Can you recommend a digging tool for my crazy soil?

inespilarApril 10, 2012

So I am slowing and painfully working through clumps of clay and monster rocks in my vegetable garden. Been using this for the last 6 weeks and was in love until I broke it on Sunday: (item 70f) Yes, can you believe I broke it??

Oh dear.

Anyway....where do I go from here? This one is very pricey but am thinking it might last and looks like it could work but then again I don't think Dutch soil is as bad as mine :-)

I am willing to invest in something that will work well.

I appreciate any suggestions. Thanks!

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First question: size of area. Would it be possible to get a piece of power equipment in to do the heavy work for you?

Second: define monster rocks. We use a back hoe to bury the rocks that are too large for a field tractor (approx 350 engine horsepower) to budge.

Third: Does Leonard have a AM Leo brand version of anything you like? Among other things, they are willing to provide a warranty on anything under than brand. If they are dumb to do so, and you have conditions that are tough on tools (and the muscles to prove it), you should be willing to take them up on it.

Fourth: King of Spades digging spade, diamond point, from the Leonard catalog. I have one I got four years ago. I use it to dig through ground I'd otherwise use a pick ax on, and as a pry bar when laying bluestone patios and rock wall retaining walls. In short, I abuse it to the max. I need to sharpen the blade once or twice a year, but it's the only shovel I've ever purchased that has lasted longer than one full growing season.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2012 at 4:17PM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

Sorry to hear that! Did you break the business end or the handle?

For hard clay and rocks I have used a pick-mattock, of which there are several at that same site. The mattock end will chop clods as well as break up hardened ground, and the pick end is good for getting around and under large rocks to pull them out. The longer the handle, the better. Mine was made by a local guy who puts extra long handles on them. If the grub-hoe you are using isn't enough horsepower, maybe this would do the trick.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2012 at 4:19PM
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I think tiller,spade fork & mattock should do must of it.
We buried the live stock that past on the farm. After 5 feet we needed a pick, mattock, shovel & a 5 gallon bucket.
But we manged to get the hole 6'6" deep, so the remains would not be plowed up.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2012 at 5:19PM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

OK, after 4 tries, I hope this works.

Below is a link to the place I got my pick mattock with the extra long handle.

Here is a link that might be useful: Easy Digging

    Bookmark   April 10, 2012 at 6:00PM
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A mattock is a must. I got one of those a few years back and use it for all sorts of digging.

What about a raised garden?

    Bookmark   April 10, 2012 at 6:08PM
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My pickax is a must have. I have mostly clay. It's horrible :-(

I do get a chuckle out of a website called "Easy Digging" that sells those tools. There's nothing easy about digging when you have to use one of those tools.

    Bookmark   April 10, 2012 at 10:41PM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

I never thought of it that way jr. Haha. Well it does make it easier than using conventional shovel.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2012 at 10:19AM
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Definitely a mattock and pick axe. Number one tool for this.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2012 at 12:20PM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

For anyone not in the know about axe and mattock...

The pick mattock is good for digging hard soil and rocks. The pick axe is the same on one side (the pick) but one the other side, the blade is turned parallel to the handle like an axe. It's good for cutting roots, and busting through the doors of flaming buildings.

I prefer the pick mattock for digging in my clay.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2012 at 1:52PM
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tropical_thought(San Francisco)

I just don't think it is worth paying so much for tools from master dutch craftsmen. I would be better to buy something made in America. The shipping cost to get them here from Holland would add a lot to the price. I don't see why master American craftsmen can't make the same thing. The handle is wood, but wood will rot out evidently. If you use it a lot, it won't last for 25 years.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2012 at 2:37PM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

YOu can find them at Home Depot and the like as well, but they usually have a 36" handle which is hard on your back. The Easy Digging guy makes them in his converted garage here in central MO. I think he imports the heads from Brazil or somewhere (at least it's not China) and the handles are American hickory. About most "made in the US" that you can get these days.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2012 at 6:08PM
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Check out "Rogue hoes" used for wildfire control

They sell replacement handles for them and the handles will fit any standard mattock, pick axe or Pulaski.

    Bookmark   April 11, 2012 at 9:25PM
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If you need a mattock, pickax, or other such implement to work you soil that should tell you that your soil does not have enough organic matter and you need to add more, and more until the soil is easily workable. That indicates anything you plant in that soil will have a very tough time growing, sending the roots out, as well as finding necessary nutrients so the plants can grow.

    Bookmark   April 12, 2012 at 6:02AM
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Thanks everyone for replying!

Lazygardens, the rogue hoe is what I broke!

