Last Updated on July 25, 2021 by Grow with Bovees
Composting tools are often taken for granted or overlooked entirely in the larger gardening scheme, but their importance shouldn’t be ignored.
Regardless of your ultimate goal, the composting process is easier if you have the right equipment. Numerous manufacturers offer a variety of devices that make composting in any style simpler.
While it’s not essential to have anything other than a rake and a common shovel, various tools can not only ease the physical strain of composting, but help the process take place more efficiently.
And as your commitment to composting grows, don’t be surprised if your collection of composting tools grows with it.
Luckily, the tools basic to composting are already present in most gardeners’ collections.
One of the most important—wheelbarrows and garden carts—are often forgotten. Without a reliable cart, hauling raw materials to the pile and fresh compost away from it would become a much more laborious endeavor.
Certain specialty tools—for the meticulous and dedicated gardener—allow you to undertake composting with a certain precision. Sieves and riddles make the task of sifting compost a pleasure.
Compost thermometers and various activators allow you to monitor and manage the decomposition process closely.
And lastly, the compost fork is probably the tool used most frequently around the compost pile and should therefore be of sturdy construction.
Equipment To Shred or Chop Materials
Shredding or chopping organic materials destined for the compost pile offers lots of advantages. But before you choose equipment to do this, be sure to consider how much, and what kind of yard debris you will deal with over a year’s time.
If it’s mostly leaves, there are several shredding equipment options. Some shredders process dry material easily but cannot handle wet debris or tree prunings.
Brush, bark, or pinecones tend to require heavier equipment, which varies depending on the size of the branches. If you have a large piece of property that yields enormous amounts of both leaves and branches, you may need a versatile, heavy-duty shredder/chopper. In addition to your shredding and chopping needs, you will want to consider price in your decision.
Lawn Mowers – Shred Leaves Without A Shredder
Almost everyone with a lawn has a gas-or electric-powered rotary lawn mower. And virtually any lawn mower can double as a shredder in many situations. Besides cutting grass during the growing season, it can be used to shred newly fallen leaves in the fall.
A bag option makes collecting yard waste simple, but a side-discharge mower is perfectly capable; simply mow in a circular pattern and blow the debris toward the middle of an area for easy collection.
Mulching mowers are the best leaf shredders. They’re specially engineered with a high cutting chamber and a unique blade that forces the grass clippings or leaves to remain in the cutting chamber longer, so the blade cuts them several times.
A mulching mower will chew up layers of leaves on the lawn plus an assortment of small twigs, bark, and even some seedpods. If you plan to purchase a mulching mower, buy the most powerful one you can afford—at least 4 or 5 horsepower or the equivalent in electric power.
Again, it’s preferable to have a bag attachment to make collecting debris easier, but it’s not essential.
Shred Leaves With A String Trimmer
String trimmers, or weed eaters or weed wackers, are ubiquitous in many residential neighborhoods. Powered by either gas, electricity, or cordless, they feature a whirling coarse very strong string trimmer line similar to heavy-duty fishing line.
They cut through tall grass and weeds around fence posts and walls but are not forceful enough to cut through woody vines and stems. String trimmers can also be pressed into service as leaf-shredding devices.
Loosely deposit dry leaves into a large trash can, then put the string trimmer down among the leaves to shred them into smaller pieces. Depending on the quality and amount of power you need, trimmers range in price from $20 to several hundreds of dollars.
Electric or gasoline-powered backpack leaf blowers are quickly becoming a yard-care staple in many residential neighborhoods.
More sophisticated versions now offer a reverse, vacuum-power function, which sucks up leaves from around shrubs, ground covers, and lawns instead of blowing them away. Some models are available as a leaf blower and string trimmer combination pack.
The leaves are drawn into a shredding device and caught in a bag that you wear over your shoulder on a strap. When the bag is full, a zipper at the end makes it easy to empty the contents directly into the compost bin. Again, when you buy this equipment, purchase the most powerful version you can afford.
