If compost is the Holy Grail of organic gardening, what’s the holier than thou? Sifted compost. What you want in making perfect mature compost is, of course, organic matter so fully broken down that the original ingredients — whether straw, weeds, kitchen scraps or goat droppings — are no longer recognizable. Finished compost looks like very rich, dark, fine soil. But even the best soil has things in it like stones and twigs. Sifted compost doesn’t. It is the 400-thread-count soil amendment.
Grade A sifted compost has many uses. Let’s say you want to renovate the lawn in fall. Using a shovel, you scatter sifted compost over the worst patches, rake it into the iffy grass growing there (if any) then sow seed and water it in thoroughly. The fine-textured compost provides an excellent seed bed. In fact, it is a good seed bed for anything, especially small, hard-to-germinate seeds like carrot and onion. One trick is to dig a planting furrow, then fill it with sifted compost. You can even use it to start seeds in flats although it must be completely mature and mellow for this purpose. Too much high-test nitrogen can burn tender seedlings. It is also a wonderful top-dressing for a vegetable garden, a luxury mulch that provides a good nutritional multi-vitamin, while making your garden’s soil look as dark and lustrous as a mink coat.
Sifting compost is laborious if you need a lot of it (and in a dry year your lawn is probably in that category). But a sturdy homemade compost sifter will make the job easier. Simply attach 4 pieces of 2-by-4 lumber together to make a frame that fits comfortably over the top of your favorite wheelbarrow or cart. Then lay ¼-inch hardware cloth — a rugged wire mesh with small square openings — over it, attached securely with fence staples. Place the frame over the wheelbarrow or cart with the mesh side down and it will hold several generous shovels-full of compost. Then rub the material vigorously with gloved hands (I use heavy-duty rubber gloves) to make it fall through.
Toss the less decomposed debris that remains back into the compost pile for another go. Since frequent downward pressure will often loosen the staples, you can make the sifter better at the start by fastening 1-inch-thick wooden strips over the mesh, making a hardware cloth sandwich. A variable-speed drill and drywall screws make a solid job of it.
A large bag of sifted compost makes the perfect gift for a favorite gardener. And if you really love her, empower her with her own frame.
Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Farm Cookbook.”