What Is A Soil Sifter? (3 Reasons To Use One & How To Make)


Have you ever been annoyed by little rocks, twigs, and other hard pieces in your garden soil? Yeah, me too. It’s frustrating – but there is a good way to get rid of that extra stuff: a soil sifter!

So, what is a soil sifter? A soil sifter is a screen attached to a frame. The screen lets fine soil particles through and traps debris above. Usually, the screen is made of metal wire mesh with small holes. The frame is often made of wood. You can attach the screen to the frame with nails, screws, or staples.

Remember that you can have more than one sifter – one with a screen that has small holes to make a very fine soil mix, and another with larger holes when you don’t need such a smooth soil mix.

In this article, we’ll talk about soil sifters and why to use them (plus some drawbacks). We’ll also talk about how to use them and how to make one on your own from scratch.

Let’s get started.


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What Is A Soil Sifter?

A soil sifter (also called a garden sifter or rock sieve) is used to separate stones, rocks, twigs, sticks, and other hard objects from soil and compost.

soil sifter
A soil sifter removes debris (twigs, stones, etc.) from soil.

A soil sifter is pretty simple to make – it only has three basic parts:

  • Frame – this is what provides support for the sifter. It also gives us a place to attach the screen. The frame can be made of wood, metal, or plastic.
  • Screen – this is the part that separates debris from the soil. The smaller the holes, the finer the resulting soil mix will be (since not even small stones can get through tiny holes in a fine mesh).
  • Fasteners – these attach the screen to the frame and hold the sifter together. You can use nails, screws, or staples as fasteners.

A soil sifter has small holes in a screen (the size of the holes can vary, depending on how fine you want the soil mix). The screen lets fine soil particles through the holes, but it traps twigs, sticks, stones, and other debris above the screen.

wire mesh
A durable metal wire mesh is often used as a soil sifter screen. It lets soil particles through while trapping larger debris above.

Usually, the screen is made of metal with small holes, and the frame is often made of wood.

Now you know what a soil sifter is and what it does – but should you bother using it?

Should You Sift Garden Soil? (Benefits & Drawbacks)

I think a soil sifter is worthwhile – I love how smooth the soil is after taking out the debris. A sifter has a few uses that makes it helpful enough to have around, even if it does take up some space.

soil
A sifter makes soil nice and smooth by removing rocks, twigs, and other debris.

Here are some ways that a soil sifter helps you in the garden:

  • Remove debris from soil and compost – some crops (like carrots or potatoes) will be deformed if they run into rocks in the soil. Just sift that stuff out and your carrots have a better chance to grow straight.
  • Break up dirt clumps – sometimes soil sticks together to form clumps. Just sift your soil to break up these clumps to loosen up the soil and get a smooth mix.
  • Aerate soil – when you run soil through a sifter, you will naturally expose the soil to air. Plants do need air to breathe, so adding some to the soil will not hurt them.
  • Harvest underground crops – sometimes, the part of the plant you want is underground (like the potato). If you are growing in a container, you can dump the contents over your soil sifter and separate the tubers from the soil!
loam soil
A soil sifter also breaks up soil clumps and aerates the soil itself.

Don’t worry about any debris left in the sifter that needs more time to decompose (like twigs, sticks, acorns, etc.) You can just throw them in a pile, let it sit for a while, and sift it again until there is nothing left but rocks.

To be fair, there are a few drawbacks to sifting soil:

  • Labor intensive – it takes some work to move soil to the sifter, get it through the sifter, and bring it back to the garden. It also takes effort to dispose of any debris left over – not to mention the work needed to build a sifter if you go the DIY route!
  • Disturbs earthworms – using a soil sifter will probably disturb earthworms in the soil. If you catch any in your sifter, try to put them back in the soil – if you help them now, they will help your garden later!
  • Maintenance – eventually, you will need to repair, rebuild, or repurchase a sifter after heavy use. This will cost you time or money (or both).
earthworm
Sifting your soil may disturb earthworms, so put them back if you find any in your sifter!

If you’re like me, you think the benefits of a soil sifter outweigh the drawbacks. In that case, it’s time to learn how to use one.

How To Use A Soil Sifter

There are two basic ways to use a soil sifter:

  • Over a wheelbarrow – you will still need to push the wheelbarrow to move the sifted soil where you want it. If you want to make your own sifter, it is a good idea to know how big your wheelbarrow is before you start.
  • Over a container or bed – you will need to set up some type of support for the sifter over the container or bed. For a long row, this could be a lot of work to keep moving the supports. The benefit is that you won’t have to push a wheelbarrow.
wheelbarrow with soil
Put a soil sifter over a wheelbarrow to catch the sifted soil. Then, you can bring it wherever you need to use it.

Once you have the sifter where you want it (over a wheelbarrow or container), dump some soil or compost on top of it.

