in bulk form before but this was a first for me.  I've never had a garden large enough.  So when a yard was described to me as 100 square feet at a depth of 3 inches it sounded pretty big.  I actually thought 3 yards was overdoing it but I can always use more compost so I went ahead.  Thank goodness I 'overbought' because 3 yards barely covered my new flower bed.  After I received the compost I actually looked up a cubic yard (perhaps I ought to have done that first?!) and I found this link.  Essentially a cubic yard is about as big as a dishwasher - 3 feet by 3 feet by 3 feet.  And that is not very big at all.  Instead of buying an excessive amount of compost I had actually purchased too little. Thank goodness my own compost bin was ready for emptying and I was able to add approximately one more yard of my own compost to the bed.

I used the mini trailer to cart compost from my bin to the new bed
Unfortunately the issues didn't stop there.  When I purchased the compost I thought the price was somewhat high but never having purchased it in bulk before and being confused about the amount I was receiving I went ahead with the purchase and didn't second guess the price.  I shouldn't have done that.  Not only was I upset about how little compost I actually received but I was flabbergasted at how much it had cost me.  I checked another nursery sometime later and discovered I had paid twice the amount they were charging.  Let that be a warning - price check before buying!

I just barely managed to cover the bed with compost.
You can see the red dirt poking out around the edges.
 My stupidity did not stop there though.  The final issue was the compost itself.  At first glance it was a dark looking pile and appeared for all intents and purposes like the black gold that is so often described when speaking about compost.  Second glance told a different story.  There were white particles in my compost.  What could that be?  So I got my gloves and dug in.  The compost was light and airy, very dry and sifted between my fingers like sand.  I don't know what your compost looks like but I was highly distressed.  The compost that comes out of my personal bins is a thick material full of insects and worms.  I even found a garter snake hiding in my compost pile this past week.  It's also slightly damp.  My compost is alive and therefore supports other life.  It retains moisture and clumps together forming humus which provides texture to the soil.  As I sifted this new compost in my hands I realized what I had purchased was composed of peat moss (giving it that light airy feel) and perlite (those white bits).  Now, there's nothing wrong with peat moss or perlite.  Both materials are used in gardening and have great moisture retention qualities.  But my intention wasn't to buy peat moss or perlite.  As I sifted I realized - I had essentially bought three yards of potting soil.

The moral to the story is, like with so many things, buyer beware.  It was my responsibility as a consumer to do a price check and make sure I knew what I was buying.  If you're looking at purchasing compost in bulk know what a cubic yard looks like.  Then phone several companies and compare prices.  Finally, go to the company and see what it is they are selling.  Run your hands through it and satisfy yourself that it is indeed compost.  I didn't think it was necessary to ask if the compost I was buying was really compost.  How much of a difference could there be?  But obviously I was wrong.  Get a handful of the stuff and make sure your compost isn't full of additives. 

Have you ever ordered compost in bulk and been surprised by what you received?  Is using additives common practice?


  1. Dear Marguerite, I am so sorry you had such a bad experience with your compost purchase. I always buy 'mushroom compost' which is the thick black stuff you describe. Also, we borrow a relative's pick-up truck and transport it ourselves, because the cost of delivery usually exceeds the cost of the compost. Gardening is definitely a continual learning experience, I have found. I make mistakes, and learn from them, every year. I am sure your new flower garden will turn out to be wonderful! P. x

  2. What a valuable lesson you have learned! I too was confused by the sheer volume of material used in a garden. I quickly learned that 6 big bags of mulch cover almost nothing, even though they are heavy and hard to lift. You learned the hard way what 3 cubic yards looks like!

    Good luck with this new garden.. it will be beautiful when it is done, and all the more so because you put your own effort into it and learned so much along the way.

  3. This soil ammending thing is such a frustrating experience. Since I have moved I have suffered the same situations with dealers and their "compost" that is nothing more than hardwood mulch and sand. My poor plants have just sat there all season since the "compost" is cr*p.

  4. Hi Marguerite,
    One of the many things I love about your blog is that you turn your mistakes into entertaining and funny reading.
    I can so identify with this post. When we did our new vegetable beds I ordered 3 yards of "Triple Mix" which has equal parts of topsoil, peat and compost. When this first batch arrived I thought that the pile was monstrously big and figured that I had ordered way too much. I also noticed, with dismay, that there was grass roots mixed in.
    I ended up ordering 2 more yards from a different supplier. The delivery charges are almost as much as the soil and so this ended up being a costly mistake.
    I agree with you 100%. Check out the soil/compost before you have it delivered!