If your main source of organic material for your compost pile is leaves from an abundance of trees on your property, the most efficient way to shred them is with a leaf shredder. This machine is designed specifically to shred and mulch leaves, and functions much like a string trimmer.
An electrically powered, tough nylon filament whirls at the base of a wide, funnel-shaped hopper, shredding leaves as they are fed into it.
Some models are mounted on a tubular steel frame so the machine can be set at an angle to give easier access to the hopper. This device is usually set over a garden cart, trash can, or compost bin to catch the leaves as they fall through the open bottom. Its greatest virtue is that it handles enormous amounts of dry leaves very quickly—as fast as you can feed armloads into the funnel. Moist leaves shred more slowly.
Compost Shredders And Chippers
If your needs require a shredding machine sufficiently powerful and versatile to handle a steady, generous supply of all kinds of organic materials over the season, then it’s worth the significantly greater expense of a shredder/chipper.
Similar to the large commercial shredder/grinders used by landscaping and arborist services, this equipment is available in residential size. Various models are designed and powered to handle wet or dry leaves, vines, small branches, pine cones, light bark, straw, food scraps, dried cornstalks, fruit rinds—almost anything that your yard produces.
The largest and most powerful of them will shred limbs up to 3″ in diameter, but can’t process tree stumps, heavy chunks of bark, or big branches. Deciding which shredder/chipper model to buy is not necessarily a function of your property size.
A small property with lots of trees that are pruned regularly, and a big lawn will generate a greater variety and volume of material than a large property that has only extensive lawn and a few shrubs. Also, consider that you may decide to run your compost pile through the shredder when you turn it.
If this is the case, look for a larger shredder with a generous hopper and wider openings in the discharge grate to prevent clogging. Shredder/chippers come in both gasoline and electric-powered models. Gasoline-powered versions tend to be stronger and more durable.
Shredder/Chipper Power Comparison
|Electric Shredders||Gasoline Shredders|
|Small, lightweight||Heavy, sturdy|
|Less power||More powerful|
|Easy to move around||More stable|
|Easier to turn on and off||Needs more maintenance|
|Less noisy||Quite noisy|
|Handles woody material well||Handles most material well|
|Tends to jam more easily||Larger, so fewer jams|
|Best for dry materials||Handles wet materials|
|Restricted to electrical source||More mobile|
Safety Hints for Shredder Chippers
While shredder/chippers help the compost enthusiast, there are inherent dangers in operating them. By nature, they’re heavy, powerful, and violent machines that merit the greatest respect at all times.
Regardless of the type or brand you ultimately purchase, it’s extremely important that you follow the manufacturer’s recommendations for proper use.
Never remove or disable safety devices on the machine. The single greatest hazard is flying debris occasionally ejected from the access hopper by the power and vibration of the hammer action within the machine. Usually, the hopper is guarded by a baffle to keep debris in the throat of the hopper and on its way to the hammer. Its dual purpose is also to keep your hands and arms out of the machine. Resist the temptation to remove this device for any reason.
Take the time to dress properly for safety. Eye and ear protection is essential. Even if it’s hot, wear gloves and clothes that cover your skin but are not loose or baggy enough to catch on the machinery. Shredding generates a lot of dust, so a pollen mask is also a good idea. Lastly, be sure that your equipment is firmly positioned on level ground before you start it.
Always take the following safety precautions when using shredder/chippers or other power equipment:
- Be alert. Do not use equipment when you are tired, on medication that causes drowsiness, or under the influence of alcohol.
- Do not allow children or pets in the area where machines are being operated.
- Wear long pants and long sleeves that are not loose fitting to protect against sunburn and flying debris.
- Wear ear protection. Lawn mowers and other power equipment operated for more than 20 minutes cause low-grade hearing impairment.
- Wear eye protection to guard against flying debris.
- Wear tough gloves.
- Wear tough gloves.
- If you are sensitive to dust, wear a pollen mask.
- Keep hands away from the mower discharge vent or shredder hopper. Coax bulky materials into hoppers with a sturdy stick.
