Whether it’s planting season and you’re planning to grow vegetables in the garden of your backyard, or you’re just mowing your front lawn, you may run into problems with rocks, gravels, or even boulders.

To remove rocks from your yard, you can try picking them by hand, tilling, raking, sifting, or shoveling. You can also try using a leaf blower for tiny gravels. For bigger rocks, pick them up or roll them away. You may need to use special equipment or heavy machinery if the rocks are too large.

If you live on rocky ground, removing rocks year after year can get a little frustrating. Keep reading for the information about the equipment and methods that will make this process easier for you.

Where Do Rocks Come From?

As we all know, our planet earth has a rocky crust, and the soil is the weathering of these rocks. Some places have no rocks in the ground, and some have rocks appearing from nowhere, and here’s why.

In some regions, the temperature drops so low in the winters that the ground freezes. When the top layers of the soil start to freeze, stones that transfer heat steal it from the soil beneath them.

Now, the soil beneath the stones is a bit colder than the other parts on the same level. So, it freezes and expands more quickly because there’s water in the soil, and water expands when it freezes. So, the stones move upwards a little.

After the winter, when the ice melts, the space left beneath the stone is then filled with soil again. Year after year, the stones are pushed up, and they slowly reach the surface.

Why Should You Remove Rocks?

  • It interferes with the green life. Rocks and stones can prevent plant roots from reaching the depths of the ground; therefore, they can’t get the water and nutrients they need to thrive. Rocks can block the plants’ space, making the soil stiff after a while. 
  • It damages the mower’s blade. If you run your mower over rocks, tiny pieces of stones may get inside it and bend or dent the blades or damage different parts of your mower. It could also dull the mower’s blades, making it rip out the grass instead of just trimming it. This can ruin your lawn view and make it more vulnerable to pests or sun damage.
  • It can injure someone. If a stone gets in the mower, it may just fly out the other end and injure somebody or cause damages.
Tools needed to remove rocks from a garden.

Tools and Equipment You’ll Need to Remove Rocks

  • Rototiller or cultivator. A rototiller is a bigger version of a cultivator. These handy machines have rotating tines that can pierce and loosen the soil. By digging up the soil 4-8 inches (10-21 cm), they expose the small or big rocks resting in the lower layers of the ground. You can buy or rent both at your local hardware store. Remember never to wear loose clothes and use safety goggles when using either one of these machines.
  • Scoop or pointed shovel. You can dig out small or medium-sized rocks with a pointed shovel and scoop or move the rocks with a scoop shovel. There are long or short-handled versions of these shovels you can choose from.
  • Garden rake or leaf rake. Every garden usually has a leaf rake that can help you gather leaves and rocks without bending over. If you’re in a hurry, or you’re dealing with bigger rocks, you can use a garden rake, which has sturdy steel tines and comes in different sizes.
  • Digging bar. Digging bars come in different sizes, and they’re designed to help you dig out and move the rocks and other unwanted things out of the way.
  • Pick. If you run into a large rock that can’t be removed easily, you can use a pick to break it into smaller pieces.
  • Leaf blower. If your leaf blower is powerful enough, it can blow small and medium-sized rocks from your garden, as well as leaves.
  • Wheelbarrow or bucket. You can use a bucket or a wheelbarrow to transport the rocks. A wheelbarrow makes your job so much easier if you have a giant boulder to move.
  • Soil sifter. You can buy or fashion a sifter for your bucket or wheelbarrow with a net or a screen. This way, you can be sure that all the soil is completely divided from the stones.
  • Gloves. Wearing gardening gloves is a must when it comes to heavy work like digging up stones. They’ll give you a better grasp of tools and prevent blisters.

Look for Landscape Fabric

First, check your driveway or yard for landscape fabric or geotextile cloth. The previous homeowners may have used it underneath the decorative gravel to prevent unwanted plants from growing. If you find the fabric, you can easily lift it up, pour the rock in a wheelbarrow, and transport them.

