Compost vs Fertilizer vs Manure: Differences &What’s better for plants?

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Plants need nutrients to grow and thrive in your garden, but you might not know how to get your plants exactly what they need. After a little research you probably find compost, manure and fertilizer can play an important role in the health of your garden, but what is the difference between these three and does it really matter which one you use? 

All three of these add nutrients to the soil, including nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to name a few, but the main difference is that fertilizer directly gives nutrients to the plants through absorption. Compost and manure put those nutrients in the soil, enriching it rather than directly helping the plant.

To break it down, with fertilizer you are adding nutrients you want to go to the plant, but compost and manure make the overall soil better.  

Also, while compost and manure are natural and organic, fertilizer is inorganic. All three provide nutrients but compost and manure’s nutritional value depends on what goes in it and how it is processed. Fertilizer is manmade by specifically mixing chemicals together based on requirements of the soil or the needs of the plant.  

This article does a deep dive on everything you need to know about compost, fertilizer and manure. Continue reading as we answer all your questions and help you decide which is best for you and your garden. 

What Is the Difference Between Compost and Fertilizer and Manure? 

As you are planning your garden for the year, you are probably looking at ways to make sure your soil is just right for your plants.

You want to make sure the plants you add to your garden are getting exactly what they need from the start.
You likely have read about the benefits of adding either compost, fertilizer or manure, but this probably gave you more questions than answers. The first of which might be what is the difference between these three options. 

To start compost and manure are organic materials while fertilizer is inorganic and manmade.

This means fertilizer offers a much more specialized and targeted approach to what you are adding to your garden, where manure and compost, which depends on what the source material is, have varying amounts of nutrients and minerals depending on that original source material.

This contributes to the level at which the compost or manure is effective. 

Fertilizer really shines in its ability to fix very specific problems in your soil or with your plants. You can buy fertilizers with different levels of nutrients to provide exactly what is needed. And because this is a much more targeted approach, you really know what the results are going to be.

This is where the manmade factor really is a benefit. There is a lot more control there, knowing what you are putting in and the results of doing so. Because compost and manure are far from being exact, you might not see the results you wanted. 

All three offer nutrients, especially nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium to the soil.

The main difference here is that fertilizer is directly giving nutrients to the plant.
The manure and compost are yes, giving nutrients to the plant, but overall they are improving and enriching your soil.

Fertilizer is water-soluble so it doesn’t stick around as long as the good stuff in the compost and manure do.  

Pros and Cons Of Compost 

Pros and Cons of Compost

If you are looking at a great way to recycle some of your kitchen waste, compost may be just the thing for you and once the waste is broken down you are left with a nutritious product for your garden.

Using compost isn’t all good or all bad.

Here are a few things you need to know about the benefits and disadvantages of using compost in your garden. 


Reduces Waste : You can help our enviroment to reduces wate by using kitchen scraps , put them in the compost pile instead of thow them in the rubbish.

Natural Fertilizer and Improves Soil Structure:

Compost, aside from being something you can create through kitchen and yard waste, is an organic mixture that adds nutrients to your soil.

Improves Soil Structure and Water retention: Compost also improves the structure of your soil and its ability to retain water. When it retains water, you have healthier plants, because they aren’t dying of thirst. It lowers the need for you to water as often.  

Less Cost: If you have space, you can create enough compost to add to your garden for free. You don’t need to buy it anymore. And as the waste breaks down it generates a great deal of heat, killing weed seeds.


Contains pathogens: Aside from nutrients, compost also contains microbes that suppress pathogens that might be in your soil.

Need to be patient: Making your own compost requires time and effort on the part of the home gardener.

You need to add to it, turn it and monitor everything, also not all of your kitchen waste can be used to create compost.  

Making compost doesn’t just happen overnight. There is a time element here as the breakdown of the material isn’t immediate. If you are trying to make a large amount to supply a full-size garden, you will need some space and in some areas, permits might be required.  

