how to remove rocks from soil

How to Remove Rocks from Soil

In Lawn & Garden by Jamie

While a few rocks in your garden soil is not a concern, if your trowel hits a stone every time you dig, you’re going to have to do something about it. Removing rocks is a big job, but there are several ways that you can make this easier.

To remove rocks from the soil, loosen up the soil (either with a pitchfork or rototiller) and shovel the soil onto a screen over a wheelbarrow. Remove the rocks from the screen and replace the soil. If you mark sections ahead of time, you can easily see which soil has been sifted and which hasn’t.

Are rocks good for my garden?

Some rocks in your garden can actually be beneficial as they provide:

  • Temperature regulation. During the day, they soak up the heat, which they release at night. Use this to keep your peppers warm on cool nights, get a head start in the spring, or keep the soil warmer into autumn.
  • Improved drainage. If you have heavy clay soil, some rocks into your garden soil can help improve drainage as the space between the rock and the clay soil gives water somewhere to go. Incorporating organic matter will also help to improve drainage.

When should I remove the rocks in my soil?

You should remove rocks from your garden beds if you’re going to use a rototiller or cultivator, to prepare fine seed beds for plants that need it (like carrots), or to prevent rock overcrowding the soil and pushing plants out.

If you have a few stones on top of your garden soil, you don’t need to worry about removing them — although it is easy enough to pick them up and put them out of the way. You might even find a really cool rock that are perfect for DIY crafts. And if you use no-till methods, you can get away with more rocks in the soil than if you till.

But if you have a lot of rocks emerging from the soil, then you may have to take more drastic action. Rocks can block plant roots from spreading out through the soil to access all the nutrients they need, which will stunt their growth or even kill them.

Too many rocks will also mean that water will flow through the soil more quickly, rather than absorbing into the soil to maintain moisture. If you’re growing desert plants and succulents, this is a plus. If you’re growing anything that needs more moisture than that (like most other vegetables and flowers), you’re going to have problems.

3 Ways To Remove Rocks From The Soil

Option #1: Manual Sifting Screen

The manual sifting option is your best option if you’re not interested in or able to rent or buy equipment, or if you need to pick it back up whenever you have time. Best used on loose soil that’s easy to dig through.

What you’ll need:

  • Sifting screen
  • Wheelbarrow
  • Shovel
  • Bucket

To remove rocks:

  1. Survey your garden and mark off sections. By marking up sections, you’ll know which parts you have sifted and which haven’t. Nothing sucks more than shovelling up a rockless section because you lost track.
  2. Remove any obvious medium to large rocks. It’s easier to just pick up and toss aside larger rocks than it is to shovel and sift them out.
  3. Place the screen on top of the wheelbarrow. Secure the screen so it won’t move during the next step. If you don’t have a wheelbarrow, you can use another container.
  4. Dig 10 to 12 inches into the soil and shovel it into the screen. 10 to 12 inches is how deep most plants grow their roots, so you don’t need to go further than that.
  5. Remove the rocks from the screen. A bucket, a tarp, or another container is a great place to store rocks until you’re ready to reuse them.
  6. Dump the soil back into place and start on the next section.

Option #2: Rototiller + Sifting Screen

If your soil is hard and difficult to shovel, and you either own a tiller or can rent one, then use the rototiller method.

What you’ll need:

  • Rototiller
  • Rake
  • Wheelbarrow

To remove rocks:

  1. Use the rototiller on the garden soil to loosen up the soil.
  2. Remove any obvious medium to large rocks. As the rototiller works, you’ll probably see larger sized rocks popping up on the surface like potatoes.
  3. Section off the garden. This way you’ll know which soil has been sifted and which you haven’t.
  4. Rake the topsoil or sift through the wheelbarrow. Now that you’ve gotten rid of most of the larger rocks, use a rake to sift through the topsoil and remove them from the soil (a rock rake or landscaping rake will help immensely!). Alternatively, you can secure the shifting screen to the wheelbarrow and repeat the manual method.

Option #3: Tractor + Plow

If you have a large area to sift through, you may want to graduate to the next step up: a tractor, plow, and screen.

