Sifting compost

petalpatsy(7b)May 22, 2009

I read this forum and hear people sifting compost. I sifted some one year, but I had to rub it through 1/2 inch hardware cloth. Compost from my pile is always in moist, pretty solid lumps about an inch or more around, usually formed around a little piece of twig, which I could rub through the cloth as well. It made a beautiful end product--tiny, uniform, light and fluffy, and black as night. I gave it to my mother (yeah, I was showing off.)

But so much work! I usually just put down lumps and all as a top dressing mulch, living the no till life as I do, water it down and wish the worms good luck.

What am I missing about the sifting equation? Or is everybody rubbing? Or is it because I chop everything first? What kind of pile/compost are all you guys sifting?

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jean001(z8aPortland, OR)

I don't sift. Never do. Might if it was for a seed mix.

    Bookmark   May 22, 2009 at 12:51AM
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dan_staley(5b/SS 2b AHS 6-7)

I've never sifted. I don't know why I would.


    Bookmark   May 22, 2009 at 12:57AM
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I sift when I spread it on the lawn. If I add it to the garden, I shovel.

    Bookmark   May 22, 2009 at 1:36AM
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ColesvilleEd(9 / Silicon Valley)

I just started sifting recently, the compost looks much nicer on my garden. It's a lot of work, more than turning. First I sift through a larger gauge screen, then put a second smaller gauge screen on top of it and sift again. One thing I've found to reduce the work is, put only a single shovel full on the screen, spread it around, and bounce it to shake the small stuff through the screen. I use the shovel to shake it, hitting the surface to make the screen bounce.

Another nice thing is you have some material to start the next pile with.

    Bookmark   May 22, 2009 at 1:52AM
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I tried once and it took too long. So, I gave up and used the compost as is.

    Bookmark   May 22, 2009 at 1:56AM
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val_s(z5 central IL)

I'm not sure why I sift. Maybe because it looks nicer or maybe because I store mine in garbage cans until needed and it's easier to spread - dunno.

You certainly don't have to sift.


    Bookmark   May 22, 2009 at 6:19AM
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billhill(z5 MI - KBG)

The only compost I sift is that going on the more visible areas of the front lawn. Gardens and mulch beds get unsifted compost.
Bill Hill

    Bookmark   May 22, 2009 at 6:51AM
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Some people do expend lots of time and energy sifting compost and I have found that it is not necessary, unless you are a terribly neat person that cannot stand seeing a lump or two poking up in your soil.

    Bookmark   May 22, 2009 at 8:32AM
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For the average person with an average pile going into an average garden, sifting is probably not necessary (but it is fun).

For some uber-composters with large windrows made up of materials from other people, it helps get out the chunks of two by fours, stones, pieces of concrete etc etc. For top dressing on the lawns, people like to not have the sticks and such so a finely sifted compost is very much in demand so I guess it may depend on the end use of the product that dictates the coarseness desired.

I have four different piles of varying coarseness, without exception, people gravitate to the finely sifted stuff for the lawns. Must mean something to some.


    Bookmark   May 22, 2009 at 8:47AM
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Well, I feel better. I got a bad feeling there for a minute that I was missing something, some better way. Oh panic! Surely nobody is composting better than me!

The fluff really makes a good present, especially for my Mom, who gardened organically all my childhood and had the first compost pile I ever made ten thousand trips to. I'm going to do it again!

    Bookmark   May 22, 2009 at 1:03PM
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I only sift compost for seed starting and maybe for my carrot row. Do any of you have a method of sifting that doesn't kill the thousands of worms who were invited to reside in the compost pile? I haven't got the stomach for sifting.