  5. I would call them and tell them you're not satisfied. I would also tell them their pricing was double that of a competitor and I would question why I was told a yard would cover 100 square feet at 3 inches deep. I would also explain that there's a huge difference between potting soil and compost and why was compost not delivered when it was ordered. I would then proceed to explain the difference between the two if they haven't hung up on me by now. I would continue by asking how they would like to compensate me for having overpaid and being misled. THEN, if they refuse to offer any type of compensation, I would finish by saying that word of mouth is a powerful tool and I have lots and lots of friends on Facebook as well as an active blog.

    That's what I would do. They ripped you off and nothing ticks me off more than people who rip other people off.

  6. Marguerite when I saw your title for this post my first reaction was 'you are sooo lucky to be able to buy large quantities of compost'

    however as I read I changed my mind, like you I would not know how big or small a cubic yard is, being older I have learnt to get prices from several company's before deciding,

    by the time I finshed reading I was thinking you should complain that you purchased compost and that is not what they delivered, acually when you described it I was thinking it sounds like 'peat dross' which people here use for burning as it's the worst of the peat,

    on reading the comments, I totally agree with Michelle, complain, complain, complain, the reason companies get away with shoddy goods is because the buying public doesn't complain but pays up and takes it,

    stand strong and don't let them walk over you, name them on your blog if they don't come through, you have readers who are also on PEI and they should be warned, good luck, Frances

  7. Yikes! We buy our extra compost through our local Hort society who provide it as one of their fundraising efforts. It is lovely but only comes in bags (although we get lots of bags!). I agree with the other commenters that you have a legitimate complaint.

  8. I totally agree with Michelle! Complain and threaten. You should not have to go there first to check what they are selling. If they sell you compost at a premium price, they need to deliver compost! Not potting soil. I've done this twice - the first time was fantastic, beautiful compost. The second time it was not that great, but still ok.

  9. Ah, nothing worse than being ripped off!

    I haven't heard about the quality of the following, but you may want to check it out sometime ... it's our local waste management company.

  10. I do buy in bulk. Soil, amended soil. The last purchase was 10 yards of mulch. I needed more, but didn't want to pay more. I don't know how your retailer is set up, but here, you can go to the bins, look at it, and decide exactly what you want. The 'soil' is pure sand - no living thing could live in it. But it's cheap. The 'amended' soil is soil (sand) with some compost added (not great stuff, either). And expensive. I've learned to order the 'soil' then add my own compost. Sorry you had a bad experience. Now you know to go to the other place! But, still, go and actually touch what you're buying. Each place is different!

  11. I could see by the size of your bed that 3 yards would not do it. I use more than three yards on my tiny beds. I do like your trailer for moving it. Not everybody has those. Too bad they did not explain to you it was a potting mix they were selling. That is why twice the price.

  12. Marguerite, I've been ordering compost in bulk for a number of years now, because I use it throughout my garden as mulch as well as digging it into new planting areas. Even though commercial compost is very easy to come by here because there are several commercial compost facilities nearby, I've still had some issues with quality. For several years in a row, I bought so-called "organic compost" from a local nursery. The price was very good, and delivery was easy because they are only 7 miles from my house. But, from the beginning, I was always finding pieces of plastic (and sometimes flattened tin cans!) in the compost. Last year, it turned out to be full of weed seeds. Having squash plants popping up in my flower beds was not quite what I had in mind! This year, I paid twice as much for compost (this time certified by the Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association) delivered by a nursery 20 miles away. But the quality is wonderful; I'll pay the extra to get the same quality product next year. -Jean

  13. Oh Marguerite..I didn't expect to read that at the end..perlite and distress would have been off the scale, so I applaud you're not throwing a wobbly ))).

    The bed looks great though..just great ...and BIG!!!

  14. I appreciate this kind of blog. Thanks for posting.

  15. Horrible! I am finding these days that I have to check and recheck everything and anything that I purchase. So sorry you over paid for compost but I think you might have paid the going cost for what they sell peat and perlite for. Don't beat yourself up over it, we all make these buying issues, we just don't always talk about it. Good for you, the gardens are looking lovely and you have been working so hard at it also.
    Speaking of buying, I ordered 12 tea pots Royal Blue for our Royal Tea... They came without lids, hubby said, "well maybe you have to order the lids separate." No, I called the company and they said this happens and are sending me out more. Take care, cindy

  16. Pam - If it wasn't for my mistakes I wouldn't learn half as much! Lucky you're able to borrow a truck. That was the reason I wanted compost delivered, we have no open truck to transport in.

    Laurrie - I've had the same issue as you with bags, they never seem to go very far! Somehow I thought cubic yards would be so much larger but I think I made the same mistake as buying too few bags. At least I know for next time.

    Tufa - Sorry to hear you've had the same problem but it's interesting to note that this is a common thing to do. It just never occurred to me that compost would be anything other than what it is. Now that I think about it, of course it makes sense that dealers would try to 'water it down' to get more money.

