Sifting Soil for Sprouts

Two years ago we turned out back yardlet into gardens.  With a lot of sweat and back spasms, we transformed broken concrete, weeds, and rusty nails into a little haven for plants and people.

Year 0: Back Yard open to alley

Year 1: Garden beds carved out of the compacted, rubbled back yard; bottle wall taking shape

Year 2: Back Yard essentially finished; new beds and no grass

For the garden beds, it was digging up hardpan (mixed with rocks and the aforementioned rusty hardware), sieving it through the 1/2″ hardware cloth of our chicken run door, and mixing in compost.  Transformed, indeed, this bed brought us a rich year of tomatoes followed by a less-rich year of corn and squash.

Year 1: Tomatoes (these became 5' tall!)

Year 2: Corn, squash, beans

I could have kept planting this bed as-is, with only the addition of compost each year, but this spring I couldn’t put my shovel through it.

What did it need?  Could it really need more compost?  I had added so much in Year 1 and Year 2, the soil was still black.  When I started working it with my hands, I found the clay content was very high and there were still a lot of rocks, despite the 1/2″ sieving from Year 1.  Although clay helps soil retain moisture and nutrients, too much of it can be a problem.  Rocks, too, weigh down the soil and challenge root growth.

At first I was breaking the soil clumps apart with my hands, tossing aside rocks of all sizes.  But this would take me weeks.  Eventually we began a two-step sieving; 1/2″ sieve to remove remaining large rocks and break down the clay clumps, followed by a smaller-gauge sieve to get the remaining rocks.

Clump of clay-rock compacted soil on 1/2" hardware cloth screen

Using the fireplace screen as soil sifter - tedious!

At first we were using the fireplace screen. Creative? Yes, but tedious – the opening was 3/8″. Eventually, I buzzed over the hardware store, bought some 1/4″ hardware cloth, built a frame from leftover 2×3 wood, stapled the cloth to the frame, and voila – the perfect soil sifter.

The homemade soil sifter: 1/4" hardware cloth on 2x3 frame

Foreground is pile of rocks sifted from about 1/3 of the bed!

We sifted down 18″, worked in several bags of fine sand, and several wheelbarrows of compost (also sifted; to remove the copious sticks and wood bits).  The result: beautiful, beautiful soil in which bean seeds were delighted to germinate.

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