How to Use Unfinished Compost

For visual guide to this post, check out the video below! Otherwise, read on, gardener. Read on….

I hear from a lot of people who are dissatisfied with their composting efforts. The best thing I can say to them is:

Start over.

How to use unfinished compost
Unfinished Compost

I do it. Every fall, I empty the compost bin to free it up for all the fall leaves and pumpkins coming down the pike. I constantly add to my single, residential compost bin, so of course, the compost in the bin is never completely finished, but that isn’t a problem, and you’ll soon know why!

There are three different ways to completely empty out your compost bin and get that compost working for you over the winter, leaving you with a completely empty bin to start fresh with fall goodies. These are the methods I use, ordered from most effort to least effort.

Most Effort: Sift

So sometimes you really want finished compost and the only way to get it from an ongoing pile is by sifting. I have two tools for this: a (homemade) sifting screen, and an old, plastic milk crate. The sifting screen is a wooden frame that came with an appliance and I stapled mesh hardware cloth on the back. The hardware mesh has smaller holes than the milk crate, so it results in finer finished compost.

Homemade compost sifter, DIY compost sifter, how to sift out finished compost
Simple, homemade compost sifter

The process is the same for either tool: fill ‘er up and get your shake on. Shake, shake, shake! After a minute or a few, only the large chunks will be left and you’ll just toss those back on the pile. Spend as much time as you’d like breaking up any large chunks. Sometimes I just need to be outside, zeroed in on a mundane task like sifting compost, and I’m happy to work the larger chunks apart and through the screen. Other days, I’m in a hurry and those chunks can revisit the sifter another day!

Sift finished compost using milk crate
Sift compost with a milk crate

Sifting will give you only beautiful, black, finished compost. Of course, this can be spread throughout the garden, but it’s also great to use with old potting soil (I add 50% compost to old potting soil) or spread thinly on the lawn to really give your turf a boost.

Sifted compost, finished compost, DIY compost, homemade compost
Sifted, finished compost

Less Effort: Modified Sift

Sometimes I really don’t care about my compost being super fine and finished. In those cases, I use a “modified sift” approach and just use my screen or milk crate as a way to identify only the largest unfinished pieces. Those get tossed by hand back onto the pile, and the rest gets dumped into my garden cart.

This is the method I use most of the time. I only throw really big, obviously unfinished items back in the bin, and I use the rest to top-dress the planting beds.

Least Effort: Trench it!

The easiest, most efficient way to use up ALL your compost, even the largest, freshest, most unfinished pieces, is to simply bury it. Dig a trench or a hole in the area you’ll need the compost. I typically do this in my raised veggie planters because 1) they’re close to the compost bin 2) the soil is already decent and easy to dig and 3) I know my compost will be valuable here. Then, simply shovel your compost, chunks and all, into the trench or the hole. This half-finished compost will continue to break down over winter, in exactly the place where you need it most. I don’t worry much about the depth, targeting maybe 8-10″ deep, and I’ve never run into any slimy chunks when I start to dig and plant in the spring.

From sifting out perfectly finished compost, hand-sorting partially finished compost to use as a top dressing in your garden beds or even completely burying unfinished compost, these three methods will each get your compost working for you over the winter. With three different ways to use up your fall compost pile, you’ll most certainly have a freshly empty bin ready for leaves, funky slimy pumpkins and all the other good stuff the fall has to offer.

But remember…

Fall leaves are considered “browns” and when filling your bin with leaves, you’ll want to balance those out with plenty of “greens.”

“Browns” and “Greens” are a topic for another post, but here is a great (free!) printable that includes a basic list of greens and browns, plus things to avoid and some frequently asked questions if you’re a beginner or need a quick and easy refresh on composting basics.

SO…Tell me in the comments: How often do YOU start a fresh compost pile? And HOW do you use up what you’ve already got?

Please always feel free to share my posts, and THANKS for stopping by!



Our simple and efficient compost bin
The BEST tool for turning and moving compost (and mulch!)


  1. I’m back! Can I dig a trench and put in nearly finished compost in the spring too or just for over the winter? I have 2 tumblers full and I need room for more scraps!


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s