The nutrient levels in compost will also vary depending on what you put into the mix. It will be dependent on the natural ingredients you add.  

Pros And Cons Of Fertilizer

What are the Advantages of using fertilizers? 

Fertilizer is a great alternative to manure and compost and there are both advantages and disadvantages to using this to deliver nutrients to your garden. 

With fertilizers that are commercially made, you know you are getting precise amounts of nitrogen, potassium , phosphorus and other nutrients.

If you find your plants have a certain deficiency, you can find a fertilizer to correct the problem. At your local gardening center you can find a variety of fertilizers with a range of nutrient levels.

This allows you to give your garden exactly what it needs. With compost and manure there is so much variation of nutrients depending on what when into the organic material. Your fertilizer is food for the plant, while manure and compost feeds the soil.  

Because each kind of fertilizer is so specifically made, the effects are well known on plants. There is much less predictability when it comes to the effects manure or compost will have on the plants in your garden. 

Being widely available is another positive when it comes to fertilizer. Again, you are sure to find exactly what you need at even the smallest local hardware stores.

Compost and manure are likely not as easy for gardeners to access.  

What are the disadvantages of using fertilizers?

While there are many benefits in using a commercial fertilizer in your garden, this method for delivering nutrients also comes with a variety of disadvantages.  

  • Pricey

Even though these fertilizers are easy to find locally, they often come with a high price tag, and with multiple applications, you could have to invest a lot of money in them. 

  • Run of nutrient easily 

With fertilizers, you also run the risk of nutrient runoff. Fertilizers have high solubility and because of that they more easily runoff and leach. Leaching is when the chemicals drain away from the soil when it is soaked with water, either by a gardener watering with a hose or by rainwater.

Because they are water soluble, you will likely have to do more than one application of fertilizer.  

  • Chemical issue

For those concerned with adding chemicals to their food or the ground, fertilizers also present issues. Organic famers or those who do not wish to work with chemicals should not work with commercial fertilizers.

Pros And Cons Of Manure


Advantages and Disadvantages of using Manure

Advantages of using Manure 

Manure is a natural way to add nutrients to your soil in the garden. Like compost and fertilizer, there are both benefits and drawbacks to using manure in your garden.  

Manure can often be free if you have your own livestock or know someone who does. With a connection, the only costs you might have are from transporting the manure. There can also be costs associated with the application of the manure, especially if you are treating a large area.   

Correct application of manure is so important because it can become volatile if left on the surface. You can’t just put it on top of your garden bed and expect it to work out. You have to work it into the soil for best results.  

This organic material is a great addition to soils, because it provides those important nutrients like nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium both at the time of application and also slowly overtime.

Adding organic material to soil always improves the structure of the soil and reduces erosion. You will also find with a manure application, the soil is better able to retain water. 

Disadvantages of using Manure 

When it comes to drawbacks, manure is not guaranteed to have exactly what your soil needs for good nutrition. The content of nutrients varies by what is consumed by the animal. Additionally, there may also be weed seeds passed through the animal and then sowed into the soil in your garden.  

Another issue with manure is that some of the pathogens it contains might be harmful to humans. Bacteria and viruses in the manure like E. coli and salmonella can cause serious sickness for people.

This is especially risky when applied to plants you eat raw and grow close to the ground. Some examples are carrots and lettuce. As time goes on, the pathogens in the manure are less and less harmful, eventually dying.  

How to apply Compost , Manure and Fertilizer

Application Of Compost 

There are several different methods of making compost. It is done by adding together “green” materials like plant cuttings and fruit and vegetable waste, and “brown” materials like eggshells and wood chips.

When the compost is ready to use, it will look dark brown, and smell like fresh dirt.

Once you have a useable amount of compost that is ready for use, one or two inches should be added to and worked into approximately six to eight inches of topsoil. It is easy to do this with a tiller.

Make sure the topsoil and compost is well mixed to enrich the soil. The compost can also be mixed in with potting mix or germination mixes if you want to use it in some potted plants or raised garden beds.  

