Harvesting Black Gold – the Other Kind

Chinese screen, front

Chinese screen, front

Chinese Screen, back

Chinese screen, back

For the past 3 or 4 weekends, I’ve been spending most of the daylight hours working on the gardens.  In past years, I’ve gotten a small amount accomplished, but one gal working alone can only do so much.  This year though, I have Alphonso! Frankly, without his help I would have only accomplished about one third as much as I have.  Alphonso does all the stuff I don’t like doing…bagging raked leaves, taking those bags to the curb, filling wheel barrows with mulch or compost and bringing it to where I’m working, moving bluestone pavers, and so much more.  He has been a godsend.  And best of all he does it all happily, questioning only to understand what I want accomplished.

This past weekend Alphonso was even able to sift and turn the compost bin, something that I haven’t even attempted to do since I exacerbated my tennis elbow 4-5 years ago, trying to sift compost.  Talk about black gold! I think we got 8-10 wheel barrows full, and there is a bit more that could be harvested.

The sifter that I had used previously was about 2 feet square and lined with 1/2″ hardware cloth…it was a hassle and insufficient for a compost bin that measures 4′ x 8′.  So I built a new one, based on a sifter I saw last year in Beijing, China.

In Beijing, I visited a section of the old city wall, perhaps the second ring in the southeast corner.  There a group of gardeners were working on the gardens: weeding, thinning, transplanting.  And one of the tools they used was this soil screen pictured above.  It is brilliant! Shovel dirt at a screen and let gravity separate the weeds from the soil!

I would love to be able to draw a 3-d diagram but I am not that clever, so words and pix will have to suffice.

Materials List:

  • Duct tape (you never know when you’ll need it, so you should always have it.)
  • Drywall Screws
  • 1″ x 3″ x 8′ pine boards
  • 1″ hardware cloth


  • Saw for cutting wood to length
  • Cordless drill or screw gun
  • Tape measure
  • Tin snips

My sifter is about 5 feet tall by 2 feet wide, the screen area is about 4 feet tall.  The hardware cloth is sandwiched between the 1×3’s on all four sides.  The structure is stabilized by two diagonally placed wood scraps at the top, the larger one is better because a 1×3 can be suck in there to prop up the sifter.

We noticed that it is better to prop the screen on both sides that to try to prop only in the center as shown in the China pictures.   If I were to make another screen I would make it wider.  The proportions in the Chinese screen are 2:1 height to width, although it did not seem visually appealing, from a practical perspective it would have been easier to use.

You might also want to use hinges to permanently affix your supporting legs…or you might not.  Alphonso put the yard cart behind the screen and sifted directly into the hopper, with attached legs you might not have that option.

Homemade screen leaning on compost bin.

Diagonal Supports, the right side version is better!

Diagonal Supports, the right side version is better!

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