Fertilizer vs. Manure vs. Compost: What’s The Difference?

If you are looking at different ways to put garden fertilizer in your garden, you have several options. Compost, manure, and fertilizer are materials that enrich the soil with nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and other nutrients. The only difference is that compost and manure are organic while fertilizer is an inorganic source of nutrients for plants and the soil. While the three nourish the soil and the crops growing in it, they work differently.

Because manure and compost come from organic matter, their effectiveness depends on the processing method and the source of material used to prepare them. Most people can make their own manure or compost with household and yard waste. However, fertilizer is a chemical formulation that includes a combination of a certain percentage of nutrients such as NPK and a carrier such as sand or sawdust. Are you considering using manure, compost, or fertilizer for your garden or farm? Can you use the three on the same? Before choosing any of these nutrient sources for your garden, it is important to know the difference and the merits and demerits of each one.

So, what’s the difference between fertilizer, manure, and compost? The simple differences between fertilizer, compost, and manure are that fertilizer helps the plants while compost and manure enrich the soil. Manure and compost are organic-based, although compost is more stabilized. On its own, fertilizer is inorganic manure produced by mixing synthetic chemicals together at specific percentages based on the plant and soil requirements.

Is manure that different from compost and fertilizer? Sure, the three have distinct characteristics and will only perform well when used appropriately. The main difference lies in the mode of production and the effect on the plant and soil.

If you ask most gardeners their choice for soil enrichment, they will choose manure and compost. This is because at the heart of the gardening culture is a passion to eat organic food. The reason many people prefer to grow their food is to be in total control of the production process. This allows gardeners to eliminate as many chemicals as possible.

However, there is a limit to what you can achieve with manure and compost. Compost and manure are organic, affordable, readily available, and environmentally friendly. Runoff and pollution of water bodies is not a big problem when using manure or compost. However, you need a large amount of both soil enrichments to get the desired results. But if you need to boost plant health fast and increase yield, nothing beats the additive effect of fertilizers because they provide the right nutrients in concentrated form. It is important to know what to use at what time to get the best results. Fertilizer is synthetic, i.e. it is the product of chemical formulations in a factory. It is a concentrated form of manure and compost and a 50kg bag of fertilizer may produce the same results as 500kg of manure.

Fertilizers release nutrients quickly into the soil, but this also makes them vulnerable. There are several environmental concerns with fertilizer as it can runoff into water bodies, causing pollution, and endangering the marine ecosystem. Excessive use of fertilizer can have adverse effects on the soil in the long-term and also make food less healthy for consumption. This is why many people, despite the higher effectiveness per kg of fertilizer opt for the more natural and environmentally friendly manure and compost.

To know how fertilizer, manure and compost differ, it is important to understand the process of making each one, the benefits and downsides to using them and what to use in different situations.

What Is Manure?

Manure is made from livestock waste or crop residue. It contains the urine, feces, spilled feed, runoff, and bedding of livestock and plant waste. To make manure, you dump the waste of animals and plants into a pit in an open area to allow for natural decomposition by microorganisms. It is important to process manure to remove any traces of contaminants such as E.coli and salmonella.

While you can use fresh manure in your garden, it is better to leave it for a while to reduce the high nitrogen levels as this can burn your plants. The best sources of manure are:

  • Chicken manure
  • Cow manure
  • Horse manure
  • Goat, sheep, and rabbit manure, and so on.

Avoid using the manure of pigs, dogs, cats, and other carnivorous animals as their waste are not nutrient-rich and lacks the level of organic matter found in livestock and poultry feed.  Cat, dog and pig manure can also transmit parasites, and pet food contains so many chemical additives and colorings that can endanger your garden.

Advantages of Manure

Manure is highly rich in several organic materials including nitrogen, potassium, and fiber among others. Here are the benefits of manure.

