Black Gold

If someone invited me to their garden and asked me to give them some advice, I would first look for their compost bins. And, if I didn’t find any compost bins, I would immediately set about helping the gardener find a place to put compost. Regardless of the style or type of garden, there has to be a little corner or hidden area where one can put a compost bin or two. That’s my advice.

I myself prefer to have three compost bins. I fill one, then the other, then a third throughout the season. I don’t do much turning of the compost, nor do I worry about the percentage of brown “dried” plant material versus green “wet” plant material. I also don’t check the temperature in the middle of the compost pile or add water or any of those compost starters sold at some stores. I just throw everything in there and hope for the best.

By everything I mean really, “most plant debris”. I do refrain from throwing away diseased plant material, peonies, and English Ivy. And sometimes, about mid summer, the bins can get pretty full and I end up putting shrub trimmings and other “slow to compost” plant debris out with the trash.

I always feel bad and wasteful when I put plant debris out for the trash man to take, which is one of the reasons I decided to buy myself a chipper shredder. I figured that if I shred all the shrub trimmings, they will no longer be slow to decompose, and I’ll have that much more compost. I also think that if I shred more of all the plant material before I put it in the compost bin, it will all decompose much faster, and I will have more than my one annual harvest of compost.
I enjoy harvesting the rich, dark compost in the fall, almost (but not quite) as much as harvesting vegetables. I am always amazed that all that plant debris “magically” turns into compost. I just remove the top layer of plant material that hasn’t decomposed yet, and underneath, there is the prize! The cycle of plant life completed. The foundation for new plant life. Black gold!

To harvest my compost, I use a compost sieve that I made out of scraps of lumber and hardware cloth. I throw a couple of shovelfuls from the compost bin in to the sieve sitting on top of the wheelbarrow, sift out the debris that isn’t composted, and end up with a wheelbarrow full of rich, dark compost. Then I throw what’s left in the sieve back into the compost bin to finish decomposing.

On Saturday, I ended up with nearly 20 wheelbarrow loads of compost, which so far I’ve added back to the raised beds in the vegetable garden. And that was just two bin’s worth of compost. Each bin is a little over 9 cubic feet, which is about as small as you can go and still get good heat build up necessary for the composting process. I still have a third bin to clean out, though I don’t think it has as much compost in it as the other two did.

Many books and pamphlets have been written on compost, so I won’t go on and on myself about how to make good compost. But I can understand why people are driven to write so much about it, because when you see that rich, dark compost where once there was a pile of plant debris, I think it is easy to get excited and want to talk about it! (At least I think it is exciting, but I could be one of the few and not the many.)

J. I. Rodale himself wrote nearly a 1,000 pages on his book “Complete Book of Composting”. Think about it. One thousand pages, all about composting plant material. And I’m currently reading “Teaming with Microbes, A Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web” by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, which has a chapter on compost. They almost apologize that it is only a chapter. I’m sure after reading it I’ll at least know what I should ideally be doing in terms of green material, brown material, and moisture in my compost bins. Whether I do it or not is another matter.

In the meantime, I will continue enjoying my fall harvest of “black gold”.


  1. I like your sieve. Sifting is always the part I dread. It just takes so long, and the dirt's so heavy, and I'm not as young as I used to be!

    The high sides of the box would seem to make it easier to tip and shake the sieve, instead of having to lift the whole thing to shake it out. I'll have to try that!

  2. You and I have pretty similar composting methods.

  3. Compost Happens!
    I too don't do anything fancy, just keep piling it up and wait. It's always a treasure when I turn it over in the spring. I don't sift, I figure if there are any unfinshed clumps they can be barried along with the compost and finsh decaying in the ground.

  4. Great article! Composting is just so great for a garden.

  5. Wow aren't YOU a good gardener, sifting your compost! I confess I tend to just turn the piles until I need them, whether they're fully crumbly or no. I figure the creatures in the garden will do the rest of the work for me. But your sieve is quite lovely.

  6. Another fellow composter.I dont have the sieve and my nickname for it was garden alchemy.Black gold works as well.I love the stuff when its done.Only true gardeners can wax lyrical about compost!!

  7. I'm fairly new(two days) to composting. Should compost be mixed into the soil before planting or added to th top of the soil as the season goe on? Or both?

  8. I know this is a very old post to be commenting on, but I just built myself compost bins so I'm reading up on them. I just wanted to point you to this article which mentions a "composting fence", shown in photo 2.

    They describe the composting fence as follows:

    • A composting fence works as a privacy screen, attracts wrens and chickadees, and cuts down on the amount of woody waste that must be hauled off because most pruned branches can be cut to fit into the fence. Over time the green waste breaks down to feed the plants growing around it.

    Seems like a great idea to deal with the shrub trimmings. I haven't figured out where one would fit in my yard, but I'm keeping it in mind!


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