    Bookmark   May 23, 2009 at 9:21AM
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I sifted some of mine for the first time this year. laid some 1/2 in. hardware cloth across bottom of my garden cart, threw a shovel 2 or 3 compost on it, sort of tossed/flipped the compost across the hardware cloth, and with a few flicks of the wrist had nice, fine compost quickly piling up underneath my cart. Didn't try to get every last bit that would fall through the mesh. Whatever fell thru fell thru, the rest got shoveled back into the bin. I was able to turn the original pile, get a wheelbarrow full of fine black gold from the garbage can sized bin, and start a 2nd batch with much more space to add new kitchen scraps all in about an hour.

But I am inclined to agree with the above posts about the time involved and type of compost you "need" being related to the end use of that compost. My fine stuff will be used for seeds and tender transplants, maybe a lil topdressing if I have any left. But, if I need to really mix in alot of OM I'll just shovel some compost whether it's fully decomposed or not lol.

as long as i have dirt under my fingernails, i'm happy :)

    Bookmark   May 23, 2009 at 11:49AM
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Haven't seen many woims in my compost piles so I don't worry about killing them when I sift or screen. Cultivating the fields is a different matter. If I work the fields late in the afternoon it seems there is less carnage than first thing in the morning.

I also have to keep my eyes open for the . When the tractor gets too close, mama goes into uber-defensive mode and I have to spend five minutes locating the nest. I find I end up with about five or so small patches in the field that don't get seeded because of these nests. I had to get colored stakes made so I can avoid the nests with every pass. I've told some people that I can sense oil down there and want to come back to drill, most people laugh, some think I'm serious. LOL


    Bookmark   May 23, 2009 at 2:43PM
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Bless you for looking out for the killdeer families.

Here is a link that might be useful: Crazily Adorable Baby Killdeer

    Bookmark   May 23, 2009 at 3:50PM
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They are cute but man is hard to find the nest sometimes. Once it was actually right in the front of a cultivator shoe and I had to walk back to the shop to get a shovel to move the whole nest and then put it back after I moved the tractor. Surprisingly mama went back to the nest and the little guys hatched. I thought she would have abandoned them after I touched it. I now carry stakes and a shovel on the tractor. I would suspect I don't save them all but I'm pretty sure I get the vast majority. For some reason they really like my fields. I wonder if it is because I only take crops off them on alternate years.


P.S. Sorry for going off topic, again.

    Bookmark   May 23, 2009 at 5:43PM
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Lloyd, you are a good man.

I'm sure your killdeer thrive in your fields because the fields are healthy, organic environments. I've seen the before and after pictures of your fields and the (probably sifted) compost that you have spread on them.

I've been harboring mallard ducks in my yards for the last few years. I suspect the increasing population of ducks in my neighborhood is party due to people tending to the ducks during nesting season. I'll bet you're seeing increasing numbers of killdeers in your fields, too.

I think that sifted compost would be a good thing to top-dress the vegetable garden beds with first thing in the springtime; give them a quick, easy to digest boost of microorganisms and nutrients. But I haven't yet sifted my compost.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2009 at 3:31AM
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La La Lloyd! What a good judge of character I am! I was fond of you even before I knew you were kind-hearted.

Twice I've had killdeer nests in my garden.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2009 at 8:47AM
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rj_hythloday(8A VA)

I did not sift the mountainous pile (small compared to Lloyds) that I used to fill my raised beds. I did sift through my pile to get some mulch for placing around plantings last week. All of the bigger stuff went back in the pile w/ more N to get it cooking again.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2009 at 10:58AM
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emmers_m(9a/Sunset 7 N Cal)

I'm just now on the tail end of sifting 5 yards of town compost. Sifting it was very necessary because this stuff was full of huge rocks, sticks, pieces of plastic, red bull cans, dinosaurs, paintbrushes, earth staples etc.

I only sifted through chickenwire, so my 'finished product' is probably coarser than what all of you are starting with before sifting! I've got lots of sticks and gravel in my garden now, but I just couldn't contemplate sifting any finer. That was a TON of work!

Left me with a serious yen for Lloyd's sifters - they are taking on the status of fine art in my mind.