  • Manure increases the organic component of your soils
  • Improves moisture retention capacity of the soil
  • Boosts drainage of the soil
  • Improves water filtration ability of the soil
  • Enhances soil texture and aeration
  • Supplies available and slow-release N, P, K and micronutrients to your plants
  • It is free (mostly, but you may need to pay for transport and application)

Disadvantages of Manure

  • The nutrient content is variable as it depends on the composition of the animal manure or plant waste used to prepare it.
  • It can be lost due to volatility if it takes too long on the soil surface and leaches through the soil profile easily.
  • If not cured, manure can introduce E.coli and other human pathogenic microorganisms into the soil.
  • It is difficult to transport and apply manure because of its weight and bulk.
  • Can introduce weed into your soil if you used the manure of ruminant animals such as cattle and goats.

Application of Manure

Manure is commonly applied topically on the soil surface. It can also be injected or incorporated into the soil. The quantity applied depends on the manure and the needs of the soil.

What Is Compost?

Compost is made from the decomposition of organic waste such as dead leaves, food waste, woody materials, dead grasses, sludge, paper, and other organic yard waste. Everything from eggshells, fruit and vegetable waste, paper napkins, and many others can be composted for use as soil nutrients. Compost results from natural decomposition and chemical processes-a sort of controlled decomposition. Compost is like manure and fertilizer in nutrient composition. However, it releases its nutrients slowly over weeks and even months before its stores get depleted completely.

Advantages of Compost

Compost offers several benefits for the soil including:

  • Increases water and air permeability of the soil
  • Improves water holding capacity which may reduce the need for irrigation
  • Contains a higher concentration of nutrients because of its lower water content compared to manure
  • Provides organic matter that releases nutrients slowly
  • Reduces soil compaction and boosts the binding properties of the soil.
  • Reduces erosion
  • Stabilities soil pH and neutralize soils, maintaining the soil pH value.
  • Improve nutrient uptake of plants from the soil.
  • Improves overall soil health
  • The presence of beneficial microbes in compost helps protect against soil-borne diseases and increase nutrient cycling.
  • Reduced bulk as it is drier than manure, making transport and application easier and faster.
  • The risk of weed seeds and pathogen introduction is lower because of the high heat produced in the decomposition process.
  • With the right equipment, can be a source of income for farmers.

Disadvantages of Compost

  • It is expensive to produce compost as it requires specialized equipment and extensive planning, monitoring and time.
  • You may need a special permit if you are producing a large quantity of for commercial purposes.
  • May be more expensive per lb. of available nutrient compared to either manure or fertilizer

Application of Compost

Soil amendment is the most common method of compost application. It involves mixing 2 to 3 inches of compost into every square foot of the top 6-8 inches of soil to improve the soil composition and consistency. Before applying your compost, make sure the decomposition process is complete as it generates tremendous amounts of heat that can damage the plants. When it is ready, compost will be dark and soft with a crumbly texture and an earthy smell. Mix well as further decomposition can give off a stinky smell, especially if the compost was turned poorly while it was in the dump.

What Is Fertilizer?

Fertilizer is a synthetic soil additive that contains a specific number of macro nutrients plants need to grow and deliver bountiful yields. The most common type of fertilizer is the N, P, K which contains Nitrogen, Phosphorus and Potassium. Unlike manure and compost which are made from natural materials, fertilizer is produced from industrial chemicals in concentrated forms.

Fertilizers are designed for fast action, thus they can dissolve quickly in water to provide nutrients to the plants as soon as they are applied to the soil. There are different fertilizers based on the nutrients they supply including the popular NPK, urea, potash, superphosphate, and more. They are produced to deliver targeted nutrients for plants at important periods of their life cycle, hence the many blends of fertilizers.

Advantages of Fertilizer

  • Fertilizers deliver nutrients to plants instantly
  • Provide adequate amounts of target nutrients the plant needs to thrive
  • Does not introduce weed, pests or pathogens into your soil
  • Requires only a small amount to be effective
  • You can control the amount of nutrients your plants are getting.

