3-17-2016 How to make a backyard compost sifter

For best results, a compost pile needs to be at least three feet high and three feet wide. Mark Stemen looks into his pile of rotting stuff Tuesday.
For best results, a compost pile needs to be at least three feet high and three feet wide. Mark Stemen looks into his pile of rotting stuff Tuesday.Heather Hacking — Enterprise-Record

Life doesn’t need to be complicated.

For the past 20 years my method for compost has been to toss fruit and vegetable scraps into a hole in the ground. When the hole became a mound, I covered the entire mess with garden soil. There were a few years when I was ambitious and actually turned the pile, but usually not.

A while ago we moved into a new house. We chose to start a designated compost pile in the corner of the yard farthest from the house, in the elbow of the split-rail fence.

This provides plenty of aeration and gives a certain “ghetto chic” look to the back 40.

About two years have passed and I’m certain there’s some really good, enchanted soil under the more recent apple cores and coffee grounds.

But how, exactly, should I harvest that super-soil?

I decided to visit Mark Stemen, who said he would be at his garden plot at Oak Way Park one morning this week.

I’ve known Dr. Mark a long time. When I think back to the 1990s, I recall Dr. Mark was on the compost fast-track.

He was learning about nitrogen-to-carbon ratios and cooking compost tea. He was amped up and rattled off natural additives that would make his pile cook hotter and transform faster.

It’s still a bit dizzying when I think back.

In this article from 2010, http://tinyurl.com/huopgq3, Dr. Mark had invited me to his back yard when he was brewing black molasses and Norwegian sea kelp. Full of glee, the Chico State University professor raved about million of microbes and fungi.

Luckily, this is exactly the type of thing that makes me giddy.

When I caught up with the esteemed soil-feeder this week, he said he’s taking things more slowly these days.

“I’ve gone from Guy Fieri to Ellie Krieger,” he said, using a reference so obscure I had to go online and learn about famous chefs.

Stemen said he still aerates microbes to make compost tea, but he lets nature do the bulk of the work.

Several large circular wire containers are located on his garden plot at Oak Way Park community garden. They’re formed by pieces of loose chicken wire. The minimum size for good compost is 3-by-3-feet, he explained.

He doesn’t add weeds to the compost, because most of the material will not be reaching the high temperatures that will kill weed seeds.

Stemen started these particular piles in late September, and added more material as the year went along. The leaves from Oak Way Park are great for adding to the piles, he said.

This week he was ready for compost harvest.

The outside of the bins still contains dry, flaky material, which has not yet broken down. In the center of the pile is the good stuff.

What I wanted to learn was how to sift through the compost.

Stemen had a large wheelbarrow placed near one of the compost bins.

Next, he showed me his hand-crafted sifter. Basically, this is a big screen, with 1/2-inch square metal mesh stretched across a frame.

He bought two 8-foot-long 2-by-3-inch boards. He cut off two feet off the end of each board, and used these to connect the two boards for the frame. Excess wood extends on either side, creating handles. He also added a piece of wood across the center, so the screen would not sag.

Next, he sifts the nearly finished compost through the screen, with the wooden device resting on top of the wheelbarrow. Leaves that are only partially decomposed remain on top of the mesh. With grubby fingers he demonstrated how these unfinished bits make great mulch.

The soil was moving with worms, big and small, which is a great sign of great soil. There were other bugs, including sow bugs, aka pill bugs or rolypolys. Stemen said most insects you find in your compost prefer decaying matter. When you add the compost to the soil, these bugs will mostly leave your plants alone. If they do go after plants, it will be the new sprouts.

Earwigs are an exception, and may nibble at your vegetable plants.

If you’re worried, you can pick these out as the compost plops into the wheelbarrow.

 Other contacts @HeatherHacking on Twitter and Facebook.

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