    Thanks Jennifer. If I dwell on the mistakes I'll be miserable! I figure the least I can do is point out my errors so others can learn at my expense. I didn't mention the delivery charge but mine was similar, the delivery price being almost as much as the compost. I wouldn't have minded the delivery charge considering the price of gas and how far away we live but finding the product wasn't what I expected was frustrating.

    Michelle and Frances - Although I had some of the same outrage when I realized what had happened I also have to take some responsibility for my part of this. I didn't look at the product before ordering, I didn't check to see how much a cubic yard really is and I didn't price check. All things that I know as a consumer I should have done. If the company had lied to me outright I think I would be more perturbed but as it is I'm more frustrated with myself for not taking the time to ask the right questions.

  17. Ms.S - I've always gotten my compost and manure bagged as well and done pretty good with it. This was my first experience with bulk loads and obviously I need to do a little more research next time I try this!

    Christine - although I consider what they sold me to be potting soil I actually think the person who sold it to me believes it to be compost. Part of the issue is expectations. What I think is compost isn't necessarily what the next person considers compost. It seems the only way to know what you're getting is to look at it yourself.

    Kim - I've looked at IWMC's compost list a few times and been tempted. Unfortunately you have to transport it yourself. Someone local also mentioned to me they would never use that compost on their vegetables. Essentially you don't know what people are putting in their compost bins and the company doesn't really scrutinize. That could be said for any place I suppose but it's made me think twice.

    Holley - I suspect you're quite right that every company would have a different kind of compost. And what I expect to be compost is probably quite different from what other people call compost. Checking personally seems to be the only way to find out what you're buying.

    Donna - My exact thought after I realized what I had bought! Perlite isn't cheap so the high price actually made some sense. I don't doubt there is some sea compost in the mix (which is what I was told) as I've found crab shells and other items in the dirt. It's just not the 100% compost I was expecting.

  18. Jean - living far out in the country does have it's downside doesn't it? A major issue ordering compost this year was finding someone who would deliver to me. In future I would love to buy an old truck so I can purchase compost, manure and straw to my heart's delight and truck it myself.

    Bren - It's actually taken me some time to write this post so I've had a period to cool off! though I love the term 'throwing a wobbly'!

    Thanks Compost. I'm hoping my mistakes will be useful for others, or at the very least they can have a laugh.

    Cindy - I think you're right that the cost reflected the peat and perlite. They're not such bad things, just not what I wanted. As you say, when shopping these days you really have to check everything you're buying.

  19. Marguerite, I wouldn't beat up on yourself too much. We have made any number of similar mistakes. We went "mulch" shopping after one very bad experience. We use compost to mulch and like you, we didn't have enough. We ordered some that was totally not what we wanted, but we bought it sight unseen.

    There are many good reasons to buy and have it delivered and quantity is one of the best. I wouldn't swear off purchased compost. We have been able to get some great stuff, and even with the delivery charge, it's well worth what we pay.

    What I WOULD do is ride around to different places and play in the dirt. We found the worst quality and highest cost at nurseries and the BEST quality and least expensive cost at landscaping companies that supply landscapers with pavers, stone, sand, etc.

    Good luck, and do enjoy your new bed!

  20. Buying compost is very tricky. We bought some when we were building up our raised beds, because we just didn't have enough. The best I could find locally was pricey, but what irritated me was that about half of it was sand! It's fine for drainage, but sand is cheap, and I could add that myself. We have plans now to build a large 3 bin system, that we can fit the bucket of the tractor into, and source bulk raw materials and make our own. We have a stable nearby, and they give away manure by the truckload, so that should get us off to a good start ;) I definitely find the quality of homemade compost to be so much better.

  21. Eeek, what a pain. I sympathise on the volume front. When we had our grass removed and replaced with the pond, border and paths, I ordered what I thought was enough gravel to cover the whole area to at least 2". I still don't know where I went wrong in calculating it all, but I soon discovered that I had too little to do the job well, and had to buy more. Re quality of compost, I think the best thing is if you can see it before you buy it, and if you can force yourself to refuse the delivery if it is not up to scratch quality-wise. Painful lessons, hope you find a good source of good quality and value compost soon.

  22. Cathy and Steve - You have hit on exactly what I should have done. Checked out several places in person and checked the quality of the compost. It seems really obvious now (especially reading others experience) but oddly I just didn't realize there would such discrepancy in what compost consists of.

    Clare - homemade is definitely the best!! When I compared my compost to what I had purchased the difference was so vast. Like you, this has just enforced for me that I need to produce more of my own compost.

    Janet - I cursed myself a little for not being there when the compost was delivered. In addition to not viewing the stuff beforehand! By the time I realized this wasn't very good product, and then weeks later when I realized how much I had overpaid it was much too late to really do anything about it. Hard lesson but one I won't forget.