I don't know if I have to contemplate buying my compost next year, as my new cold bins probably won't be done or done in sufficient quantity. I like the concept of the town compost because a) it's free, and b) I'm stealing nutrition from all the people in town throwing it away as garbage. The fools!

But the sifting is a major PITB. Maybe there's a gentle way I could encourage the town to sift? I'd pay them for the compost then...


P.S. Annpat, I love you, in a platonic English major appreciation from afar kind of way. If Lloyd's sifters are art, your posts are literature. You guys should get together so that I can admire you both more easily :)

The worms just kinda slid through the chickenwire, sometimes with a little noodge.

    Bookmark   May 24, 2009 at 2:54PM
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PKponder TX(7b)

emmers, what kind of dinosaur? âº


    Bookmark   May 24, 2009 at 6:40PM
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emmers_m(9a/Sunset 7 N Cal)

I believe it was a t-rex. :)

    Bookmark   May 24, 2009 at 8:28PM
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west_texas_peg(8a West Cen TX)

I sift...I did not get to play in the dirt as a child and this replaces that loss in my childhood :)

I screen with 1/2" hardware cloth over a 18 gallon Rubbermaid container using a trowel then dump the large chunks in a bucket and remove all the glass/plastic/etc. to the trash (no idea where some of this stuff comes from!). The chunks are layered into a new compost pile with Spring weeds and Starbucks ucg's. In April I built seven new 4'x4' compost piles after weeding and sifting 16' pile from last year and filled several 18 gallon Rubbermaid totes with sifted compost that was used to fill tomato containers, mulch all the raised beds and fruit trees...have 3/4's of one tote left, been saving for the next raised bed we will build for a Jersey blueberry that is waiting patiently.


    Bookmark   May 25, 2009 at 9:07AM
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It's always good to play in the dirt! I have to say though, sifting a 16' pile would stop being 'play' for me somewhere after the first couple of feet.

    Bookmark   May 25, 2009 at 10:33AM
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nygardener(z6 New York)

I'll bet it wouldn't be hard to rig up a gadget to sift without too much labor. Maybe lay some hardware cloth on a large frame of 2Ã4s, dump a trash barrel of compost on one end, and push it across with a janitor's brush. For extra fun, rig it to a pulley to make a motorized bouncer.

Or make a cylinder of hardware cloth, mount it on a horizontal rod, and spin it to sift. For best results, reverse directions like a washing machine.

Or build a crate of hardware cloth, hose the compost down through it, let dry, and rake.

Or maybe I should go back to sleep and dream about something other than compost!

    Bookmark   May 26, 2009 at 4:30AM
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Emily! I'm so flattered I'm going to be impossible for me to live with!
And may I return the compliment? Worm-friendly sifting mesh---Genius!

    Bookmark   May 26, 2009 at 11:12AM
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I have had trouble with unfinished compost. Partly it is caused by combining compost piles; the weight of all the dense, half composted material compacts the material in the bottom and it goes anaerobic and does not finish composting. It looks like black, moist clay and smells bad.

I have just such a pile right now. I think I'll try sifting the material in the bottom as a means of exposing it to air and allowing it to finish.

    Bookmark   August 4, 2009 at 11:16PM
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I sift mine to get the big uncomposted chunks out before I use it. They go back for another round.

Using this style trommel, I also sifted several cubic yards of compost to put on the new lawn area.

It's easy to make - no welding, just sewing with wire and some screws in the wood.

Here is a link that might be useful: Trommel Compost Sifter

    Bookmark   August 5, 2009 at 7:33AM
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When I'm inclined to sift, and I get less and less inclined each day, I use a garden variety, run-of-the-mill milk crate. Fill it about 1/2 full and shake, shake, shake. The worms might get a little dizzy, but other than that, I'd call it worm friendly, the most dangerous part of the ordeal would be the scooping/forking from CP to MC.

