Garden of Eatin' / How-To

It’s Spring… and Time to Sift the Compost

A bin of sifted compost

Spring is a big and busy time around here: I pull up old plants, rake over beds, amend the soil, sow rows of seeds, and watch over seedlings. For most of March and April, I’m constantly dealing with dirt under my nails and mud stuck to my Bogs. (Hence, you will almost always see me in pictures with a manicure, as the polish helps hide unsightly nails. It sounds strange, but I’d go crazy if I could see how they actually looked after I’d just repotted a hundred plants.)

One task I happily hand over to my husband, however, is managing our main compost heap. We have a few compost heaps going on all over the yard, all year long, from our vermicompost to our chicken manure to our leaf mold to our tumbler (plus a few piles of dead plants we pull up every season).

The tumbler is where we add our wood ash and kitchen scraps, and twice a year we dump it all out and collect all the compost it’s created.

Emptying the compost tumbler

Most of the time, we get a heap of fine, crumbly, beautiful black earth that’s ready for the garden. But other times, there are still bits of moldy oranges or rotting squash buried in the mix, not fully digested yet. Maybe we’ll even find a few twigs or rocks in there.

Unsifted compost

While it’s not always necessary to sift your compost before spreading it in the garden, it makes a better planting medium without all those lumps and clumps, and also makes sure that only finished compost goes into the soil. Sifting also aerates the compost, improving the soil structure of your garden beds.

To sift our compost, we made a sifting screen out of three 2x4s and a sheet of 1/2-inch hardware cloth stapled to the frame. The reason we have a three-sided frame (instead of a more common four-sided frame) is for ease of use with a shovel.

DIY compost sifting screen

We (and by we, I really mean he − the hubs) prop the screen up at a 45° angle, shovel a layer of compost over the screen, then use the flat end of the shovel to “grate” the compost against the hardware cloth. Finished compost falls through the screen, while unfinished compost falls back to the ground.

Unsifted compost

When all is sifted and done, the finished compost is shoveled into a separate bin for future use, while the unfinished compost is put back in the tumbler as a starter for next season’s scraps.

Finished and sifted compost

Sifted compost resembles fine, crumbly, beautiful black earth

From the tumbler alone, we usually fill a large trash bin with enough compost to amend a couple of raised beds. The compost is heaped onto the soil as a top layer several inches thick, thoroughly watered in, and left to rest for a few days before we start planting.

Next week, we’ll tackle the composted chicken manure. What are your garden chores this spring?

About Author

I'm a plant lover, passionate road-tripper, and cookbook author whose expert advice and bestselling books have been featured in TIME, Outside, HGTV, and Food & Wine. The No-Waste Vegetable Cookbook is my latest book. Garden Betty is where I write about modern homesteading, farm-to-table cooking, and outdoor adventuring — all that encompass a life well-lived outdoors. After all, the secret to a good life is... Read more »


  • Linda Ly
    March 27, 2013 at 3:40 pm

    I love the end result too! It’s so satisfying to open up a bin of finished compost and smell all that fresh earth.

  • Justine
    March 27, 2013 at 2:06 pm

    Autumn here in Australia and I’m doing similar things! Garlic is just about to go into every inch of garden that gets winter sun. Just posted last week about similar topic on my blog too! (complete with photo of finished compost 🙂 I love the end result of composting-despite only having a small space in the inner city and using a two bin system. Love reading about your Californian adventures -thanks for the inspiration from across the seas!

  • Brittany
    March 27, 2013 at 10:49 am

    Beautiful! Your pictures make me very excited about composting … probably more than I would be otherwise. I don’t have an operation big enough for serious composting, although I have thought about getting a vermicomposter. I know one of the benefits of a tumbler is that you can get finished compost pretty quickly, just a few weeks. Do you typically use your compost pretty quickly? If not, how do you recommend storing it?

    • Linda Ly
      March 27, 2013 at 3:25 pm

      A vermicomposter is definitely useful for small spaces like patios or garages, but a tumbler doesn’t take up much space either. It’s something you can just put in a side yard, since it doesn’t require open ground for composting. The benefit of a tumbler is that it heats up your compost pretty quickly. I haven’t heard of compost finishing in just a few weeks though… maybe it’s possible if you put a compost activator in with your scraps, and chop up all your scraps very finely.

      I use all my compost in the spring and fall, but over a period of a few weeks. It’s stored in trash bins and 5-gallon buckets… whatever’s cheap and handy!

      • Brittany
        April 23, 2013 at 5:51 pm

        I found that info from a few sources–books and bloggers mostly. You do have to chop pretty small, but it has something to do with turning the compost at peak heat, which is probably too complicated an operation for me, haha. I did end up getting some worms, though!

  • Aimee Fahey
    March 27, 2013 at 10:00 am

    Ha, I know what you mean about the compost bin and it’s what makes me want to get a tumbler like yours for easier emptying! I usually just shovel it all, unfinished, into my beds fairly early, then cover them up with old coffee bags or cardboard and let it “sleep” for a bit longer, so that by the time it’s planting season it’s black gold right in the beds 🙂

    • Linda Ly
      March 27, 2013 at 3:27 pm

      I was just recommending to a friend recently that since she doesn’t garden over the winter, she should compost all her scraps “in place” in her raised bed so that it’ll be ready by spring!

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