- Do not operate gasoline-powered equipment in an enclosed space.
- Do not attempt to repair or unclog equipment while it is running.
When choosing a shredder/chipper model, there are two engineering issues to consider, and each influences the price of the equipment.
The most important issue is power. If the machine is not powerful, it won’t be able to process organic material quickly.
Less powerful machines are more appropriate where there’s a variety of materials, but not large volumes. Heavy-duty machines are the best choice when there’s both a large variety and a large volume of materials to be processed on a regular basis.
The other engineering factor to take into account when selecting a shredder/chipper is the chopping mechanism.
Manufacturers typically design these machines with two separate hoppers—a long, narrow one for branches and a much wider one to accommodate bunches of leaves and weeds. While every version has blades to chip woody branches, different models may come equipped with either sharp blades or hammers at the base of the main hopper.
Many smaller versions of shredder/chippers usually feature some kind of knife device to cut and shred the organic materials. Larger models tend to have hammers. Be sure to consider how easy it is to remove a dull knife or hammer for repair on the models you evaluate.
Each shredding mechanism also has certain disadvantages. Knife or blade assemblies grow dull sooner, and need sharpening more often, although they tend to be less expensive. Hammers don’t get dull, but they wear down over time. Their longevity is doubled if they are designed to be reversible, but they’re quite expensive to replace.
A heavy-duty, general-purpose residential shredder/chipper may cost $1500 or more. However, if you intend to undertake a managed composting operation with a wide variety of both yard and out-sourced raw materials, you may find that this initial investment is well worth the equipment’s long-term durability.
Heavy-duty shredder/chippers are available in 5 to 8 horsepower. Their stability, versatility, and durability allow them to last for decades if properly maintained. They can shred or chip enormous volumes of organic materials quickly—a partially decomposed pile 4′ X 4′ X 4′ in size can be shredded in about an hour.
Food Processors, Blenders, or Juicers
You may already have a shredder for your kitchen wastes inside your home. A food processor, blender, or juicer can double as a shredder if you want to add kitchen waste to your pile or pour it directly on garden beds.
In addition to shredding or chopping equipment, there are other tools and accessories designed specifically for composting activities. Some are so helpful that they’re virtually essential for simple or managed piles. Others are useful for managed piles but not absolutely necessary for simple piles.
Using a countertop compost crock in the kitchen, you can collect food scraps to save, and add to your composting operation.
Composting Forks To Turn The Compost Pile
A shovel is not very effective for working with organic materials—neither as you collect them nor when you build and turn your pile. The best tool is a composting fork, which is also known as a “manure” fork and often confused with the “digging” fork.
In many ways, the compost fork bridges the gap between the digging fork and the manure fork. It’s five tines are oval, not flat like the four tines of a digging fork (both types usually have tines with pointed tips).
Unlike the more delicate manure fork, a compost fork can be thrust into the middle of a compost heap and lifted or pulled without bending the tines. Typically, a compost fork’s head spans 9″, which allows the user to grab a large amount of materials with each gesture.
The head is usually “dished,” or slightly bent like a shovel, to facilitate scooping and lifting loads of leaves, wood, chips, twigs, or other organic material. Most important, the generous spaces between the tines in a compost fork allow important organisms to remain undisturbed while air penetrates the pile’s core.
Compost forks are available with sturdy ash handles, although some have fiberglass ones. The forks come in both long-handled and short-handled styles, and some feature a T-grip or ergonomic handle design.
The very best compost forks will have a solid-socket construction—where the handle is riveted into a socket that is part of the tool’s head—and can be expected to last indefinitely with proper care. The compost fork is the tool you will likely use the most, so it’s important to buy a high-quality model.
Garden Carts and Wheelbarrows
If you’re already a gardener, you probably have some sort of wheelbarrow or cart to transport plants, tools, and bags of fertilizer around the yard. Once you get into composting, you may find that your cart is not large enough, or that you need a second vehicle specifically suited to hauling raw materials and finished compost.
