/ Home & Energy, Shopping

How can you spot a bag of dodgy compost?

If your car starts to misfire, you might suspect the fuel. But if your seeds won’t germinate or your seedlings fail to grow and thrive, you may blame your lack of green fingers. But what if the fault lies with a bag of dodgy compost?

At Which? Gardening every spring we buy over 40 brands of sowing, cutting and multipurpose compost that you’d find in garden centres and DIY stores.

We then test it by sowing seeds, potting on seedlings and plug plants, and growing bedding plants and potatoes in containers, just as you would at home.

But this year we decided to do something different: we sent the worst performing composts to a lab for analysis. And we didn’t just have a rootle under the car bonnet, we called in a crack team of mechanics to diagnose the problem.

Lab analysis

The lab analysis examined the exact nutritional content of each compost and the results were staggering.

Some had almost no fertiliser, some had way too much and in some the fertiliser had excessive amounts of some nutrients and nowhere near enough of others.

Plants need 12 nutrients to grow. The most important is nitrogen which is vital for growth and photosynthesis. Without enough of the other nutrients the plants wouldn’t be able to carry on the many, complex processes needed to thrive.

We found that two composts had very variable amounts of nitrogen.

In some bags of Westland Multipurpose Compost and Levington Original Multipurpose Compost there was enough fertiliser for plants to grow tall and healthy. But in another bag of each of these there wasn’t much more nitrogen than you would find in the peat they were made from, leaving the plants small and struggling. Our expert assessor thought that the full dose of fertiliser may not have been added to these composts.

In J Arthur Bower’s Multipurpose Compost there was also very little nitrogen. The woody green waste used in the compost had led to high chloride levels, which mops up nitrogen leaving the plant starved.

We expected to see the same thing in Vital Earth’s Chelsea Mix All Purpose Compost, which is made with composted green waste. But here too much nitrogen seemed to have been added to compensate, which is just as bad for the plants as too little.

A healthy balance

Too much of a good thing is as unhealthy for a plant as it is for us. Composts with a lot of fertiliser will draw water out of the plant and burn the roots, leaving crisp, lifeless plants that are unlikely to survive, let alone thrive. Fertiliser levels were far too high in Gro-Sure Peat Free All Purpose Compost with 4 Month Feed and our plants barely grew in this compost.

Our tests are designed to find the best composts for your plants, so it’s disappointing to discover some composts that are just not up to the job. Thankfully, all the composts we’ve mentioned here, apart from Gro-Sure Peat Free All Purpose Compost with 4 Month Feed, will be withdrawn from sale or available in new formulations next year.

Do you think your plants have suffered at the hands of a dodgy bag of compost?


The article in a sense shoots itself in the foot as it identifies the variability in the bag’s contents as the primary problem not the name on the bag. Re-formulation is not going to stop the problem of insufficient or to much nitrogen – it is the way the bags are filled that needs attention.

Perhaps a stronger criticism is that this article does not provide any clue whatsoever to the incidence of of “bad” compost bags. Is it 1 in 5 or 1 in a 1000? This makes a very large difference to the value of the research.

Could Which? give an idea as to how many bags of each brand were bought and the incidence of poor components and/or mixing so the discussion can be based on robust findings?

It was interesting to read the test results. The best composts are unobtainable in our area as the garden centres only sell those on which they get the biggest mark-up, and they usually have discounts for multi-purchase of multi-purpose composts so they sell well and therefore become the “most popular”.

I think it would be a good idea to put the date on product reviews. Although the Composts review gave the timeframe for the tests in the text, I believe the date of publication should be always be given. Reference to “this year” in the Intro is confusing because it is obvious that the research was carried out last year, but that might not immediately be obvious to a reader later in 2016.

This comment was removed at the request of the user

Kate Gorham says:
13 January 2017

Hi Duncan To save you the expense of bottled water for your indoor plants, try using rain water. If you don’t have a water butt, you can leave any empty containers Glass jars or Plastic, outside to collect rain water. Generally speaking rain water is best for plants and some, to name one, Blueberry bushes must be watered during dry spells with rain water not tap.

I could spot a bag of dodgy compost when toadstools started to grow beside my recently repotted peace lily. Ah well, I should have known. I bought compost for vegetables (it said so on the “tin”) at Poundland for a pound. You get what you pay for and pay for substance misuse as well. But so far my peace lily doesn’t appear to mind, so neither will I.

Perhaps I should have, being a member, read the survey first however I think Conversations should have enough information that non-subscribers can feel confident in joining in.

