How to Make a Soil Sifter

Using a Dirt Sifter to Make Raised Garden Soil Mix


Our Tennessee garden is built on rocks and clay. Instead of continually fighting the rocky hardpan, we decided to construct permanent raised beds and fill them with our own raised garden soil mix.

Behind our barn, we collect all soil that results from any excavations on our farm. One year we got lucky and scored a load of good soil from a neighbor who was renovating his farm pond. Almost all soil in our area includes rocks of one size or another, as well as lumps of hard clay.

Along with stockpiling soil, we make compost by combining stall bedding, coop litter, garden refuse, and kitchen scraps. Some things, like bones and shells, compost more slowly than others.

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To fill a raised bed, we mix soil and compost together. For side dressing growing vegetables, we use compost alone. In either case, we needed a way to remove the lumps of clay, rocks, bones, and other objects we prefer not to incorporate into our raised bed soil.

Our solution was to construct a soil sifter that fits on top of a garden cart. When the cart is filled with raised garden soil mix, we use our garden tractor to tow it from behind to the barn to our garden next to the house. The same principle may be used to sift soil into any garden cart.

Trial and Error

Our soil sifter is now in its third version and we believe we finally have the design perfected — at least we haven’t come up with any new innovations in several years. Version 3 is constructed of half-inch hardware cloth, rebar, 2×4 lumber, and plywood and can be made any size to fit any type of garden cart.

An issue we encountered with our earlier soil sifters was the angle of the screen. If it’s too steep, soil doesn’t fall through but instead rapidly rolls off onto the ground. If the angle is too shallow, too much elbow grease is needed to work soil through the screen. An angle of about 18 degrees proved to be ideal for sifting both compost and soil, while larger debris rolls down and falls off the bottom.

Another improvement incorporated into version 3 was solid sides, which let us pile more raised bed gardening soil into the cart than our previous open-side sifters allowed. Additionally, an apron at the front channels off stones and other debris that may otherwise pile up at the lower end of the sifter.

Dirt Sifter For Raised Garden Soil

No More Sagging

The biggest problem we had with version 1 was sagging hardware cloth. In version 2, we solved that problem by reinforcing the hardware cloth with two lengths of rebar.

But the hardware cloth still didn’t hold up well, kept fraying, and needed to be frequently replaced. We solved that problem in version 3 by using American-made hardware cloth.

The only hardware cloth available in our local area is imported. Buying hardware cloth made in the USA, and having it shipped, is expensive, but well worth the cost. Compared to imported hardware cloth, the gauge is significantly thicker and the galvanizing is far superior. The result is big savings in both dollars and time not spent repairing the sifter.

Previously we had been replacing the hardware cloth at least once a year. Now, despite several seasons of heavy use, the version 3 sifter still has its original American-made hardware cloth, showing little sign of wear.

When conditions are perfect — meaning the soil or compost contains just the right amount of moisture to be fairly crumbly — one person working alone can handily use the soil sifter. Under ideal conditions, a shovelful of soil or compost tossed onto the screen easily sifts through, while debris rolls off without any help.

When conditions are less than ideal, a second person makes the job go more smoothly. With the soil sifter is positioned next to a pile of finished compost, one person shovels compost onto the soil sifter while the other moves it up and down the screen with the back of a rake. Lumps, bones, stones, and other large pieces roll off the dirt sifter into a pile for disposal wherever clean fill might be needed. The resulting sifted compost is light and fluffy, making it the best compost for garden side dressing.

When we want raised garden soil mix, we position the dirt sifter between the soil pile and a pile of finished compost. Here an additional helper comes in handy, one to shovel compost, the other to shovel soil, while the third person works the rake against the screen.

Coming up with just the right proportion of soil to compost was a matter of experimentation that depends largely on the type of soil used. Initially, we tried half and half, and then one to three, but weren’t entirely happy with the results. Eventually, we came to the conclusion that with our heavy clay, two shovelfuls of soil to three of compost makes nice, loose soil that holds moisture without getting heavy, soggy, or lumpy — the perfect soil for raised bed gardening.

  • Countryside E.

    I can see what it’s made of, but some instructions would be nice. And a larger picture.

  • I have the same problem with rocky soil in my gardens. I’ve considered digging up all the soil and replacing it entirely, but that isn’t realistic. I might have to try your idea for sifting out all the rocks and clumps and then amending the existing dirt with compost. It seems like it would be more cost effective to buy a sifting screen that it would be to keep buying bags of store bought dirt.

  • Loretta L.

    I was intrigued by your comment about the angle for the sifter. I used a ‘flat’ sifter for my first raised bed and it was an incredible amount of work, so I bought soil for me 2nd raised bed. After looking at this, I think I’ll add onto my sifters to make them angled and try it again. I found that 1/2 inch hardware cloth was too big for my liking, though. I ended up taking another piece of 1/2 inch and offsetting it onto the first one, making the openings smaller.

  • My husband made one of these when we moved into our house I wanted to start a vegetable garden but didnt have a rototiller yet (at that time). First shovel full of soil told us we were going to have a problem planting ( to find out later our property had been filled w/waste soil over years of time) I wasn’t discouraged, my husband built one of these sifters and I marked out a area I wanted to start each shovelful went thru the sifter and then back into the hole that was previously dug perfect- no rocks no weeds and roots and then I added a couple of bags of store bought compost. fast forward 20 + years every time I expand my garden I dont fool around I go right to the sifter and get those clods of grass right in there ( chickens love those clods) rocks go into holes in yard or where we might have removed a larger rock. all compost, chicken manure and horse manure go into the garden all winter long , plus all the clean outs from the wood stove every april/may the whole garden is rototilled and is in perfect shape for planting. The sifter might take a little longer but what you make up for in time is nice fluffy soil and you can remove clumps of roots or even clay chunks right then and there. dump screen into wheelbarrow and dump it where you want. It dosent have to be done in 1 day either 20 years ago I started with a 10’x10′ space only took a few hours to complete that. now my garden is over 50’x 30′ . now when I rototill ( sometimes every other year) it goes down almost a foot and 1/2 before hitting any larger stones than a baseball size. Expanding the gardens using the sifter is as easy as 1 shovelful at a time in width unless you want to expand further. I still use it to clean up around the edges of garden where the grass likes to creep into it, I set up sifter on wheelbarrow and take the shovelfuls of grass and soil (edgings) and put that thru sifter rocks go into holes and grass to the chickens (nothing goes to waste) its not backbreaking work if you go slow- take your lawn chair out and sit while doing the actual sifting and enjoy the day at the same time ! have fun with your gardens

  • I would also like to see some instructions. And larger and more pictures.
    The title, How to Make a Soil Sifter, implies building instructions.


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