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Did you know that there are no standards or state Department of Agriculture regulatory controls for topsoil, or potting soil, or compost? So, you want to grow vegetables. Al Rattie, STA Administrative Manager, explains how the new labeling lets you know that the compost you buy will be safe for your food crops. The STA program has initiated a testing program to label bags of compost so that you know the compost is safe for your garden no matter if it holds vegetables, flowers or trees.   Anne K Moore


Al Rattie, Director of Market Development, U.S. Composting Council
Photographs Courtesy U.S. Composting Council

Did you know that there are no standards or state Department of Agriculture regulatory controls for topsoil? Did you know that this also applies to most of the compost products that you purchase? Same thing applies to most potting soil. Do these facts help to answer why it’s often challenging to purchase high quality compost or soil?

The lack of regulatory rules and oversight of compost and soil products exists on a national level. Many states do not even require product registration if no nutrient or soil amending claims are made. Their only concerns are that the quantity of compost or soil in the bag matches what is on the label. Its ‘buyer beware’ for everything else.

The exact opposite is true where products like chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides are concerned. Manufacturers of these products must provide the consumer with data to make an informed buying decision, as well as an accurate statement of content and product use directions….just like any other consumer product that you purchase, from cereal to big screen TVs.

Yet, pretty much anyone can dump a pile of brown, earthy looking stuff in their garden center or landscape supply yard and stick a sign in it, calling it ‘compost’, and its buyer beware (again) from that point on. This is not good for the composting industry or for the consumer, and it’s certainly not beneficial for your gardens!

The US Composting Council (USCC) has long recognized this as an industry problem, which had to be solved if compost was ever to make it as a mainstream horticultural product, which it really should be. What other product provides the array of benefits to the soil and the plants than compost? No other soil product provides the array of environmental benefits that compost does. Compost is a recycled product that, when used, continues to provide environmental as well as agronomic benefits.

Look at the compost benefit list approved by the American Association of Plant Food Control Officials (AAPFCO):

  • Improves soil structure and porosity – creating a better plant root environment;
  • Increases moisture infiltration and permeability, and reduces bulk density of heavy soils – improving moisture infiltration rates and reducing erosion and runoff;
  • Improves the moisture holding capacity of light soils – reducing water loss and nutrient leaching, and improving moisture retention;
  • Improves the cation exchange capacity¹ (CEC) of soils;
  • Supplies organic matter;
  • Aids the proliferation of soil microorganisms;
  • Supplies beneficial microorganisms to soils and growing media;
  • Encourages vigorous root growth;
  • Allows plants to more effectively utilize nutrients, while reducing nutrient loss by leaching;
  • Enables soils to retain nutrients longer;
  • Contains humus – assisting in soil aggregation and making nutrients more available for plant uptake;
  • Buffers soil pH

You’re not going to find many (if any?) of these claims on most potting soils, let alone topsoil, and you probably won’t even find them on most compost UNLESS it is part of the USCC’s Seal of Testing Assurance Program (STA).

All compost is not created equal. There can be a wide variability in the characteristics and quality of compost products. This is the result of the variety of organic materials that go into the compost feedstock, and the variety of processes used to produce compost. As a result of this variability, the question becomes, "How do I purchase compost that meets my gardening needs?"

One answer, as listed above, is to purchase only compost that complies with the terms and conditions of the USCC’s STA Program (see below*). This will provide you with the information that you must have in order to make an informed buying decision.
Compost industry standards had to be set and the ‘bar had to be raised’, to improve the professionalism of the composting industry and to elevate compost to a product that consumers could purchase with confidence. The STA Program was developed in 2000 to address this need, as a previous article by US Composting Council President, Frank Franciosi, described.

The Consumer Compost Use program subsequently evolved from this. The Consumer Compost Use program takes the STA Program a step further by certifying composts that meet a set of product quality characteristics as being suitable for specific garden applications (i.e., Lawns, Trees & Shrubs, and Flower & Vegetable Gardens).

*STA participants are:

  • Required to test their compost on a regular basis, with testing frequency being dictated by the volume of product that they produce. This can be as often as monthly, for large producers, to quarterly for smaller producers.
  • Make all test data available to all interested prospective users of the product.
  • Include product ingredients and use directions for their compost product(s).

Essentially, the STA program is designed to raise the professionalism of the compost industry and treat compost just like any other commercial or consumer product; be it cereal, fertilizer, or soil products. Look for the STA logo on all of the compost products, compost producer’s websites, and their promotional materials that you are considering purchasing. Look for the Consumer Compost Use icons to direct you to compost certified for specific applications.

We believe that if consumers know what they are purchasing, they’re more likely to buy the right product for their gardening needs, use it properly, and then realize the full benefits of compost!

NOTE: Cation exchange capacity-  Ability of soils to hold and release minerals.


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