Next, use a shovel or rake (tines up) to push the soil back and forth across the sifter. The soil and small debris will fall through the screen’s holes, while the larger debris will stay on top.

rake
Use a rake or shovel to push soil back and forth over the soil sifter’s screen. Go slowly so you don’t damage the sifter.

After all the soil is through the sifter, take the debris on top (rocks, twigs, etc.) and put it in a bucket. (Move it before it gets too heavy!)

Note: you can also try shaking the sifter back and forth. However, this doesn’t work as well as pushing soil around with a shovel or rake.

*Alternative method: lay the soil sifter at an angle (with the bottom part over a wheelbarrow or container). Then, shovel soil onto the highest part of the sieve, and let gravity do the work of pulling the soil over the filter.

How Do You Make A Soil Sifter?

To make a soil sifter, you will need the three basic parts mentioned before: a frame, a screen, and fasteners.

Part 1: Soil Sifter Frame

The soil sifter frame is the foundation of this tool. The screen will be attached to it, and the frame will rest on top of your wheelbarrow or container.

wooden board
You need 4 pieces of wood for a soil sifter frame. I suggest using screws to put them together in a rectangle shape.

You will need 4 pieces of wood. The dimensions depend on how big you want the sifter to be.

If the sifter is too small, it won’t rest on top of the wheelbarrow. If the sifter is too big, you will be dropping sifted soil on the ground instead of in the wheelbarrow.

To make the frame, you can use:

  • Wood – this is a common material for a soil sifter frame. However, it will rot over time unless the wood is finished (sealed) or pressure treated.
  • Plastic – you will want thicker plastic for a soil sifter frame, since it will be holding a lot of weight (soil and rocks). It will also be taking a lot of abuse from running a rake or shovel across the top. Still: plastic won’t rot like wood, and it is lighter than both metal and wood. Just remember that some plastic does become brittle in sunlight over time.
  • Metal – this will make a solid, rot-free frame for a soil sifter. However, it will be a little harder (not impossible) to drive fasteners through metal to attach the screen to the frame.
rotten wood
Untreated wood rots over time, whereas metal and plastic will not.

Part 2: Soil Sifter Screen

The soil sifter screen is the workhorse of this tool. It will be attached to the frame with fasteners, and it will do the work of separating debris from soil.

chicken wire
If you have a roll of metal wire mesh, you can use a piece for your soil sifter screen.

You can use any type of metal mesh (rabbit cage, chicken cage, hardware cloth, etc.) for the screen. Just remember that a sturdy screen will hold up longer and avoid breakage.

I wouldn’t recommend a plastic mesh for your soil sifter screen, even though it works in theory. All of the scraping with a shovel or rake means that a plastic mesh won’t last long enough to make it worth your time.

Part 3: Soil Sifter Fasteners

The soil sifter fasteners hold it all together. They attach the screen to the frame and keep everything in place while you work.

screw in wood
I suggest using screws as fasteners for your soil sifter, but nails and staples work to attach the screen to the frame.

For fasteners, you can use:

  • Staples – these are very easy to drive in with a stapler. However, they won’t last as long as nails or screws. They are also pretty tough to remove if you need to make repairs!
  • Nails – these are quick and easy to drive in with a hammer. The downside is that they are a little harder to remove than screws (just in case you need to replace the screen or change out a piece of rotten wood to make a repair).
  • Screws – these are easy to drive in if you have a powered screwdriver, but time consuming with hand tools. Still, they are easy to remove in case you need to make repairs.
rusty nail
Nails are a little tougher to remove than screws if you need to make repairs.

Part 4: Putting It All Together.

First, I would use nails or screws to fasten the 4 pieces of the frame together into a rectangle shape. You can use anything you like to attach the screen to the frame. Still, I would go with screws for fasteners if you have the option.

Next, I would cut a piece of wire mesh to the right size (a little bigger than the frame in both dimensions). That way, you can fold some of the mesh over the edge of the frame and attach it in more places.

Then, put the screen over the frame and fold it over so it fits tight.

Finally, attach the screen to the frame around the border with fasteners (screws, nails, or staples).  That’s it!

If you want handles for the sieve, make two of the pieces of wood longer than the length of the wire mesh.

A reminder about the size of the soil sifter: it depends on how much soil you want to sift (and how strong you are).

Remember that doubling the length and width of a soil sifter will quadruple the amount of soil it holds, thus quadrupling the weight.

Also: you will need to move the sieve for storage, so you don’t want it to be too big and awkward. I would suggest starting off with a small sieve, perhaps a square 4 foot by 4 foot frame, and see how long it takes to sift your soil. You can always build a larger one for bigger jobs.

Conclusion

Now you know what a soil sifter is and why to use it. You also know how to use it and how to make one from scratch if you want.

I hope you found this article helpful.  If so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

You can learn more about how to get rid of rocks in soil (especially heavier ones) here.


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~Jonathon


Jon M

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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