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Alternatively, you can use a shovel to scoop the gravel and put it in a bucket or a wheelbarrow. Then you can use a garden rake or a leaf rake to gather what the shovel missed.

Prepare Your Garden

You can skip this part, but going through with it will make the rest of your job so much easier and help make the soil healthier for gardening.

It’s best if you break up the soil, using a rototiller or a cultivator, depending on the size of your yard. You can do it by shoveling and using other hand tools, but this way, you can save precious time and energy. If you’ve got a big yard or garden, you may have to rent and use a tractor.

First, you should start the cultivator or rototiller and put a little force on the soil. With this method, you can dig 4-8 inches (10-20 cm), and little by little, the bigger rocks will be exposed, and the smaller rocks will come to the surface, making it easier for you to remove them later.

How to Remove Small Rocks

You will have to choose the method that’s suitable for you, considering the size of your garden and the density of the rocks you’ll want to remove.

Of course, there are machines for crushing the rocks or picking up stones, but those are mostly for farmers who have huge lands. It’s more convenient to stick to the simple manual equipment for small backyards or front lawns. Here are some methods you can use:

1. Handpicking

You can pick up the stones if you have a small yard. If you used a tiller or cultivator on your ground, you would be able to pick the rocks up easily and pile them up or put them in a bucket or wheelbarrow.

2. Raking

You can use a leaf rake or a garden rake to gather all the small and medium-sized stones. Garden rakes with teeth or tines that are closer together won’t miss smaller rocks.

Raking through the soil, you can make a pile of rubble and then use a shovel to move them or sift them.

3. Sifting

Sifting the soil with a hand screen is a great way to filter out gravel, and it’s easier on your back. After breaking up the soil by a tiller, a shovel, or a rake, you can start transferring it to your sifter little by little, and break the remaining clumps out of the soil and filter out all the rocks.

Large and medium-sized rocks are easily separated, but if you notice that your sifter is losing some smaller stones, you may have to choose a different mesh-wire screen for your sifter.

There are two types of sifters: manual and electrical. Electrical sifters are usually for professional use, as they are so expensive to purchase. If you’re a homeowner with a rocky yard, manual sifters are a better choice for you. There even are sifters that can fit on your wheelbarrow to help you expedite the process.

You can learn how to build a sifter for your wheelbarrow using a mesh-wire screen and some wood. Check out this YouTube tutorial to learn more:

Once you’ve sifted the compost, you’ll have a pile of different-sized rocks or other unwanted things, and a smooth, aerated soil that will be easy to work with. You can easily spread it on the ground, and your plants can enjoy themselves because their roots will spread easily.

4. Using a Digging Bar

You can use a steel bar to pop up the small or medium-sized rocks stuck in the ground. You should stick one end of the digging bar underneath the stone and apply pressure to the other end.

5. Shoveling

If you’ve decided not to use a machine for tilling the soil, you can use a shovel to dig deep and loosen up the soil. You can use a pointed shovel to dig up the rocks that are stuck in the mud.

You can also use a shovel to put the rocks you’ve gathered into a bucket or wheelbarrow and move them out of the garden.

How to Remove Boulders

Removing small or medium-sized boulders takes a little effort, but it’s definitely not as easy as raking and sifting through the soil for removing smaller rocks.

For moving large boulders, you’ll need the help of at least one other person. You can choose one of the following methods for removing a boulder from your yard, considering the circumstances.

1. Picking the Boulder Up

Start by digging the soil around the boulder with a pointed shovel or a trowel. Try to uncover the rock completely, create a space for it, and make sure it’s not stuck. This way, it will be easier to lift. Then try putting it in a wheelbarrow to move it away.

If the boulder is too heavy, you can try putting a digging bar at the edge of it and push the bar to pry and lift the boulder a little bit. Then you should stick a piece of wood under the boulder, so you will be able to push or roll the boulder away.

If that didn’t work either, you can dig a little more from one side of the boulder and create a slope to roll it away.

