3 Effective Ways to Remove Rocks from Soil

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Sifting Rocks from Soil

Gardeners who are trying to grow a lush, thriving garden or lawn do not want to see rocks in their topsoil. Stones can not only make a garden less attractive, but they also have several adverse effects on plants. In order to remove rocks from topsoil, it is important to know the best and most effective ways to do so.

What is the best way to remove rocks from topsoil? Three great and effective ways to get rid of the rocks in topsoil are:

  1. Manually picking out larger rocks and sifting to remove smaller rocks.
  2. Using a tiller and wheelbarrow.
  3. Using a tractor, plow and screen or sifter to remove stones.

For those who are struggling with rocks in topsoil, this article will be a tremendous help. It will discuss how to remove pesky rocks from the soil as well as why it is essential to remove the stones. It will also share some advice on the best plants to pick if a rocky environment is a struggle and sifting through the mess is not an option.

Why Should Rocks be Removed from Topsoil?

Gardeners who are preparing the soil for a garden and notice rocks in the ground might wonder if they present an issue. The simple fact of the matter is that stones are dead, and if only a few rocks are hanging around the topsoil, then they aren’t likely to have a negative impact. They don’t steal nutrients or eat plants, so a few rocks will not make a huge difference.

However, that doesn’t mean that many rocks should be left in the topsoil. While stones are dead and won’t take anything from plants, rocks have the potential to block roots from reaching their necessary resources for proper growth. Of course, any time roots can’t get vital nutrients, plants are not going to survive. That’s a problem!

Secondly, rocks can take up growing space that plants need. That is why it is necessary to remove stones, especially if there is an abundance of them. Excessive amounts of rocks can create a problem of congestion, taking plants’ much-needed space. This will cause plants to die off since they don’t have enough space to grow.

Lastly, an abundance of rocks will eventually cause the topsoil to become stiff. This will allow water to escape from the soil more readily, which means the plants will not have the opportunity to soak up the water they desperately need.

When considering the importance of water, nutrients, and space for plants, it is obvious why rocks should be removed from the topsoil. Again, if just a few rocks are present, then there is probably no need to panic. But even then, why risk it? Remove the rocks and feel confident knowing the plants are getting everything they need without issue.

The Lord is my rock, my fortress and my deliverer; my God is my rock, in whom I take refuge, my shield and the horn of my salvation, my stronghold.

Psalm 18:2

How to Remove Rocks from Topsoil

Three main ways exist to remove rocks: manually, using a tiller, rake, and wheelbarrow, or using more substantial machinery for larger areas. The benefit of eliminating rocks manually is that it is much more efficient than other methods, although it takes more time and energy away from the other aspects of gardening. Using a tiller, rake and wheelbarrows will take less time to complete but may not be as efficient.

Both methods are great options, though, and maybe it will be evident that an area with an abundance of rocks should be dealt with using a tractor instead of trying to remove by hand. It all depends on the environment and how much time and money is on hand. After all, we don’t recommend going out to buy a tractor for the sole purpose of removing rocks from topsoil.

Now, let’s look at the three best ways to remove rocks from topsoil.

Removing Rocks Manually

Removing rocks by hand is very easy. If setting aside a few hours of time is not an issue, then eliminating stones by hand is the best option. It only requires a few materials and rocks can be removed quickly and easily. Manual removal is a far more efficient option and is recommended.

A shovel, container, and screen or sifter will be needed. A pair of gardening gloves, a good pair of shoes and comfortable clothing are also recommended for this task. Remember – it will likely take at least a couple hours in the garden to complete this task, so be sure to practice safety and be comfortable.

  1. Start by surveying the area in which the garden will be planted. Find a designated gardening area and mark it off. This will make the process more straightforward in the long run, and it will be more clear just how many rocks will need to be removed.
  2. Find medium-to-large-sized rocks and remove them. When dealing with larger-sized stones and boulders, it’s best to pick them up by hand and toss them. So, before getting out any equipment, glance over the area and remove any unwanted larger rocks.
  3. Dig 10 to 12 inches into the soil and place it in the container. Do this in a step-by-step process. Divide up the gardening area and dig 10 to 12 inches deep using a shovel. Place the soil inside the container.
  4. Place the screen or sifter on top of the container. Buy one pre-made or make one by using expanded metal or chain link.
  5. Flip the container upside-down, holding onto the screen. The screen will work to process the topsoil back into the designated area while keeping rocks inside of the container. Make sure the filter is small enough that it won’t let even the smallest rocks slide past.
  6. Get rid of the rocks. Once all the soil has been sifted through entirely, just the remaining stones should be left inside of the container. At this point, get rid of the excess rocks and move onto the next area in the garden.
  7. Continue the process until the entire gardening area is free of rocks in the topsoil. It is essential to section the garden, so it is clear which areas have been sifted through and which ones have not. Continue to sift through the topsoil at least 10 to 12 inches deep.