Disadvantages of Fertilizers

  • Can burn your plants when applied in excess amounts
  • Because of its high solubility, fertilizer can be lost easily through runoff and it can pollute the drinking water if the water table is high. Fertilizer lost through runoff and leaching can cause an explosion in the growth of algae in nearby water bodies, disrupting the balance of the ecosystem.
  • Fertilizer does not improve soil health parameters such as drainage, water holding capacity, heave and erosion.

Application of Fertilizer

There are several ways of applying fertilizer. If you are using granular fertilizer, you can use a spading fork to work it into your garden bed. But water the bed thoroughly to allow the fertilizer dissolve quickly for easy plant uptake. You can also apply close to the root using a cultivator. For liquid fertilizers, you can use a watering can or inject into your watering system.

Manure Compost Fertilizer Main Differences

From the above, we can conclude that the following are the main features of manure, compost and fertilizer.


Manure is produced from mostly livestock waste through natural decomposition by microorganisms. Compost is also a product of decomposition, but it is controlled. Fertilizer is a synthetic product produced from industrial chemicals.

Soil Health

Manure and compost offer improved soil health benefits such as erosion control, increased aeration, water retention and more. Fertilizer does not deliver these benefits.

Nutrient Availability

Manure and compost provide their nutrients to the plants slowly. However, fertilizers have a fast delivery of nutrients.

Environmental Impact

Because of their organic origin, the environmental impact of manure and compost is minimal but fertilizer can have drastic effects on the environment, particularly the water body and soil microfauna.


Fertilizer is expensive because it contains specific nutrients in high concentrations. Manure is almost always free but you will pay for the transport to your place. Compost is a bit expensive because the production requires extensive and often costly resources.

Which Is Best?

If your garden or farm is going through a nutrient deficiency crisis and your plants are showing yellow coloration, your best shot is to apply chemical fertilizer to provide the plants with the nutrients they need to survive and grow well. Compost and manure are best for long-term soil health improvement. The three additives have their advantages and disadvantages. You can always combine the three as the situation of your garden or farm warrants. However, know how much to use and when to use it.

Importance of Compost over Fertilizers

Composting is the preferred way to boost soil health and productivity for many gardeners. And it’s not only because composting is organic. There are several other benefits of using compost which fertilizers cannot provide. They include:

  • Compost helps to reduce the volume of waste including fruit and vegetable waste, wood shaving, paper, sludge, and more.
  • It helps reduce the amount of chemical fertilizer, thus helping to lower the environmental impact of the chemicals in synthetic manure.
  • Improves soil health including soil aeration, drainage, and water holding capacity
  • Lowers the cost of irrigation because of the improved water retention

What Are the Differences Between Fertilizers and Manure?

Manure and fertilizer perform almost the same function of feeding the plant. But manure goes further by enriching and replenishing the soil. Here are the differences between fertilizers and manure.

Name: Manure is made from natural materials of animal and plant origin while fertilizer is made from synthetic chemicals.

Preparation: Manure is prepared in open pits in the field through microbial activity and fertilizers are prepared in chemical factories.

Nutrients: Manure is low in nutrients but high in organic matter (humus). Fertilizer contains concentrated amount of plant nutrients and almost no organic matter save for the filler material.

Availability: Manure provides nutrients slowly while the nutrients from fertilizers are quickly absorbed by plants.

Cost: Fertilizer is expensive. You can make manure by yourself or get it for free from farms. Environmental Impact: Manure has a positive environmental impact. Fertilizer can harm soil organisms like the earthworm, pollute water bodies and disrupt marine ecosystems and more.

Eyerly Family

The Eyerly Family is a family of 8 that loves gardening. Over the past several years we have been applying what we learn about gardening to our own 16x16 raised back yard garden. Our garden is very prolific and we grow a wide variety of vegetables which we love to eat! Click here to learn more about the Eyerly Family.

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