Since the largest-capacity wheelbarrows hold only about 6 cubic feet (0.17 m³), their usefulness is limited. But they’re handy for distributing small piles of finished compost around the yard.
Models with substantial pneumatic tires and rustproof construction are the best choice. Plan to spend between $50 and $200 for a large-capacity, high-quality wheelbarrow.
Garden carts hold about 18 cubic feet and are the workhorses of a composting operation. Their boxy style and deep sides give them balance and the capacity for carrying bulky loads like bales of straw and peat moss.
It’s best if they have a single tubular metal-loop support running across the back of the cart to balance the front wheel assembly, rather than two separate legs that might sink into the ground with the weight of a full load. Many carts are constructed of plywood reinforced with galvanized metal edges and frame; the more expensive versions use zinc-coated steel.
An especially handy feature is the sliding front panel, which is easily removed for forward dumping. The best carts have large-diameter pneumatic tires on zinc-plated, welded-spoke wheels, and a ball-bearing axle.
Lightweight folding aluminum carts are very similar to traditional garden carts. They are both strong enough to carry several hundred pounds and have the added advantage of easy storage. These carts feature large 20″ pneumatic tires, a removable front panel, and a lightweight, rustproof chassis.
Another option is a hybrid between the cart and wheelbarrow. It features wheels that can be adjusted along the axle to be wide under the carrying tray for stability or narrow on the axle for difficult terrain or going up planks. It has a painted steel body and 4′ X 4′ X 4′ capacity that expands to 100 cubic feet (2.83 m³) with an optional mulch carrier. It’s capable of carrying up to 400 lbs.
Pruners and Loppers
A sturdy pair of quality pruners and loppers—the long-handled pruners that tackle fatter, tougher stems and branches—make preparing organic raw materials for the pile easier. They’re particularly effective at reducing piles of brush, twigs, or vines for the compost pile.
Typical pruner handles are made from forged alloy, lightweight graphite, or composite. The best designs have ergonomically styled plastic or cushioned grips to reduce fatigue with long use.
Either bypass (curved blades that “draw cut,” slicing knifelike though wood) or anvil-type (a cutting blade comes down on a finger-width anvil, like a chopping block) blades are suitable, but the anvil style is reputedly easier for people who lack strength or have small hands.
If they have hollow-ground (a special manufacturing technique that strengthens blades and allows them to be sharpened easily), precision blades, they can be sharpened for continued efficiency. And the best brands of pruners offer replacement parts.
Loppers are similar in design to pruners. Their long handles may be made of ash, forged alloy, tubular steel, or fiberglass. Some offer a ratcheting mechanism that facilitates cutting larger-diameter branches— up to 1 1/2″ or 2″—with ease.
Anything larger requires a pruning saw and may be too large for a shredder/chipper.
Inclement weather disturbs compost piles in a range of ways. High winds dry them out, and soaking rains generally cool them down and make nitrogen materials soggy and anaerobic.
Whether your pile is simple or managed, covering it is a smart option. Some commercially available bins and boxes come with lids that solve the problem. However, if you choose not to enclose your pile or if your homemade bin has no lid, then some sort of tarp will do the job.
The tarp doesn’t have to be fancy, just waterproof and flexible enough to fit generously over the pile. Be sure any poly-type material is UV-resistant and woven with stitched, reinforced seams for longer wear. It should also have grommets or some other feature to help you secure it over the pile. Plastic or heavy canvas tarps are fine; old shower curtain liners are not. It could even be a piece of left over weed barrier cloth if you use such a thing.
Other acceptable alternatives include scrap tin sheeting, corrugated fiberglass siding, or out-door-grade plywood.
Since managing a compost pile is all about encouraging it to heat up for efficient decomposition, a compost thermometer is helpful if you make compost in the managed style.
Typical compost thermometers resemble long oven thermometers. They feature a round stainless-steel-backed clear dial mounted on a 20″-long probe that penetrates the core of the pile.