I am very pleased that Which? has commissioned laboratories to scientifically analyse the products as in-the-ground tests must have a lot of variables – other than the variable of the compost manufacturers production process. A major advance in testing and I think Gardening Which? are doing a grand job to highlight the differences in compost quality.

At the back of my mind I have a nagging concern about whether this used to be done regularly during the last three decades and was lapsed at some point – am I imagining things?

A couple of points

” This is a peat-reduced compost containing 58% Irish peat, along with green waste and coir. Green-waste compost is notoriously variable in quality, although we didn’t see much evidence of this across the four batches of this compost.”

It would appear that the sample size is four bags.

[Sorry Dieseltaylor, we’ve removed the compost ratings from your comment as these are exclusive for Which? members only. I hope you understand. Thanks, mods.]

There seems to be a discrepancy between the term peat-free and a 50% peat content rating.

What about the bags that have introduced Jananese Knotweed from recycled materials
There were several instances locally of this and it was no where near as straightforward to get sorted as it first seemed
Personally I dont use the stuff but I am after a 60 or 72″ howard rotavator that still turns as our old one onlyy fitted a grey or 35 fergy and their gone

As supermarkets frequently sell ‘own brand’ compost, I’ve been wondering why these haven’t been tested too. I see lots of people buying them and they are very competitively priced, maybe like their foods they might be just as good as the big brand names. Answer please WHICH.

Seems a very fair point moya.

Quite possibly the supermarkets use the same companies and are simply selling re-branded. However with a different price-point they may not be of good quality. And of course the supermarkets may have single year or three year contracts with a supplier so there may or may not be any consistency regardless of the report on variability bag by bag.

With so much variation possible it seems difficult to see how anything meaningful can be gleaned for the current year in which one buys compost. Pot-luck indeed.

However if there are brands who are consistently good then perhaps lab analysis will then allow a quick confirmation of the same quality each spring as they come on the market.

Whilst seeing why the bad are bad as we are not going to buy them based on lacking a consistent track record … ” we sent the worst performing composts to a lab for analysis.” So next spring send the good performers to the lab for confirmation of same mix and that will be great.

[Hello, we have changed your username. To ensure that your comments are attached to your profile please only use one username when commenting and make sure you sign in before doing. Thanks very much, mods.]

I have sometimes wondered where the contents of our municipal garden waste bins end up.

This morning I was not signed in (normally it happens automatically) and I had a struggle to find my password. Perhaps dieseltaylor had the same problem?

Up here in NE Scotland both garden and food waste is processed by a company called Keenan’s who claim to test it and adjust quantities of different waste streams to get a good nutrient balance then they sell it back to local farmers to spread on their land as fertiliser. It smells foul (much worse than traditional pig or cow manure) and seems to be full of bits of plastic (which Keenans claim to filter out but I saw bits all over the land here until it was ploughed in.

Dear mods

e.g. A good example might be your personal email address.

As a subscriber I have the option to change my username. I have done this but in Conversations you seem to be telling me I have to stick to my original user name. I would like to unify my postings hereon-in to all Which? sites under the taylorwhich1.

Should I delete the current Conversations ID and re-register?

[Sorry dieseltaylor, we don’t allow identifiable personal contact details to be posted on Convo. Thanks, mods]

Hello Dieseltaylor,

I’m afraid that we don’t allow an identifiable email address to be used as a username. However, if you would like to change your display name then you can do so on your account settings – although we ask that you only do this once. If you have any questions about this then please feel free to contact us.

Some councils compost this on an industrial scale and supply it to commercial growers and farmers, I believe. I don’t know whether they make it available to the public (our local council does not) and knowing what I put in the green bin I’m not sure I’d want it anyway.

I like peat-based compost ( 🙁 ) ; the peat-free I’ve bought contains, often, lots of rubbish and I have not had great results. I also like soil-based compost so for growing on in the greenhouse I generally mix the two.

Annette Hirst says:
23 February 2020

I have just come across this debate whilst searching for a way of highlighting my problem with Levingtons farmyard manure, which claims to be organic. After spreading it on my raised veg beds I now find they are covered in bits of chopped up plastic and even glass. When I complained to the garden centre they replaced it with the same product which seems just as bad. How can a firm claim to be selling organic farmyard manure when it is obviously nothing of the sort. Levingtons did not answer an e mail complaint.

I recently had the same problem with Levington ‘Organic’ farmyard manure, lots of fragments of blue and black plastic bags in the compost, in addition to large stones and shards of glazed pottery.