    Bookmark   August 5, 2009 at 8:11PM
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Glad I searched and found this thread. DH and I were talking about this this morning. Our compost bin is one of those black plastic ones from Lowe's with a flip up lid. I had an idea to use hardware cloth over raised frame of 2x4's that would be down inside the bin and then the "finished" compost would fall through as we turned the pile in the bin and then we could slide up the little doors that are on the sides and just shovel out pre-sifted compost. Do you all think that would work??? We've never done composting before so any thoughts are appreciated.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 1:35PM
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sandhill_farms(10 NV)

I rarely shift-out my compost but have in the past. Given my sandy soil in my growing areas I like the chunks. When I grew a lawn one year I wanted to have a top dressing for the newly seeded area. For that I took my chippper/shredder and ran a bunch of finished compost through it and it worked great. It didn't take much time either. I've also used a manure spreader but that takes some time as you're always having to dump-out the chunks and re-fill it.

Southern Nevada

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 2:32PM
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I sift compost to use as topping media when I plant seeds outside. My sifter is a homemade square using 1/4" mesh hardware cloth.

When the compost is wet and or clumpy, one can put a rock or two in the sifter to help break it up.

    Bookmark   October 1, 2010 at 11:43AM
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kentstar(5b, NE Ohio)

I would never sift. If it's all organic material (or even some soil thrown in once in a while) why bother? It'll all compost more anyways and feed the soil.


    Bookmark   October 2, 2010 at 4:01PM
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sandhill_farms(10 NV)

"I would never sift. If it's all organic material (or even some soil thrown in once in a while) why bother? It'll all compost more anyways and feed the soil.

I can understand your point as I follow the same theory in my sandy soil. Besides my sandy soil (used to) swallow-up whatever I put in there. However, if you were going to use it for a top dressing on a newly seeded lawn or grass area would you still not shift it?

Southern Nevada

    Bookmark   October 2, 2010 at 4:31PM
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Interesting thread. From what I understand, sifted compost (which theoretically is fully broken-down) would be fine to incorporate into your planting bed/container. Unsifted compost, which would be still somewhat chunky, is still in the process of decomposing fully, and would take up nitrogen from the surrounding soil as it does so. That's why it's fine to top-dress or mulch with partially finished compost, but not so optimum to work it into the soil.
But I'm willing to be educated on this!

    Bookmark   October 3, 2010 at 3:19PM
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sandhill_farms(10 NV)

Oh I don't know, I've got a pile or two of horse turds that have been lying around for years and I can guarantee that they're not going to be composting anymore.

Southern Nevada

    Bookmark   October 3, 2010 at 5:00PM
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We had a compost pile that was several years old. It had pine needles/cones, leaves, grass, sticks, rocks, some kitchen waste and other things. My wife wanted a raised Square Foot Garden so I started working the pile. I pulled it back from the edge of the fence and put it on a large tarp. I turned it a few times but any composting was long done so I decided to store it for next spring.

The problem is that there were lots of sticks, pine cones and other big junk so I really needed to sift.

I got a 3' x 15' plastic mesh with 1/2" openings, made a 2'10" x 6' frame out of 2x2s and stapled the (cut to size) mesh to it.

I put down a tarp on the ground next to the existing pile and leaned the screen against the fence. I scooped one shovel at a time and had my kid bounce the screen from underneath. The junk bounced to the bottom of the screen.

There were so many sticks and pine cones that I filled 2 wheel barrows and a large wagon. I just dumped all that into the swamp and saved a small amount for the next compost pile.

I found some nice surprises as well: Matchbox cars, plastic straws, G.I. Joe, plastic toys, plates, cups, wrapping paper (plastic), etc. Apparently, plastic doesn't compost well...who knew?

The stuff that sifted through was so nice I wanted to bathe in it. I planted a single indoor square foot with the stuff, things are sprouting well.

The sifting was pretty easy this way, I'll probably continue to sift all compost in the future.

    Bookmark   October 28, 2010 at 1:07PM
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Pictures mctoon, we must have pictures. :-)

welcome to the forum...but really, bathe in compost? Plaidbird wants to make a "compost angel" in another thread? Are people deranged??!!