The vegetable garden is 50'x60'. Some areas are rockier than others. Some areas are blissfully almost loamy with just a few little stones. There are two areas with a piece of ledge (or maybe just an enormous unmovable rock that seems to have no end) and they are now "resting perches" for me and my kids :-).

I have reached out to A.M. Leonard. I need to send them a photo before they can discuss a refund. The hoe snapped off the base so part of it is still on the wood but the actual part you dig with is completely off.

There's no way to get a backhoe or something like that in there now because it's completely fenced and the the doors are wheelbarrow width. My understanding is that a rototiller does not help with this kind of digging (I may have misunderstood this) and I am not familiar with any smaller equipment that could do the job but if anyone has suggestions I will rent something in a heartbeat!

Thank you for the link to (Yes! What an oxymoron!) I like my mattock a lot BUT because of the short handle I ditched it along ago--hurt my back and I am short too. So this 45" handle tool is very appealing. Do you know if the actual pick/mattock stays securely on the wooden pole? The reason I ask is I have an Italian or grape hoe and it's a real workhorse in terms of abuse etc but every 5 whacks, it become dislodged so trying to avoid that.

Thanks for talking me out of the shiny Dutch tool. :-) I also read stainless steel does not hold up as well so in my garden this tool might have been toast!

I hear amazing things about the King of Spades. I don't know if this has something to do with being a 5'1" female or not knowing how to dig properly but spades and shovels are not helpful to me when I need to dig in a tough virgin area. I love my spade for regular gardening (moving things, planting perennials in establish bed, dividing perennials) but I find it too frustrating to dig in bad soil with it--too many brutal obstacles. Now I haven't sharpened it ever (10 year old good quality forged spade) so that may be contributing to it but I do love to use it my flower beds.

Thank you everyone!

    Bookmark   April 12, 2012 at 11:25PM
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LesIsMore1(4/5 - Colorado)

Pick axe gets another vote from me...mine weighs 8-10 lbs, use it for all sorts of things.

But I gotta say, after breaking few shovels on my south facing (sun baked clay) slope...I went out there with my cordless drill, 1/2" bit...drilled holes every 6-8 inches or so. Squirted a shot of fermented molasses water in every hole. Then covered the whole area with about 10" of organic matter, straw, and bulap...then kept it wet until winter. Didn't touch it again until at least a year later. Digging is much easier there now.

Earthworms are your friends...:)

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 12:58AM
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If you need a mattock, pickax, or other such implement to work you soil that should tell you that your soil does not have enough organic matter and you need to add more, and more until the soil is easily workable.

That's great unless you need a more immediate solution.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 8:50AM
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Of course my big conundrum (which I posted recently about Ruth Stout) is...don't you need to dig to get the organic matter in there? The areas I am digging in were covered in straw for an entire year. Yeah the first inch or so is very humusy but that's it. I guess if I did that for ten years I would have a thicker layer but I don't see how that's going to address the big rocks right below it. So I am doing all this digging so I can put in compost, lime, bone char etc.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 9:13AM
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flora_uk(SW UK 8/9)

AinhoaNY - From the description in the catalogue I'm afraid the tool you chose is not actually designed for digging. It is a hoe so is meant for weeding, not digging, or at least nothing more than light cultivation. Its primary purpose is chopping weeds. I wonder if the company will refuse a refund if you tell them you were using it to dig rocky compacted ground.

I agree that if your soil is really difficult it needs a mattock and after that I'd use a digging fork. Far easier to dig with in heavy soil than spade as a fork goes in easier and you are raising less weight of soil. You turn the fork over to break the clods.

Regarding wooden handles - a proper seasoned ash handle will last a life time and will not rot out providing the tool is stored under cover.

Final tip. Work on small areas at a time and take it steady.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 9:56AM
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A mini skid steer loader or mini track loader might fight through your gate.

In fact, I think they are 35.6 inches wide and built to fit through gates.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 11:03AM
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Great story LesIsMor1.
I have read many times on this forum that digging a hole in clay, is container gardening & one should cut the whole plot up.
But all I needed was a 24 X 48 flower bed for bulbs & annuals.Between drive way & property line.
So after 6 inches of dirt(not soil) I hit red clay & cut out 6 more inches. I filled it with water & returned when the water was gone, but it was still wet. I repeated this untill I was 18-24 inches deep, Filled it with old potting soil & compost. Yes it is a Big Underground Container, but it works for me. I could not do what you did, because I was on a 10 day time table. Should have started the winter before, we learn by doing & visiting Garden Web. Thanks.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 11:32AM
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mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

My weapon of choice is definitely a digging fork. The problem is my 'good' one came from an estate sale, and has a cracked handle and is missing a tine. I honestly have no idea how to replace it aside from getting lucky again. My DH broke the handle on my first fancy English fork, so those are relegated to the beds that have already been dug.

