Cool Tools for Hot Compost

The composting trend is catching on. Managing organic material at your home can not only decrease the amount of material that you send to the landfill, it can also help turn your organic waste into a landscape asset. Getting the right tools can mean everything in a good compost system. Here are a couple of shopping tips to get you started:

Wheelbarrow

Get a good one! A wheelbarrow will last for decades and is an essential tool for moving organics, carrying compost, sifting and performing a variety of tasks. Go with either steel or plastic. Steel is heavier duty, but you won’t have to worry about plastic rusting.

Keep your steel wheelbarrow inside a shed to help it last longer. Always remove finished compost or moist materials when finished to avoid extra rusting. Be sure that the tires are pneumatic, meaning that they have a valve for pumping in air. These tires make for a softer and smoother ride.

A wheelbarrow is not a place to skimp on size to save cost. Get a full 6-cubic-foot model versus a 4-cubic-foot design. Two-wheeled carts are nice for many uses, but the large wheels may get in the way when using the wheelbarrow to screen compost. The large carts, however, carry more material and are less likely to tip over and spill when making turns.

Water Hoses

Aside from its size (hoses should be long enough to reach the composting area), a flexible hose is essential. A good source is the contractor’s supply retail outlets. A high-quality hose will pay for itself as cheaper versions are prone to leaks and often have to be replaced every few years.

Sprayers

Use a yellow, plastic “fan-type” sprayer. These do not have too much force and distribute water in a way that saturates evenly. They come with a built-in valve, which is essential to keep water from flooding the composting area when watering layers.

Even the “pistol” type of sprayer can work well, although high-pressure jets tend to deliver too much water in a given area to be very effective for saturating layers of compost.

Pitchfork

Go with a long-handled, five- or six-tine “hay fork” instead of the short-handled, four-tine “digging fork.” You will be able to move more material per scoop with the hay fork without as much resistance from the pile.

Reserve the digging fork for tilling in compost into the garden or flowerbed. Avoid the extra-large 12- or more tine tools that are used for shoveling hay or straw. You will find moist compost to be too heavy to scoop with such a large implement.

Shovels

For digging in compost, there is nothing better than a digging fork, but a good, round digging spade works even better. A sharp-edged spade can break up clumps of soil and compost, helping to blend soil and organic materials together.

Spades are not much help in the actual compost pile, however. Go with a medium-sized flat shovel, either long- or short-handled, for scooping up compost, loading a screen, filling the wheelbarrow or spreading compost on the lawn or flower bed.

Poking and Hand-Mixing Tools

There are numerous “compost aeration” tools on the market. A popular device has “wings” that are supposed to open up and grab composting material as it is pulled up. Another design is shaped like a small triangle that is designed to be twisted, providing some mixing action.

One bin manufacturer sells a device that is inserted into the side of the bin and used like a lever to raise the material, fluffing it in the process. They all do well in loosening the pile, breaking up mats and allowing air to flow more evenly throughout the bin.

Another mixing tool is the inexpensive, easy-to-use, do-it-yourself auger device. The auger is actually a “tie down anchor” designed to be screwed or augured a few feet into the soil that is subsequently connected to wires or cables attached to a post or a mobile home.

They are sold at recreational vehicle supply dealers and some hardware centers. Try to find one that is at least 36 inches long with as wide an auger on the base as possible. Simply use a round piece of wood as a handle in the “eye” of the device, and twist it down into the pile. Once at the bottom, pull it up, erupting the compost to mix it.

Even with a mixing device, an essential tool for every compost pile is a piece of half-inch rebar, about 48 inches long, that is rammed from the top of the pile down to the base, forming air channels. This technique breaks up mats and enables an aeration grate on the bottom to do its job.

Poking the pile every 6 inches or so makes a world of difference. Rebar can be purchased at any hardware dealer that sells concrete supplies. Some people weld another piece of steel to the top of the bar to form a “T” handle, making it even easier to poke and pull out.

Rakes

There are two basic types of rakes: landscape rakes and leaf rakes. Landscape rakes are good for removing clumps of compost and dirt clods from seedbeds and after tilling the compost. Leaf rakes can serve as a screener, in conjunction with a high-pressure hose, to remove large pieces of compost when placing unscreened material on a lawn.

This nifty trick allows you spread a half-inch of coarse compost on the grass, wash it in with a sprayer and then rake off the over-sized material. You can use leaf rakes to clean up the area around a compost pile.

Screens

Before we discuss screening tools, it should be made clear that sifting compost can be a difficult process, even in the best of conditions. Compost does not flow nicely like gravel or grain and will clog any screen when it is wet. Getting compost to dry before screening is better.

There are three basic screen mesh sizes: 1 inch for coarse compost, a half-inch for potting soil and a quarter-inch for lawn top-dressing. These screens are sold at hardware stores and lumberyards as “hardware cloth” or “dog fencing.”

Using a two-by-four, the screen is fastened on the base of the boards using “runners” or slats to nail the screen to the lumber. A frame holds a flat scoop or two of compost without being too heavy, but the frame size should be designed so that the boards rest on the top edges of the wheelbarrow.

If the frame is too narrow, the screen will fall in. If the frame is too wide or long, the top rail of the wheelbarrow will rub and cause wear on the screen cloth, eventually wearing a hole in it. If the screen is too long, too much material will fall on the ground instead of inside the wheelbarrow.

Your screen frame should be the same size as the top of your wheelbarrow. Using a 5-foot length of lumber, or wheelbarrow handles, you can add handles to your screen.

Shaking the material back and forth or bouncing up and down on top of the wheelbarrow is one way to get material through the screen. The flat shovel can be used to force and scrape material through the screen as well. Remember that dry compost sifts much more easily than wet compost.