Somebody (mighta been Bill P. aka "gonefishin") once said, "... compost looks good enough to sprinkle on my cereal", can't remember if it was on this forum or somewhere else but I love the image.


    Bookmark   October 28, 2010 at 1:34PM
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sandhill_farms(10 NV)

Bill - aka gonefishin was a great guy with a colorful history. I spoke to him many times. I sure do miss him...

Southern Nevada

    Bookmark   October 28, 2010 at 2:40PM
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Wow. It's like coming home, to check in here after so long and find this thread and another intelligent civilized person who'd bathe in sifted compost. I've a sifted bucket this instant inside my back door. It's to put on a patched bit of front lawn...but I just wasn't ready to give it up. I need to keep it for a bit, just look at it. I'm thinking maybe I should display some in a crystal bowl on my kitchen counter.

    Bookmark   October 28, 2010 at 8:12PM
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The compost pile sat for over 5 years untouched. Never turned. It's leaves, some grass and a good amount of pine cones.

Here are examples of the pine cones that I screened out of the compost. These were probably pretty new, there were certainly some that completely broke down.

This is the screen I made. Note the leaves under the tarp as well as the grass clippings in the black garbage bags (obtained from a local landscaping company). The stuff in the white bags is horse poo! (From a local stable, prepackaged.)

When I sifted, the screen was against the fence just like in the picture but there was a tarp under it.

For completeness, here is more horse poo in the blue bags and white bag. The plastic bins and paper bags have goat poo. (Looked online for a goat farmer nearby, forked it myself.) After getting chicken poo tomorrow (from a friend) I will mix all the stuff together to make some nice compost for the spring.

Pay no attention to the red wooden box. You can peek the hitch hauler in the background. I used that to haul the stuff since I don't have a pickup and I didn't want any poo in my clean vehicle.

For all these ingredients I paid nothing!

Here is the sifted compost. There are still small sticks in it but it's very loose and it smells nice. This bucket is ready to be bathed in.

Finally, this is the one Square Foot Garden I build for the winter. It's 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 mixed compost. The mixed compost is 1/2 of the stuff in the above picture and 1/2 composted cow poo.

You can just see the sprouting dill (upper right) and spinach (lower left).

    Bookmark   October 29, 2010 at 2:30PM
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Ya, that's what I'm talking about! Nice pics, thx for posting. Found myself chuckling at the plastic bin labelled with what looks like "X-mas". To heck with decorations, we need these tubs for manure! Love it.


    Bookmark   October 29, 2010 at 3:16PM
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kikifoow(9: Bay Area)

Milk crate lined with either 1 or 1/2 inch screen (I think you guys call it the mesh).

That's assuming you don't have a lot to screen.

That is my new "I cut my freaking finger off and my other fingers don't work properly anymore" method. Doing the gardening has now become even more of a challenge with only one good hand..... and yeah that's why I haven't been logging in the last 4 months.

Good to see the same old lunatics. um I mean enthusiasts.... are still here.

PS the typos will be even WORSE then they used to be!

    Bookmark   November 1, 2010 at 4:30PM
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dottyinduncan(z8b coastal BC)

My DH and I just got in from planning a compost sifting table. He wants one on legs with stucco mesh on it where he can push the wheelbarrow under and sift right into the wheel barrow. I'm all for it! In the past we have just had a mesh over top of the wheelbarrow but it doesn't stay in place well. And we tend to add much very coarse material into the compost bins and pile so it takes so long to break down, we have to get at the good stuff. We've been adding a new bigger gate to our veggie garden so we can get the tractor into the garden and be able to move things (like compost) around easier.

    Bookmark   November 1, 2010 at 5:08PM
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I really like sifted compost, it is absolutely delectable


Here is a link that might be useful: Why Sift Compost ????

    Bookmark   November 3, 2010 at 8:46PM
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