The dial should be calibrated from 0° to 220 °F (104.44 °C) so it registers temperatures in a hot pile, which should exceed 150 °F (65.56 °C).
A compost thermometer is valuable at two stages in the composting process. First, it registers that the pile is indeed heating up, confirming that decomposition is underway. If it doesn’t heat up in a few days, you may wish to rebuild the pile.
Later, the thermometer indicates when the temperature of the pile starts to drop. To maintain top efficiency in the composting process, watch the thermometer until it shows that the internal temperature of the pile has dipped to 100°F. Then turn the pile to introduce more air and get it heating up again.
If you have a simple pile, there is no need to do anything to it. However, you may want to encourage decomposition by getting some air into it periodically.
Compost aerating tools are specifically designed for this purpose. Basically, they are variations of a 35″ galvanized steel rod equipped with cushioned grips at the top and a point at the bottom.
Along the rod’s lower tip are two hinged flaps, or flanges, which fold up along the rod. To aerate the pile, plunge the rod deeply into the pile, then twist it about one-quarter turn and begin to pull it out again. This motion causes the flaps to open inside the pile, creating air spaces.
Repeating the procedure at different locations within the pile fluffs the materials somewhat and encourages decomposition. The design of the handle varies and determines how much pressure you can apply to the tool while inserting it into the pile. While they’re easily used on new piles, these tools have more difficulty penetrating settled ones, especially those that are wet.
Because the activity of a wide variety of microorganisms drives the decomposition process, more of them will break down the organic raw materials faster. You can increase the natural population by adding good, healthy soil to the pile or by using a compost bioactivator product.
Various products labeled as activator, catalysts, inoculators, or starters for accelerating compost production are available in garden centers and mail-order catalogs. Packaged as powder to be sprinkled on the pile, they contain live bacteria plus enzymes, granular humates, bran or alfalfa meal, or something similar to energize the bacteria in the moist environment of a compost pile.
Because the bacteria are live, buy fresh activator each year. Experienced gardeners often believe that these products are an unnecessary expense. It’s difficult to measure and verify their effectiveness because there are so many variables in the materials and construction of compost piles.
And there are no standards to accurately measure the relative value of these products. Each company creates its own formula of ingredients and decides how much of its product is sufficient for a single pile.
However, research at universities indicates that compost activator or inoculants do in fact make a difference, although it may not be enough of a difference to justify the expense and time to use them routinely. In any case, because Nature provides plenty of microbes that are capable of handling the decomposition job, these products should be considered optional.
There are, however, certain situations where composting activator or catalysts are useful. If the C/N ratio of your pile is unavoidably out of balance—virtually all leaves or exclusively grass clippings, for example— a larger population of microbes will spur the breakdown in the absence of sufficient balancing carbon or nitrogen material.
They are also useful where odor is a problem in the compost pile or compost tumbler, or around garbage cans, outhouses, and trash areas.
Compost Sieves and Sifters
There are only a few occasions when you may want to sift your finished compost to ensure a fine, uniformly textured product. Lumpy compost is no problem for use as mulch around trees and shrubs and among ground covers. In fact, the coarser texture may look better and will certainly last longer.
However, compost should be finely textured when mixed with a store bought potting soil for outdoor container plants, and likewise when added to indoor potting mix for your houseplants. A topdressing of compost on a lawn should also be even-textured. In these situations, a sifter is a big help.
There are commercial sifters available, and occasionally they can be found at retail garden center outlets. They are also very easy to build yourself from 1/4” or 1/2” wire mesh or hardware cloth. Choose from several types: a hand sifter, a high-volume sifter, and a garden cart sifter.
For those who are planning to produce large quantities of compost, a large sifter frame is the best choice. This can be easily constructed in a 2′ square with 1/4” mesh. By propping it at a 45° angle to the ground, you can simply push shovelfuls of compost through it and catch the fine compost on a tarp beneath it.
Remember, decomposition is a process that takes place when conditions are right, regardless of whether you have tools and equipment. However, many tools make the process easier, especially for those who are impatient or not as mobile.