Best tools for Southern California clay-like soil

jplee3August 29, 2012

Hey guys,

I've been digging up the yard for a good amount of time now and have run into obstacle after obstacle. First, the soil is a little awkward to work with. It's a little more on the clay-side. Not to the point where there's many cracks from it drying up so much. But the ground definitely dries out and compacts pretty hard. Second, there's an invasive root system running under the yard from the neighboring Jacaranda trees outside the yard fence/wall (some of the roots are as thick as 8-9" or so and are doing some damage the wall as well).

I've been slowly growing my array of tools - just picked up a new long-handle fiberglass shovel as well as a bow-rake. I'm also borrowing a reciprocating saw from a buddy and picked up some pruning blades for it. And I have a serrated edge garden hoe on the way. But I think I'll need some heavier firepower, notably as in a mattock. Especially to try to pick at the pesky birds of paradise plants that don't seem to want to die.

I'm wondering if I should go for a standard pick mattock, or if I should go for a cutter mattock (since there are a number of roots running throughout the yard... and I think I've only hit the tip of the iceberg on that too). What would make the most sense? I do have a small hatchet but the edge on it isn't very sharp - I need to figure out how to sharpen it.

Otherwise, are there any other recommendations on tools? I was also thinking about getting a pitchfork eventually. Would some sort of cultivator/tiller be good to use as well? Ultimately, I just want to break up the soil enough to where I can work with planting in it. My intention is to remove all existing plants (or move some to other areas of the yard at least) and start a vegetable garden. It's not a super small space but it isn't large by any means.

Any tips/advice would be appreciated!


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dmullen(Southern CA)

It sounds like you have most of the tools you should need. A reciprocal saw is very useful for many jobs. It is especially good at cutting those huge roots that are in your yard.

I have two old mattocks and one has two pick blades and the other a cutter. I haven't used the cutter edge much because I have an ax and very heavy machete that I use along with the reciprical saw with pruner blades.

I have roots that are lifting my drive which is very old. We intend to replace it within two or three months and the contractor is going to cut off the roots and then place something called a root guard which is supposed to stop those roots from going under the new drive. It might be useful to stop that large root coming into your yard once you cut it off.

I have the same type of soil. Luckily, I owned a heavy duty tiller and tilled the entire yard and garden areas deep and tilled in a truckload or two of compost that I ordered. Since then, all the compost we make goes into the garden too. It seemed to help and now, in the garden, all I use is a Mantis tiller.

Another useful tool that I have used a lot is a Hi-Lift jack with a piece of chain. That really lifts those big roots up and out. I only have to dig a small hole under the root, run the chain through and hook it to the jack. You may want to borrow one of those unless you have other lifting to do like sheds, trucks, etc.

A wrecking bar is handy for many tasks too but not much fun to use. They are very heavy but cheap (I have bought them used at garage sales and also a nearby Harbor Freight) and make some jobs much easier. They might help on the Bird of Paradise plants. I used to have those and they were very hard to get out of the ground.

I have digging forks and also a compost fork. The compost fork is good for loading a shredder and also for picking up raked up piles of leaves etc.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2012 at 3:24PM
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Thanks for the info! I can't wait to get home and try out the saw with the pruning blades.

I don't have a large axe or machete so that's why I was considering the cutter mattock. I think the pick mattock would end up being more versatile though, so I'm leaning towards that for starters at least.

I've never heard of this "root guard" but I'm envisioning it's a sheet of fabric that you normally would surround the tree stump with? I can't imagine how that would be applied to protect a driveway though.

My yard probably isn't as large as yours, and right now I don't think I could justify getting a tiller as my wife is already upset that I've been getting all these tools LOL. I guess I could rent one from somewhere, unless I can find a friend who may have one (I'd be surprised if none of my friends have one, actually).

I'm not sure I know what a "Hi-Lift" jack is - is that the same jack that's used for cars? I'm having trouble imagining how this would work for pulling up roots too. Do you have any pictures of it?

I have a small crowbar but I think that's very different from a wrecking bar (which I'm guessing is probably at least 2-3ft in length).

How did you end up removing the birds of paradise anyway? Those are probably the biggest headache, in addition to the roots. I have a giant bird of paradise in a 4x4ft or 5x5ft section of the yard too so as you can imagine, it's *very* difficult to extract these things given the small workspace I'm dealing with. My father-in-law started digging a trench around it but it's really intimidating. I was considering just calling up a tree removal service to do it all but also figured it might be good to get some (or a lot of!) exercise and invest in some decent gardening tools especially if I'm considering planting stuff out there.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2012 at 4:22PM
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dmullen(Southern CA)

I think I would prefer an axe of any size over a mattock so maybe you can borrow one before buying. My mattock would just bounce off of large roots.

I have never seen root guard but the contractor said he wants to use as little as possible because it is expensive. It sells by the foot so must be at least a little flexible.

The Hi-Lift jack is one used by off roaders and there will be many pictures of them on Google. In some off road situations, you would be really glad you brought one along and they have many uses in addition to jacking up vehicles. It would not be good for very many cars although I got my Camaro out of a rut in Wyoming many years ago. The alternative walk for help was not very appealing in my location at the time. My Hi-Lift is the four foot high model and has done everything I asked of it. There are some knock-offs offered by Harbor Freight and others but if buying one again, I would still go for the real thing.