What you need:

  • Tractor
  • Plow
  • Large Screen

How to remove rocks:

  1. Attach the plow to the tractor.
  2. Use the plow to loosen the ground.
  3. Mark out sections.
  4. Scoop up as much soil as the tractor can handle and dump it through the screen.
  5. Remove the rocks from the screen and replace the soil.
  6. Repeat steps 4 and 5 with the remaining sections.

Option #4: How To Remove Large Rocks With a Crowbar

The above two methods work for small to medium rocks that you can pick up by hand or by shovel, but what if you have a boulder wedged into the soil?

What you’ll need:

  • Shovel or hand trowel
  • Pipes
  • Piece of plywood big enough to hold the rock
  • Crowbar

How to remove large rocks:

  1. Dig along the sides of the rocks until you reach the bottom. If it’s light enough to lift, you can shift it back and forth to loosen it before picking it up. If not, continue to the next step.
  2. Dig a gradual slope on one side of the rock.
  3. On the slope, lay two pipes parallel to the rock.
  4. On level ground, lay pipes parallel to the two original pipes.
  5. Place a piece of plywood on top of the pipes.
  6. Use the crowbar to lever the rock out of the hole onto the plywood.
  7. Roll the rock on the plywood over the pipes. Once the plywood pulls free of a pipe, move it to the front of the line.
  8. Keep rolling until it reaches its new locations.

If the rock is too big to roll, then you will need to split the rock into smaller pieces or hire a rock hauling company.

Rock Removal from Yard FAQs

How to Dispose of Rocks from My Yard?

You’ve sifted through the soil and now have a gigantic pile of muddy rocks. What do you do now? You could always take the rocks to a landfill or rent a dumpster (if you’re removing a ton of rocks), but that’s a waste when people pay good money for gravel. Instead, you can repurpose them.

Repurposing options include:

  • List them for free with pickup on Craigslist, Kijiji, Facebook Marketplace, or other used websites and give them away. You might not need rocks for a landscaping project, but other people will.
  • Create a gravel walkway or use larger rocks as stepping stones.
  • Build a retaining wall for a garden to edge your flower beds with larger stones.
  • Use larger rocks as garden features or focal points. A well-placed rock can highlight a favourite plant or add interest to a garden bed. There are few things more magical than a moss-covered rock amid a woodland garden.
  • Create a dry riverbed to divert water from rain gutters or other places likely to flood.
  • Build a toad house. Toads eat a ton of pests in your garden, but they need water and a shady shelter.
  • Create DIY crafts.

Can I Use Hand Tools to Remove Rocks In The Soil?

Yes, you don’t need to buy or rent expensive machines to remove the rocks from your soil. If rocks keep popping up each spring, invest in a:

  • Sifting frame. A sifting frame is a wooden frame with a screen stretched across it. You can easily and cheaply DIY a sifting frame, and it’s also handy for removing wood, roots, and stones from potting mix.
  • Rock screening rake. This rake is flat with smaller spaces in between the tines. Small gravel and soil can go through the tines, but larger rocks cannot.
  • Rock sifting shovel. This shovel has holes that allow you to scoop and separate rocks in one motion.
  • Lee Valley rock rake. This rake is shaped into a basket that will catch rocks as small as ¾-inch and allow you to scoop them up without bending over. (If you grow potatoes, you will love this rake!)

What Can I Plant In Rocky Soil?

Removing rocks from garden soil can be pretty backbreaking, and if it’s going to be an annual occurrence, you can save yourself the labour by growing plants that love that rocky soil.

Plants that love rocky soil include:

  • Their ideal growing environment is rocky and quick draining, and succulents are beautiful and flashy. Cacti can also serve as home security if you plant them under basement windows.
  • Herbaceous perennials. Herbaceous perennials like verbena, coneflower, Black Eyed Susan, and butterfly weed have shallow roots and tenacity.
  • Most of the herbs that we eat today come from the Mediterranean region, known for its dry, rocky, and quick-draining soil.
  • Ornamental grasses. Ornamental grasses add flare to your garden, and they’re built to endure drought conditions.
  • Learn the best trees to grow in rocky soil in our detailed article.

If you still want to grow vegetables and flowers that need wetter feet but don’t want to battle rocks, consider raised gardens. You can easily build your own garden beds and even separate it completely from the soil.