Anything that has to be raised above my shoulders is quite tiring. The pickax is a total no go, and I'd expect a mattock to be almost as bad. The pry bar doesn't penetrate the soil at all easily.

The only use for a shovel is to remove loose dirt from a hole. As an actual digging tool, forget about it.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 11:38AM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

Ainhoa, I have used my Easy Digging pick mattock for several years chopping hard clay and the head has never come loose. It is just knocked on there, and they did give me a sheet that includes instructions for retightening it if it comes loose (basically thump the end of it on concrete I think). But I have never had to do it.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 1:31PM
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Mad Gallica, my first digging tool was a digging fork purchased at Dill's Best--Ames was the brand. This is the tool I had always seen my parents use. It's first day in my garden was not fruitful--tines got totally bent and distorted! Too many rocks! I guess I have not found my "good" one yet!! The pick mattock from easy digging has a long handle so you don't have to lift it above your shoulders. That's why I don't use my current one.

Thanks toxcursadr. Ironically my neighbor just emailed me to ask me about "the hoe you love so much" as she just broke hers (same soil). So we are going to order from easydigging together to minimize that hefty shipping cost.

tngardening...ooh! This has possibilities! I am going to try to rent one of these! Thanks!

Flora_uk, you may be right. I was upfront with them on the explanation of what I was doing. We'll see what they say when I send them the picture. To be fair, the catalog talks it up as an industrial strength tool that won't be defeated and can chop "waste trees" 1 inch in diameter. And I have to say, until it broke, it truly was amazing. :-)

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 3:56PM
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tropical_thought(San Francisco)

I don't think there is any type of tool that would be guaranteed not to break if you hit rocks with it. Even the dutch master craftsman one. You have to be more careful and dig around rocks instead of hacking at them.

    Bookmark   April 13, 2012 at 4:40PM
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LesIsMore1(4/5 - Colorado)

Here's a picture of the tool I use. (for practically everything) I'm hard on tools, and have not injured this one yet, except for a little rust residue from leaving it in a hot compost pile overnight...oops.

Also included a pic of one of the 'earthly helpers' found in my yard. They aren't all this big, but since I've never tilled on my property... I seem to encounter bigger ones every year, and doubt they would survive a tiller. This one pooped right in front of me...about a half tablespoon worth. (Shocking, I know.) But, all that earthworm poop adds up. Makes a really big difference, if you are easy on the existing worm population. Just saying...

I think what I've been using must be a 'pick axe' as Tox has described it... didn't know exactly what it was called before, but the pointy end works great to bust up rocky clay. (where I have broken plenty of shovels) If I am adding compost, I will sometimes work it in with my hands. Otherwise, just fracturing the ground with that pick is sufficient to let the good stuff in. (water, any organic matter you pile on top of the cracks, etc.)

The worms will travel through the worst sharp rocky soil to get to organic material if it's there, but thats not all. They will intentionally improve that soil as they go, just to make their job easier. You'll start finding these big clumps of earth with nice tilth...and a great big hole running through the middle of every clump. The earthworms make those to use as their own personal subway systems...if nothing else, it's fascinating to witness how fast the soil can improve when there are motivated earthworms in the vicinity.

(Tilling = death to big poopers.)

You are right though...if you're in a hurry, the the worms probably are not the fastesr way. But, if you bust up a spot with the pick this year, pile organic matter there...and keep it damp? You should have no problem using a shovel there next spring... and won't believe how easy it is. Like a totally different patch of ground...

I got to go, 12" of snow on the ground, and my arm is killing me...:(


Here is a link that might be useful: My helping tools...

    Bookmark   April 15, 2012 at 10:59AM
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AinhoaNY - Part of your problem with the mattock and picks and sledgehammers is probably that you are using them wrong. I'm taller than you and have no problems. It's physics, not muscles, that does the work.

Don't swing it like you are pounding something with a baseball bat or a golf club, and don't lift your hands above your shoulders. Let the weight of the head do the work. And keep the edge reasonably sharp.

1 - Stand with your feet about shoulder width apart, one foot slightly in front of the other (this is your "leading foot")

2 - Hold mattock handle down, cutting edges parallel to your shoulders, about waist level. If your leading foot is your right foot, have your right hand higher than your left hand, and the edge you intend to use pointed to your right.

3 - Hoist it straight up in front of you, with the handle vertical until the head is barely above your shoulders. Keeping it as vertical as possible makes it easier to hoist. Your ending position for the lift is with your leading hand about half-way up the handle and your other hand right above the fat part at the end of the handle.