Here is just a small sample (from a single handful of ‘manure’) that I found:

Kelvin Evans says:
13 June 2020

I purchased 100L of Westland The Gardener’s Multi – Purpose Compost from an eBay seller on 25th of May 2020. The compost was of a good quality loam, for which I was very pleased.
I then made the mistake of ordeting another 100L of the same brand; this time from S.E.Marshalls & Co.Ltd., on the 06th June, 2020. The quality of the compost was considerably inferior to my previous order. It appears to be nothing more than chopped – up old carpets and broken sticks.
I am in the process of e-mailing Marshalls with my complaint and, but for the Lockdown, I would ask Trading Standards to investigate. Unfortunately I did not keep back some of the good stuff in order to provide evidence, by comparison. But how can one Company pack a particular grade of compost ( ( showing vastly different levels of quality ) into the same branded bags?

Kelvin – Westland sell a wide range of garden products under a variety of brand names but I don’t know whether they manufacture them or merely buy them in from various suppliers and brand them to give them a market presence.

I expect the compost they sell comes from all sorts of sources including municipal garden waste collections, large estates, nurseries, green-keepers, and other places that accumulate horticultural arisings. This has become the norm now that the policy is – rightly – to divert organic waste away from landfill for which the landfill tax acts as an incentive.

Raw horticultural waste is not material that is worth carting long distances so most processing goes on in small plants scattered all over the country. The emerging product is then sold to the major compost brands like J. Arthur Bowers, Levington, Westland, and others as well as to own-label sellers like the supermarkets and DIY stores. It is therefore highly likely that composition and quality will vary from batch to batch. Even blending will not eliminate inconsistencies and the presence of non-conforming material should be screened out at the original processing plant.

I think you are quite right to pursue your complaint to Marshalls and I hope you get a positive reaction. Whether they will take the problem back up the chain to the processor and investigate their quality control measures you might never find out.

The demand for compost has been growing strongly year on year and, inevitably, quality is likely to decline under such conditions. Drier weather creating a need for mulch and more interest in gardening have probably sparked this boom and it is disappointing that amateur gardeners are having to put up with inferior products. Plants cost a lot of money to buy and even if you propagate your own and plant them on or grow from cuttings you still want a decent compost to give them the best start. Compost isn’t exactly cheap either so buying “chopped-up old carpet and broken sticks” at £20 a bag or thereabouts is a waste of money; ten years ago the going rate outside the early spring season was around £10 for three bags. Volumes per bag vary between brands as well making price comparisons more difficult.

Thinking about the upcoming growing season I looked once again at Which? compost reviews and decided Clover Multi-purpose was worth a try. A search online found a fairly local stockist that is a family nursery, actually grows plants and doesn’t stock garden centre junk, and uses the same compost to grow their dahlias and chrysanthemums that they also exhibit, and for potting up other plants. On offer at 3 x 75 l for £15 it came about cheaper than most others. I’ll see what the results are in a few weeks.

However, the owner told me that composts can contain up to 20% of green waste (what the councils collect from your garden waste bin) without having to declare this on the packaging and also said they were paid to take this waste. The problem with this waste is it almost certainly contains weedkiller and lawn treatments that can damage or kill plant growth; a problem reported by many. I can see that Which? have assessed nutrients in composts in the laboratory, but no sign of checking for contaminants. If not, I believe they could, and should, as a warning of composts that should be avoided if reliable and useful assessments are to be made public.

The garden waste collected by councils probably contains all manner of contaminants, especially if the bulk of it is grass cuttings. I put all grass cuttings and some other garden waste in the municipal garden waste bin, and plant waste mixed with leaves in our own compost bin. The resulting material is rather fine but mixed well with some topsoil and good quality commercial compost of a more fibrous texture it provides a good growing medium and attractive mulch. The municipal garden waste probably ends up in the lower-grade commercial compost which has been reported in Which? Conversation to contain non-conforming material, stones and litter.

A friend kindly provides me with compost, either home-made or from local nurseries. The latest offering was dropped off yesterday and I have since learned that it is a bag of rotted manure from Shetland ponies In the village. I’ve heard that manure is good on rhubarb but I prefer custard.

Where there’s muck there’s brass. 🙂

How can you spot a bag of dodgy compost? They often go by the name of “Pete”.

Sustainability and some environmental matters feature increasingly in our discussions, but perhaps the damage done by extraction of peat has received little attention. I had a look for articles about composts on the Which? website, hoping to see encouragement to use peat-free alternatives and advice on making your own compost.

Here is one article: https://www.which.co.uk/reviews/compost/article/should-i-buy-peat-free-compost-agoem9L4NI04