The Compost Conversation – The dirt on compost forks

Garden fork, old pitchfork, new four-tine pitchfork, old manure fork, new manure/mulch fork.

When it comes to the work of composting; building, turning, moving and distributing, forks are the tool of choice. There are three broad fork categories; garden, pitch and manure/mulch, each doing its own job in a particular way. Let’s have a little dig around and see what we find. 

Most gardeners will have a common garden fork (often mistakenly called a pitch fork), with four tines (prongs) and a short shaft, ending in a D-shape handle. These familiar garden tools excel at opening and loosening up garden soil and work well in close confines or where we don’t have to reach far. 

They can, at a pinch, do all the tasks of compost making, but they don’t usually excel at any of them, being better suited to their traditional work of soil loosening. 

Classic pitchforks – traditionally used to ‘pitch’ hay onto a haystack – have three thin, widely spaced tines and a long, straight shaft/handle. Occasionally you will find four and, very rarely five-tine ‘pitch’ style forks. 

Pitchforks work very well with long clumpy material like hay, straw and stemmy weeds and work a treat in the early stages of compost making; building, blending and turning. The long shaft may get in the way if your garden space is tight, but can help when your compost bay is big and you have a long way to reach. They are a more ergonomically balanced tool for moving material than the garden fork, which is suited to pushing into the soil. 

Both garden forks and pitchforks stop working so well once the compost is near finished, with the matured compost material falling through the small number of wide-spaced tines. Enter the manure fork. 

Manure or mulch forks have lots of tines (9 – 10 is not unusual), tighter spacing and greater width than other forks. They excel at moving finished compost out of our bays and around the garden. 

Old forks are worth looking out for, they were usually very well made, reparable and often have fantastic balance in the hands. The forged tines (identifiable as they taper over their length) of old forks are thin, springy and strong, going easily into material and coping with a lot of stress. 

Many modern garden forks are just bent mild steel with pointed ends that will bend under load. Well-made new tools are still available, but they are not as common as their poorly made look-alikes, and you’ll need to be prepared to pay for the extra work that goes into them. 

When lifting heavy loads with a fork try putting your non-dominant hand – the one closest to the head of the tool – over the top of the tool, not under. This reduces stress on the wrist, and makes for more efficient working. Your wrist and arm will thank you. 

A good tool, used in the right way, can make the tasks of composting efficient and pleasurable. Happy composting! 

Next week we’ll have a look at compost thermometers. 

– Joel Meadows works with *Yes In My Back Yard, (YIMBY), a community-scale composting initiative in Castlemaine and surrounds. Send questions or comments to