I finally gave away my large tiller after owning it for 30 years. It seldom got used after I bought my Mantis because my entire yard had been tilled deep. I would not hurry to buy a Mantis either because I doubt that they are suited to all situations.

A wrecking bar is a bar of steel about six feet tall (approx) and about an inch or so in diameter. They are really useful sometimes.

When I bought my house, we had a bed of Bird of Paradise plants and I liked them until my wife wanted to move them. After finally getting those things out of the ground, they went into the garbage. A neighbor offered me a giant Bird of Paradise once as long as I dug it up. I dug for a while and got nowhere so it is still in his yard. I don't want one that bad.

Bamboo is also something that I would never put in my yard after removing all that were left to me by the previous owner of my house.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2012 at 5:25PM
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Interesting topic and info since we are dealing with similar root issue in our "Old Home On A Small Lot". Our 40+ year old trees (Ball Cypress and Live Oak in front) are affecting our driveway, flower bed borders and plumbing.

My experience with my Reciprocating Saw has not been good vs a Sawzall. They look as if they will do the same jobs for less money but my Reciprocating has not worked well for me (with the same blade and on roots and etc vs a borrowed Sawzall).

My high lift Tractor Jack does good when the high lift is needed (With The Heavy Monster) in some cases (attached). A neighbor worked days/hrs trying to rem 2 shrub vs his Too Proud Truck And Chain. I thought the jack was the answer But No! My truck/chain pulled the 2 shrubs in minutes on grass w/o spinning a tire. Jobs, Tools and Methods Cause For Shifting Etc At Times!

    Bookmark   August 29, 2012 at 5:31PM
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Nice! I checked out some vids/pics of how to apply the high jack. I've never seen anything like that before! Pretty amazing.

I'm not sure if any of my friends would have something like that though!

I'm guessing this would work really well for uprooting those birds of paradise! The tricky part would be figuring out how to wrap the chain around them though.

Did you just straight up dig the BOPs out?

    Bookmark   August 29, 2012 at 5:44PM
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dmullen(Southern CA)

Maybe you can get lucky on Craigslist and find a Hi-Lift. I would not buy a knockoff and if you find one, look at the shaft and make sure it is straight. They are not easy to bend but it can be done if something heavy falls with them.

I have two of them. Both are 4 ft. models but one was given to me by an uncle who had a truck fall off of his somehow. It bent the shaft.

I am very careful about using mine and will not do it unless the setup is really solid. My uncle would take more chances that I would in a bad spot.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2012 at 7:07PM
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dmullen(Southern CA)

After my posting a couple of minutes ago, I did a search on Craigslist and there is one for sale. It is in Imperial Beach if you live in the San Diego area.

It appears to be old but is $45. Parts are available for these if needed so age should not matter too much. I would probably look at the cost of a few of the parts before buying one if it appeared to be used hard. Physical condition could matter though if it has broken, missing, or worn out parts. I think it would be hard to wear one out but I suppose it is possible.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2012 at 7:12PM
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I'm actually in the OC. I just checked and it looks like there are a few around my area:

They're also known as farm jacks right?

    Bookmark   August 29, 2012 at 7:15PM
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dmullen(Southern CA)

After my last posting, I googled Hi Lift Jacks and found the manufacturers web site. They sell the shaft new for 20-30 dollars depending on the length. I am now going to order one to repair my uncles jack. Lucky for me that this topic came up or I never would have thought that the main shaft was avaiable at all and shipping is only $6 and these things are heavy.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2012 at 7:18PM
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Just checked and on this one -

Asked if it's made by "hi-lift" and the guy said it isn't. So I'm assuming I should pass, based on your tip...

Not sure if I'll look too aggressively for one of these at this point. If I happen to find one for a steal, I'll probably do it though.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2012 at 7:25PM
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1. The jack was not handy for pulling the shrubs (the challenge is getting close w/o being on the root ball but the solution is in the link).

2. I can easily see it doing better on large roots by tunneling under them. Connect to the jack with a chain or place the jack under as in the link.

3. You should easily fine the jack at Harbor Freight (50. In today's add) or Tractor Supply should have them.

4. A better lift IMO would be to use a friend Engine Hoist if room allows after cutting with a Sawzall.

5. The links (I almost missed) are excellent examples of using the jack. I wanted to mention the need of a leverage bar that you see.

6. Remember this will take some Man-Power "PERIOD". LOL and Good Luck!!

    Bookmark   August 30, 2012 at 11:20AM
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A Steal! Would Be The 1.00 I Paid At A Garage Sale. The Monsters are dangerous as any bumper jack can be. It's not a fine tuned tool (see the parts diagram attached). It has taken the work out of many jobs (due to the jack's size vs power) that could have been challenging otherwise. When it senses the load is gone the mechanics of the jack ("A Load") drops to the bottom vs you releasing it or this one is worn. It can be an over-kill as in my 1st attachment. I'm not sure if all are Hi-Lift as this one. It's the only one I have used or checked the mechanics on.

Parts and Diagram address below:

    Bookmark   August 30, 2012 at 4:28PM
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