You may be excited to start your garden, but you are probably not so excited about removing rocks from your soil. However, this tedious task is necessary, since rocks can damage your garden tools and prevent a plant’s roots from growing to their full potential.
So, how do you get rid of rocks in soil? Sifting rocks out of the soil with a sieve or filter is the best way to remove small rocks from the soil. You can also remove small rocks from soil with a rake or shovel. You should roll medium sized rocks away by hand, and use power equipment for large rocks or boulders.
Let’s go into more detail on some of the ways to remove rocks from your soil, along with alternatives to bypass some of the hard work entirely.
Using a Rock Sieve (Soil Sifter) To Remove Rocks From Soil
The advantage of using a rock sieve is that it will give you nice, smooth soil. The largest rocks you will find after sifting will be smaller than the holes in the filter.
The disadvantage of using a rock sieve is that it may get clogged if your soil has lots of small or medium sized rocks. So, you may want to use a rake to get rid of some of the bigger rocks first (more on this later).
What Is A Rock Sieve?
A rock sieve is a device that separates rocks from soil. The result is smooth, stone-free soil that is ideal for garden plants.
A rock sieve has two basic parts: a frame and a filter. The frame is rectangular and is often made of wood, though it can be made of metal or plastic.
The filter is usually made of metal, such as chicken wire or a chain-link fence with small holes. The filter is attached to the frame with nails or staples.
How Does A Rock Sieve Work?
There are a few different ways to use a rock sieve. One way is to lay the sieve flat over a wheelbarrow to catch sifted soil. Next, use a shovel to pour soil over the filter.
Then, use a rake or shovel to pull the soil back and forth over the filter until the soil all falls through and only rocks remain above. Finally, replace the sifted soil in your garden, and do what you want with the rocks (more on this later).
An alternative method is to lay the sieve at an angle, with the bottom part over a wheelbarrow. Then, shovel soil onto the highest part of the sieve, and let gravity do the work of pulling the soil over the filter.
If you buy or build a sieve with handles, you may be able to shake the soil through the filter, instead of using a rake or shovel to pull it back and forth. Just remember that a sieve can get heavy with lots of rocks and soil.
How To Build A Rock Sieve
As mentioned above, there are only two main parts to a rock sieve: a frame and a filter. For the frame, you can use four long pieces of wood and nail or screw them together to make a rectangle.
Then, cut a rectangular piece of chicken wire to the appropriate dimensions, and pull it over the wooden frame. Attach the filter to the frame around the border with nails or staples. That’s it!
If you want handles for the sieve, make two of the pieces of wood longer than the length of the chicken wire. Choose chicken wire with smaller holes for smoother sifted soil.
How Big Should A Rock Sieve Be?
It depends on how much soil you want to sift, and how strong you are. Remember that doubling the length and width of a sieve will quadruple the amount of soil and rock it holds, thus quadrupling the weight.
Remember that you will need to move the sieve for storage, so you don’t want it to be too big and awkward. Also, keeping the sieve small gives you the option of shaking it instead of using a shovel or rake to move the soil over the filter.
I would suggest starting off with a small sieve, perhaps a square 4 foot by 4 foot frame, and see how long it takes to sift your soil. You can always build a larger one for bigger jobs.
Using a Garden Rake To Remove Rocks From Soil
As mentioned above, a rock sieve may be overwhelmed and clogged by too many rocks in your soil. To prevent this from happening, use a rake to remove some of the larger rocks before you use your sieve.
First, buy or borrow a metal rake with steel tines (not a plastic or flexible metal leaf rake). Then, pull the rake through your soil, starting off shallow to pull up rocks near the surface.
If you are doing it right, the rake should pull rocks while leaving soil behind. Have several buckets nearby to hold the rocks you are raking into a pile.
Using a Power Box Rake (Harley Rake) To Remove Rocks From Soil
A power box rake, or Harley rake, is a power tool that helps you to remove rocks from the soil. Instead of raking by hand, you can use this machine to do the raking for you.
This machine may be a bit extreme for the home gardener, but if you garden at scale and have a friend who has one, it might be worth saving yourself from the backbreaking labor of raking a large area by hand.
You may also be able to rent a Harley rake from a power equipment rental store near you. If you want to buy one, remember that they cost several thousand dollars.
Using a Tractor to Remove Rocks From Soil
If you have a tractor, or can borrow or rent one, then you can use it to remove rocks from your soil. Most tractors have a rock removal attachment, so ask about this if you are going to rent one.
Again, a machine like this is overkill for a small garden, but it can save you a lot of time and effort on a large plot of land.
Removing Rocks From Soil By Hand
Moving larger rocks with a rake or shovel is awkward or impossible, and putting them through a rock sieve is a waste of time and effort. Instead, you should simply use a shovel to lift them out of a hole, and then roll them away from the area that you want to clear.
How Deep Should You Clear The Soil?
I would recommend clearing the soil to a depth of 1 foot. Remember that some root vegetables, such as carrots, will grow deformed if they encounter resistance from rocks in the soil.
Also remember that any plant’s roots will be impeded by rocks in the soil. Clearing out rocks from the soil to a depth of 1 foot will improve the soil’s ability to retain moisture, making it easier to keep your plants watered.
There is one more thing to keep in mind: clearing rocks out of your soil is a process, not an event. Even if you clear the rocks out the top foot of soil this year, you may need to do it again in later years.
The reason is that rocks naturally move up through the soil towards the surface. This can happen when underground water freezes and expands, pushing the rocks upward.
What Should You Do With The Rocks?
Now that you have a full wheelbarrow (or more!) of rocks from your soil, you need to decide what to do with them. One option is to use the larger ones to build a rock wall on your property.
You could even build one near your garden, as a type of windbreak. For more information on why this might be necessary, check out my article on protecting your plants from wind and storms.
You can also use flatter stones to make a garden path or a path around a pond or water feature in your yard. You can use some of the medium sized stones to make a barrier for a fire pit.
The smallest stones can be used as filler when you pour concrete or cement, to save on project costs. If all else fails, you can offer the rocks to friends, family, or neighbors.
Alternatives to Removing Rocks From Soil
There are a couple of alternatives to removing rocks from your soil. These will save you some effort on removing rocks, but they will still require some work or money (or both).
Buy Screened Loam
Screened loam is simply soil where the rocks have already been removed for you. This saves you the work of removing the rocks with a sieve or rake.
However, you will need to pay for the screened loam itself, and possibly an extra charge for delivery if you don’t have a truck. This is a good option if the area where you want to put your garden is impossibly rocky, the soil quality is poor, or the area is subject to erosion.
For more information, check out my article on how to prevent soil erosion.
Raised Beds, Cold Frames, and Containers
Instead of fighting to stay ahead of rocks in your soil, you can use raised beds, cold frames, and containers to avoid the battle altogether.
Of course, you will still need to build or buy raised beds, cold frames, and containers. However, you have more flexibility in how deep you make them and how much soil you put in them.
Hopefully this article gave you a good idea of what methods are available to remove rocks from soil, along with some alternatives.
I hope you found this article helpful. If you have any questions or advice of your own about removing rocks from soil, please leave a comment below.