A compost bin is a great way to recycle your used plants and leaves. Taking the time to turn compost will help the process along to give you better results.
Compost is one of the most beneficial additions you can add to your soil. It provides organic matter, worms and helps to retain moisture. The benefits outlay the effort required to make good compost.
While piling up materials in a compost pile is relatively easy and not much hard work, your compost will work better and decompose more readily if you turn it once in a while. It helps to have a multi-bin setup, but you can also turn compost directly into your garden beds as an option if you only have one bin.
1. When to turn your compost
Like many gardening tasks you should turn compost on a pre-defined regular basis. If you need your pile to heat up to kill weed seeds, this should be a weekly turning but most of us don’t have that time. Monthly would be just as good but that’s something I haven’t been able to do myself on a regular basis.
Or you can turn based on some trigger, which is usually what I do. I turn my compost based on one or more of the following:
- One of the bins containing compost-in-progress is full and I need more space for new gardening debris
- One of the bins has finished compost and needs to be emptied to make room for what is produced in one of the other bins
- I need compost for the garden and hope that 2. applies (or at least the compost at the very bottom of the bin is ready to use)
As you can see these reasons are interconnected.
And occasionally the reason will also be seasonal:
- you’ll need compost to amend your garden beds when changing crops (winter to spring or summer to fall)
- you’ll generate lots of compost materials in the fall and need the empty bins
You may want to avoid doing this in the heat of summer as this is hot, sweaty work so a cool spring or fall day is more comfortable.
2. Prepare the tools you need to turn your compost
You will need some tools to effectively to turn compost.
My tool recommendations (with links) for moving compost around are:
Shovel or spade
Good for shovelling finished compost and so many more tasks in the garden. Pick up a good, strong quality one such as:
More useful for in-progress compost when it is still chunky with long bits of partially decomposed plant material. This is a good sturdy one that has a D-handle for easier use:
Keep your hands clean and protect them from any prickly plant materials. These gloves are great as they protect your arms as well
Keep you feet dry and clean but also protects them in case you find a rodent or two (I have found one occasionally in the compost bins), pick them up at your local hardware store or home centre to make sure they fit.
If your compost is very dry have a hose running slowly to water it lightly while you are turning it. I’m very satisfied with the hose I have
Trommel or sifting frame
You may not need to sift your compost if it has decomposed well but I always find a few sticks or remaining plant material that has not decomposed fully which I want to sift out. I built my own trommel but you can also buy this sifter that has two screens for coarse and fine compost
Keeps the compost contained and easier to clean up the last little bit of it so you don’t waste any.
Containers to capture undesirables and garbage
I always find some bulbs, tubers or other plant leftovers that I know will never decompose even if I throw them back in the compost (these go into my curbside “green” bin) and I also find foreign materials such as plastic, synthetic teabags and plant tags or ties that will go in the garbage or recycling
Containers or bags for finished compost
You can use large garbage cans or plastic bags to store your finished compost or if you have a spare compost bin that is empty, you can store it in there
Optionally if you want to make the compost turning work more enjoyable, check out the five items I usually bring into the garden.
3. Start moving it around
Warning: make sure you are in good physical condition and be careful when lifting a shovel-full or fork-full of compost – it can be very heavy. I’ve injured my back in the past by lifting and twisting with a heavy shovel of compost.
If you have a three-bin system such as I have, it is relatively simple. Move the finished compost out of the first bin (as seen left to right), move the compost in the second bin to the first bin and then the third bin into the second bin. The third bin then is empty and gets the new plant trimmings and leaves.
I don’t always follow this process to the letter as sometimes I want my first bin to be empty to accept all the leaves that will fall from our trees to produce leaf mulch. So my second bin usually contains the compost-in-progress and the third bin is empty, ready to be filled again. Usually we’ll finish filling the second bin first then move it to the first bin and start filling the second bin again.
Feel free to be flexible with how you actually turn your compost. My goal is to turn the compost twice before it is ready to use but sometimes it only gets turned once.
4. Use a trommel or screen to sift
You can choose first to empty your bins of finished compost and then sift it. A bit more work since you need to touch your compost three times (once to empty it from your compost bins, once to sift it and once to put it in containers to store or spread it in your garden).
I prefer to sift as I empty it from my bins. Here is my setup with a tarp and my trommel. The trommel gets a few shovelfuls of compost and then it is turned.
Once sifted it then can go straight on the garden or into containers to store.
Occasionally you will still get some twigs or other undesirables in your finished compost. If you really need super fine compost you may have to sift one more time with a hand-held sifter frame with a finer screen in it.
5. Use in the garden or store for later
Now that you have your black gold, where can you use it? You can store it for use later in the garden. It helps to have a few garbage cans or bags to store it in until you need it. Or if you have an empty compost bin you can store it there.
Less work is to use it right away as a top dressing. Just spread it out in a thick layer (a few inches or centimetres) and if you prefer fork it under lightly. Or leave it more as a mulch – worms will help pull the compost down into the soil.
You can also use sifted compost for growing in pots. However you may need to mix it with perlite and/or coir to keep it from getting too compact and too heavy. I find my compost is light enough so that I don’t have to add anything else.
To turn compost is hard, sweaty and messy work. With the right tools and right steps it can be easier but still is a chore on most gardeners’ to-do lists.
But the satisfaction of getting lots of black gold for free is worth it. Remember to put it on your schedule so you don’t forget!
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If you enjoyed this article, have something to add or have any questions, please leave a comment below.
Wishing you all the best!
Tranquil Urban Homestead, Victoria, BC
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