4 - Pivot the head, and let it fall forward, guiding it lightly with your leading hand as it falls so the correct end hits the dirt right in front of your feet or even between them. Just let the handle slide through the leading hand, and hang on to the end of the handle enough to control the pick.

Don't hold on tight - that doesn't help the digging and the impact tires you out. You should be holding it lightly enough to guide it as it falls, but no tighter.

5 - When the edge has embedded itself at the end of the stroke, shove the handle away from you to loosen the dirt.
6 - Retrieve the tool for the next stroke by pulling back with your non-leading hand and lifting the head up with your leading hand until you are back into position 1.

After you have loosened a bunch of dirt, use the shovel to remove it.

For the larger rocks, use a 3 or 5-lb rock mallet and a star drill to break them up for removal.

PS: Sharpen your shovels. It makes a difference.

    Bookmark   April 15, 2012 at 7:08PM
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If you need more force, lift the tool higher before you let it fall, but always do the lifting with the tool close to your body. You will see some people swinging forcefully down with the tool, but you don't need to.

After you have gained some arm strength and control, you can do a lot of loosening in a very short time. Alternating pick work with shoveling is less tiring then doing all of one or the other.

One way to deal with super hard dirt is to loosen it with the mattock - just loosen it - pound the clods by using the head of the mattock like a potato masher (drop it on the clods from a foot or more in the air and they will bust up). Then toss on a thick layer of compost and mulch and plant something with deep strong roots like okra or a deep-rooted cover crop. The next year you should be able to dig a lot easier.

    Bookmark   April 15, 2012 at 7:33PM
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darth_weeder(z7 NY)

I don't recommend using a hammer and chisel to break up rocks and if you do, at least wear eye protection.
Any rock that is too big to pry out was meant to be there.
Best of luck.
If the ground is really that tough I would recommend getting some strong backs to knock it out.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2012 at 10:26AM
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toxcrusadr Clay Soil(Zone 6a - MO)

I would think the only time a rock would have to be broken is when it's too heavy to pick up by hand to remove it after you've dug around it. Some people do have rocks that big. I'd say about the size of the average head. :-]

Which reminds me, be careful of safety when swinging that mattock. Don't sneak up on someone who's doing it, either. And wear boots in case you miss and hit your foot or ankle.

    Bookmark   April 16, 2012 at 12:13PM
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You should get your hands on a Terrax ground breaker tool they come in two sizes 22pound and 18pounds you will love smashing rocks and hard ground with this bad boy and it works a treat in clay. hope this helps

    Bookmark   January 24, 2013 at 3:17AM
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The mattock is a great tool. I also think every gardener should have a round point tile spade for once the rocks are gone. With a nice wood handle.

    Bookmark   January 24, 2013 at 11:14AM
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Centurion_(Verde Valley AZ Z8)

Maddox is great, digging fork is great, but have any of you ever used a demolition hammer? It's basically an electric jack hammer...the kind construction guys use to cut through asphalt, break up concrete, and other hard surfaces.

My wife got me one for Christmas a few years ago. Cost under $200 bucks on ebay. It drives through clay, rocks, and even works with caleche. The "soil" at our last home was basically rock and a little sand. I used it for post holes,for planting trees. and for breaking up the rock/soil before I built my raised beds.

They're kind of heavy...I think mine weighs about 60 lbs., but they sure work.

You may be able to rent one.

    Bookmark   January 25, 2013 at 5:31PM
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I've used a Garden Claw from Ace Hardware ($30) in lots of clay in Texas and Tennessee to break up very hard soil and dig out small to medium rocks. I love it. I'm 5'1" and when you first assemble the tool you can pick the most comfortable height. I only ever raise the handle to sholder height and the twisting motion does take a little getting used to just from using muscles a little differently. For really big rocks I'd recommend a digging bar as heavy as you can lift comfortably. Just hold it 3\4 of the way up and lift\drop the point between the soil and rock, then wiggle and pry.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2013 at 6:23PM
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Just rent,borrow or buy a Roto tiller (250$ gets you a decent one)and youll have it for life and be done with it. If the ground is to dry wetten it it might take you a couple of days untill you have it loosened up and then while you have the tiller out grab some hay or straw bales and scatter them and work them in.Then every fall after harvest find 6 inches of organic matter and till them in.I have a great 60 x60 garden this works well, unless your husband is a chiropractor Id leave those cave man tools in the shed. As for the boulders either haul them away or make a fancy border out of them in the corner of your garden somewhere.

    Bookmark   January 27, 2013 at 6:49PM
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