Digging with Ease: Mastering the Art of Tackling Soil with Rocks and Roots

by Greg Baka, Edited by the EasyDigging.com staff

throwing soil with a shovel

You grab your trusty shovel and begin digging, excited to embark on your new gardening or landscaping project. But as you delve deeper, you encounter various soil conditions that pose challenges. Rocks, tree roots, remnants of old foundations, or other hidden obstructions may be lurking beneath the surface of your lawn or garden. Fear not! With the right tools and approach, you can conquer any obstacle that comes your way.

Unveiling the Digging Arsenal: Tools for Every Soil Condition

Shovel

A round-point digger equipped with a broad scoop, a sturdy dished blade, and the option of a short or long handle, the shovel is a versatile tool that seamlessly transitions between digging and scooping tasks.

Spade

With its square-edged, flat-bladed design and the choice of a short or long handle, the spade allows you to stand upright, utilizing your body weight to effortlessly drive the blade into the ground. This tool is ideal for gardening and landscaping work.

Grub Hoe

The grub hoe is perfect for chopping up sod, tilling garden soil, and even trenching. Its robust head enables easy soil penetration, and it comes in 4-inch and 6-inch widths, paired with long, sturdy handles.

Mattock

When faced with the challenge of digging through soil, rocks, or roots, the mattock is the heavy-duty tool you need. Available in two versions, both featuring a 2 to 4-inch wide digging blade, the pick mattock boasts a sharp pick point on one end, while the cutter mattock boasts an axe blade for cutting through roots.

Pick or Pickaxe

Designed for breaking up rocks, compacted gravel, and even concrete, picks are heavy-duty tools with short 36-inch handles and heavy steel heads weighing between 4 to 7 pounds. With one end equipped with a sharp pick point and the other featuring either a chisel shape or another pick point, picks are also handy for prying rocks out of the ground.

diagram of digging bars and pinch bars

Digging Bars

The arsenal of digging tools includes two types of digging bars: San Angelo bars and Spud bars. Both variants are long, heavy metal bars, ranging from 4 to 6 feet in length. These bars are forcefully driven straight down into the soil to break it up. San Angelo bars, designed for rocky soil, feature a sharp point on one end and a chisel on the opposite end. Spud bars, on the other hand, are utilized for chopping roots and digging post holes. The blade end of a spud bar loosens soil and severs roots, while the opposite end functions as a tamper to compact soil around fence posts. It’s important to note that digging bars are not intended for heavy prying.

Pinch Bars

Coming in various lengths ranging from 4 to 5 feet, pinch bars serve as long pry bars. Equipped with a tapered, wedge-like end, they are exceptionally effective in penetrating tight spaces. Whether you need to move rocks, pry concrete apart, or rip apart stumps, pinch bars provide the necessary leverage for heavy-duty levering and prying.

Axes and Hatchets

For cutting wood and roots, axes and hatchets are your go-to tools. Hatchets, designed for one-handed use, are perfect for shallow holes, while axes, built for two-handed use, are ideal for deeper digging. Keep in mind that using axes and hatchets in soil can lead to blade damage, so it’s recommended to use inexpensive models.

Identifying Your Soil Type: From Good to Rocky to Root-Infested

Tools for Good or Average Soil

When dealing with good soil conditions, which are generally free of rocks, compacted gravel, and large roots, a round-point shovel is your trusty companion. It is especially useful for smaller projects like planting flowers, bushes, or trees, as well as creating spaces for patios or fire pits. Spades are preferable when tackling gardening or landscaping projects, such as spading the soil or edging flower beds. For loosening large areas of soil or trenching, look no further than the versatile grub hoe.

If your soil becomes hardened due to lack of moisture and a high clay content, a mattock will come to your rescue, effectively breaking through those challenging layers. However, keep in mind that specialty digging tools like post hole diggers and augers are most efficient in good soil, as rocks and roots can impede their progress.

Tools for Rocky Soil or Hard-Packed Clay

using a pickaxe in very hard soil

To tackle hard-compacted or stone-filled soil, utilizing a shovel alone won’t suffice. You first need to break up the soil with a pick mattock or a digging bar, or better yet, both. If your work remains near the surface, a pick mattock will get the job done. However, for deeper digging, the San Angelo style digging bar will save your back and make the process more manageable.

Employing the weight and physics of a pick mattock, you can fracture even the toughest ground. The pointed end of the mattock facilitates penetration between and around rocks, making it easier to pry them from the ground. Remember to utilize both ends. Use the blade end to loosen and move soil aside, exposing more rocks. Then, with the pointed end, break and loosen the ground around the rock, facilitating ease of removal.

A digging bar is an often overlooked but incredibly useful tool. Particularly, the San Angelo style bar excels at busting loose rocks and breaking up hard clay and subsoil. Featuring two working ends, one pointed and the other with a narrow chisel blade, the San Angelo digging bar is plunged straight down into the ground. Subsequently, by wiggling it around, you can loosen the surrounding soil and stones. Repeat this stabbing and wiggling motion until you’ve created enough loose soil and rocks to scoop them out with a shovel or post hole digger.

Remember, a digging bar is solely for stabbing and wiggling, not for prying. Avoid bending this elongated tool. When encountering large, immovable rocks, enlist the assistance of a pinch bar, specifically designed for heavy-duty levering and prying.

Tools for Digging Through Roots

using a mattock for trail work

Regardless of the soil type, if trees or bushes are present, you will inevitably encounter numerous roots during your digging endeavor. While sharpening the edge of your shovel or spade can assist in cutting through smaller roots, thicker ones require specialized tools.

For shallow holes, a budget-friendly hatchet works wonders. However, when dealing with particularly large roots, a saw may prove to be your most efficient option. Limbing saws, boasting the ideal shape and teeth for root cutting, or an electric Sawz-All with a long, coarse blade can swiftly sever roots. Please note that these tools are subject to wear and tear when used in soil.

For most digging tasks in root-infested areas, the Cutter Mattock and the Spud Bar reign supreme. As previously mentioned, the cutter mattock’s weight and design make it ideal for breaking apart stubborn soil, while the axe end cuts through roots impeding your shovel’s progress. Similar to the pick, remember to utilize both ends of the mattock. Use the blade end to loosen and move soil aside, exposing more roots. Then, with the axe end, sever the root at the hole’s edge—or both edges.

Specifically designed for root removal, the Spud Bar is a long tool featuring a wide, sharp blade. Keeping the blade sharp ensures easy root cutting. When using the Spud Bar, drive it straight down into the soil or onto a root. Multiple strikes may be necessary to effectively cut larger roots.

Bear in mind that a spud bar is not intended for prying. Prying roots is generally ineffective, but should the need arise, rely on the mattock or pinch bar. Additionally, be aware that there are spud bars tailored for ice fishermen, which are unsuitable for digging endeavors.

For smaller roots that become loose once soil has been removed, employ cheap loppers or pruners to make the final cut.

Conclusion: Selecting the Right Tools for the Job

Effort and muscle are undoubtedly required for any digging project, but with the right tools, you can significantly ease the process. Before commencing your project, start by digging a test hole in the target area. If you encounter rocks or roots, make a trip to acquire the appropriate tools—a matching mattock or digging bar—to conquer the challenges at hand. You don’t need to amass all the tools at once; instead, invest in the ones best suited for your specific depth and obstructions. Remember, these tools are durable and will serve you well in the long run.

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