Application Of Fertilizer 

Applying the right fertilizer in the correct amounts is paramount to making sure your garden thrives. Too much and your plants might be harmed, and not enough means the deficiency you are trying to correct remains.

Whether you are generally applying fertilizer or working to fix a deficiency, it is best to take soil samples to understand what nutrients it has plenty of or what your dirt might be lacking.

Check with a local agriculture organization or local universities with an agriculture department for help on getting your soil tested. Testing your soil is a good idea before you apply anything to your soil.  

Fertilizers are available for purchase in either dry or liquid forms. Some fertilizers will be applied as dry granules you sprinkle around the plant, tree or shrub you are fertilizing.

The granules are then worked into the soil using a trowel or hoe. Other fertilizer you purchase might need to be mixed with water before application. Be sure to read the directions for creating your fertilizer mixture. Liquid fertilizers then can be applied using a water can, through your watering system or hose or by using a sprayer.  

Application Of Manure  

Whether you are were able to get animal manure from a local farmer or have livestock and are using your own, it is important to understand how to incorporate it into your soil. When applying manure, you can work it into the soil, as with compost. Others will directly apply it to the top soil, but it is more effective when worked in rather than just laid on top. Another common application of manure is injecting it into the soil. For large gardens or fields, a manure spreader machine or injector will save you time and energy. Testing the soil and manure before hand will help to determine how much manure should be spread and worked into the soil.  

Is Compost Or Fertilizer Better? 

It is hard to say which is a better additive for your soil. Both have great advantages and really can help your garden to be successful. Compost feeds the soil making the building block of your garden even better, but because there are so many variables in its creation, you might not be putting everything you need in the soil.  

Fertilizer is a great way to specifically target your problems, feeding your plants exactly what they need to get the best outcomes. Deficiencies in nutrients cause all sorts of problems in plants, and fertilizer is a faster fix than compost to correct those deficiencies you are seeing.  

If cost is a major issue for you, compost you are creating from kitchen scraps and yard waste is definitely lower than the sometimes high costs of fertilizers. Which one is “better” is highly dependent on your goals and what you prioritize.  

Do You Need Fertilizer If You Use Compost? 

There are no hard rules saying you must never add fertilizer if you have added compost. In fact using fertilizer with compost can actually take your garden up a notch.

This goes back to the idea that compost has varying levels of the nutrients your plants need, because those nutrients are based on what you used to create the compost. Fertilizer can help by adding some of the things your compost might be lacking.

Fertilizer is also more fast acting, giving your plants the nutrients they need quickly. Compost will release the good stuff over a longer period of time. You don’t have to use both at the same time, but fertilizer can be seen as an additive helping the compost out.  

Can I Plant Directly In Compost? 

If compost is full of good stuff that benefits your plant, you might ask, can I plant directly in compost? It really is beneficial to mix your compost with regular soil.

Plants don’t benefit from being directly planted in compost

And soil doesn’t always have all the nutrients or the texture your plants need until it is mixed with compost.

A healthy mix of the two is going to give you the best plants.

Compost enriches the soil, so together they are great, but alone, they don’t have everything you need for a healthy plant.  

Which To Use? 

After reading this article you might still be wondering which you should choose and while we cannot tell you which is best for you, ask yourself a few questions to help decide.  

The first is are you wanting to steer clear of a manmade chemical concoction, and therefore opt for an organic material?  

If you have a specific deficiency you might opt for a targeted approach and therefore select a fertilizer.  

Manure and compost are great for the soil, and their lasting effects, but it might not be something you have readily available. Check with local farmers or look into creating your own compost bin, but if that isn’t possible fertilizer might be what you have to use. 

There are advantages and disadvantages to using any of the three options we have discussed in this article. You just have to decide what your long and short term needs are, what is in your budget, and what is easily available to you. After some evaluation, you will know which fits best in your plans.