2. Splitting the Boulders

There are two ways you can split a boulder with hand tools:

  1. Using a rock pick. You can use a rock pick or a rock hammer to split the boulders. This method may or may not work depending on the rock and your force.
  2. Using feathers and wedges. Start by drilling holes in the boulder with a hammer drill. Then, insert the feathers and wedges into the holes. Using a mallet or hammer, drive the wedges into the boulder until it cracks and splits into two. You can repeat these steps until you have successfully broken the boulder into movable pieces.

3. Using Dexpan

Dexpan is a non-explosive demolition chemical that you can use to break huge boulders silently and without wasting energy. You’ll have to drill some holes in the boulder using a drill. Then you should mix the Dexpan with water and pour it into the holes. And you’re done! The boulder will start to crack and split in no time at all.

4. Using Heavy Machinery

If you have access to heavy machinery like tractors or trucks, you can consider towing the boulder out of your property.

Start by digging around the boulder and lifting it with the method mentioned earlier, using a digging bar and wood pieces. Then wrap a chain around the boulder, attach the other end of the chain to your vehicle, and drive away.

Of course, you can always use a skid steer loader to pick the boulder up and move it anywhere you want.

How to Reuse the Removed Rocks

You can reuse the rocks you’ve removed from your garden to create something beautiful in the landscape of your backyard or front lawn.

  • Garden walkway. One of the cheapest materials for creating a garden walkway is gravel and rocks. Other than saving money, you can give your yard an exquisite look. For a gravel path, all you need to do is wash the stones you’ve collected, lay some landscape fabric where you want your path, and spread the stones on top of it. Or you can create stepping stones if you’ve gathered larger rocks.
  • Rock box. If you have young children running around the house, you can create a rock box instead of a sandbox for them to play in. You can put some toys in there, and kids will love it! Plus, as opposed to a sandbox, it’s much easier to clean.
  • Fire pit. You can create a fire pit with medium to large rocks that you’ve collected, arrange some chairs around it, and give your next garden party a new look.
  • Retaining wall. Other than interlocking landscape blocks, you can use large stones and boulders to build a retaining wall. Or, you can simply arrange the stones on the edge of your flower beds to give your yard a fancy look!
  • Rock fence. You can create a fence base with some wood and some metal wire fence, then fill it with clean rocks.

If You Can’t Remove the Rocks From Your Garden…

Create Raised Beds and Berms

One way of adapting to rocky soil is to create raised beds that are 6 inches (15 cm) deep. If you want to grow bigger plants with deeper roots, you’ll have to raise the beds even more.

You can use water-resistant wood or even stones to create a raised bed and then fill the area with a growing mix, compost, and other types of rich soil for your plants to thrive.

Grow Plants With Shallow Roots

Believe it or not, some plants can grow in rocky conditions just fine. Plants with shallow roots that don’t need much water and nutrients to survive, and plants that can tolerate the warmth that the stones may cause, can grow well in rocky soil:

  • Ornamental grasses: Grass has roots that grow 4-6 inches (10-15 cm) deep.
  • Herbs; Most herbs have shallow roots, including thyme, tarragon, and oregano, that can grow in 6 inches of soil. Basil, parsley, and cilantro will need 8 inches (20 cm) of soil.
  • Herbaceous perennials: These plants can be a great choice because of their shallow roots and tough systems. Verbena, Butterfly weed, Rose campion, Oxeye Daisy, and Coneflower can be suitable.
  • Succulent plants: Succulents are desert plants that can grow in low nutrient soil. If you live in warm regions, Yucca, Agave, Sedum, Ice plant, and Sempervivum are good choices for your garden.

Conclusion

If you’re in the middle of redecorating your lawn or backyard and you run into rocks, stones, or boulders, don’t give up on your dream landscape. There are tools and methods which will make it so much easier for you to remove and even reuse them. And by doing so, you will create a healthier environment for your plants to thrive more beautifully.

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