Compost a Friend to Trees

Environment and climate changeTrees and agroforestry


We all need friends. Even trees need friends. And trees do have a lot of friends, including rain, sun, and the insects that pollinate tree flowers. But what about compost? You might know that compost is a friend to vegetables. It helps them grow large and healthy. But did you know that compost is also a friend to trees? The nutrients in compost are food for trees. Compost improves the structure of the soil around trees. It can stop soil from becoming too wet in the rainy season, or too dry in the hot season. Soil that is too wet or too dry can damage trees. Therefore, it is a good idea to introduce compost to your trees.

There are three times in a tree’s life when compost can be an especially good friend. The first time is when trees are young. Trees begin life as seeds and soon grow into young seedlings. Farmers often transplant young seedlings from seedbeds into containers made of grass, banana trunks, metal tins or plastic tubing. Other useful containers are coconut shells, bamboo cups, clay pots and plastic bags.

Before you transplant seedlings, put a mixture of one part compost and three parts top soil in the empty container. Use enough of the mixture so that the container is half full. Then plant the young seedlings in the mixture. Add more of the compost and soil mixture, and cover the mixture with a little soil. Your seedlings will thrive on the nutrients in the compost.

The second time a tree needs compost is when it is moved from a container to its permanent location. This is usually done at the start of the rainy season. Dig a hole large enough to hold the roots of the tree, and put the soil aside. Partly fill the hole with a mixture of 1 part compost and 3 parts topsoil.

Carefully remove the tree from its container and place it in the hole, then add more of the compost and topsoil mixture. Fill the hole with the soil you put aside, and press the soil around the tree. If it is likely to rain, use enough soil to make a small raised mound around the tree. This mound will stop the soil from becoming waterlogged. If the weather is likely to be dry for a while, don’t make a mound. Instead, leave a small depression or basin around the tree to hold water.

Pour water into the basin, then add a layer of compost to cover the soil. Compost alone is fine this time you don’t have to mix compost with soil when you use it as a soil cover. Make the compost layer about five centimetres thick. Five centimetres is about the length of your longest finger.

The third time a tree needs compost is when it is older and larger. Just before the dry season, hoe the soil at the base of the tree to remove the weeds. Then cover the soil with compost. Compost will stop the soil from drying out.

If you don’t have any compost, you can use everyday kitchen and garden waste or grass to help your trees. Dig a trench between rows of trees or shrubs. The trench should be deep enough to contain all the waste materials you have, plus a layer of soil at least 20 centimetres deep.

Place the waste materials in the trench, then fill the trench with soil to ground level. The tree roots will grow out into the trench and receive nutrients from the rotting waste. Don’t add any fatty wastes to the trench. Fatty wastes include milk, cheese, meat, fish, poultry, and oil. These kind of materials create odours that attract rodents and other animals.

So remember, the three best times to feed your trees with compost are:

  • when you transplant them into containers,
  • when you move them from their container to a permanent location, and
  • before the dry season.


  • This script was written by Vijay Cuddeford, researcher/writer, Developing Countries Farm Radio Network. It was reviewed by Cary Oshins, composting specialist, Rodale Research Institute,Kutztown, Pennsylvania, USA.

Information sources

  • Soil management: compost production and use in tropical and subtropical environments, H.W. Dalzell, A.J. Riddlestone, K.R. Gray, & K. Thurairajan, 1987.
  • Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, Viale delle Terme di Caracalla, 00100 Rome, Italy