Removing rocks manually from the garden is rather simple, as explained in “The Best Way to Pick Rocks Out of Topsoil.” But what can be done with all those leftover rocks? Some of the ways to repurpose the stones that have been taken out of a garden include:

  1. Consider Cleaning Them. Many people do not like rocks because they are dirty and unappealing, but consider cleaning them off. A nice, clean rock can be quite beautiful. Give them a rinse and use them as decoration.
  2. Use Them in the Yard. Some people find that rocks are beautiful and enjoy having them as decoration in their yard. If the stones look appealing, give them a good rinse and find a spot for them to spruce up the garden. Think about painting them to make them more colorful. Make it a family affair!

Get Rid of Them. For those who are completely anti-rock in the backyard, it is always a possibility to dispose of them.

Removing Rocks Using a Tiller, Rake and Wheelbarrow

Removing Rocks from Soil with Screen

This second method combines the efficiency of the manual removal of rocks with the ease of simple machinery. It’s an excellent option for removing rocks because it utilizes different materials to get the job done in a faster and more efficient way.

A tiller, a rake, and a wheelbarrow are needed. Then, complete the following steps:

  1. Begin by using the tiller on the designated gardening area. Using a piece of equipment like a tiller is an excellent way to quickly and easily loosen up the soil. After all, trying to dig a shovel into rock-hard sand (no pun intended) can be challenging. Loosening it first will cut down on shoveling time.
  2. Remove medium and large-sized rocks. While tilling the soil, the medium and large stones are going to make an appearance. Pick these rocks and boulders up and toss them into the wheelbarrow.
  3. Rake the topsoil. Using a rake will help to sift the topsoil ever so slightly and rake in unwanted rocks and pebbles. Continue raking the area until not many stones are left. At this point, toss them into a wheelbarrow or save them for decorating.
  4. Sift using the wheelbarrow. If using a rake to sift through the topsoil isn’t desirable or if a rake isn’t available, then it is also an option to toss in a bunch of soil to the wheelbarrow and sift. It is even possible to outfit the wheelbarrow with a sifting screen!

With just a few pieces of equipment, unwanted rocks can be successfully removed from any garden. This method is ideal because it’s not necessary to be on hands and knees for the entirety of the removal process, but an efficient removal is still occurring.

Removing Rocks with a Tractor

Those dealing with a large area that is impacted by rocks probably won’t want to spend the entire day trying to pluck out rocks. Instead, consider using the tractor method – especially if a tractor is already available. “How to Remove Rocks From Soil Easily?” provides an excellent guide to handling rocks with a tractor.

A tractor, a plow, and a screen are needed. Next, follow these steps for success:

  1. Begin by attaching the plow to the tractor. Don’t skip this step or a mishap will occur down the line that sets the gardener way back in the rock-removing process.
  2. Use the plow to loosen the ground. The plow will first be used to loosen up the topsoil so the soil and rocks can be scooped up more easily.
  3. Once the soil is loosened, scoop up as much ground as the tractor can handle. Remember, we recommend working in sections just like removing rocks manually. Be patient and work in parts if necessary.
  4. Sift the topsoil through the screen. The screen will keep the rocks and pebbles held back while the rest of the topsoil is sifted through.
  5. Place the separated soil back into the garden. The ready-to-use topsoil that is rock-free should then be placed and patted down into the garden to await the plants and seeds that will be planted.

Removing rocks with a tractor is very simple, but remember that it may not be as efficient as doing it manually. However, it is recommended for more extensive gardens and for those who can’t perform the task manually.

Here is a great video showcasing how to remove rocks using a tractor.

Tips for Removing Rocks from Topsoil

Here are a few more handy tips and tricks for removing rocks from the garden.

  • Never use a lawnmower. Lawnmowers can quickly be destroyed when they encounter rocks, so it is important to avoid using this type of machine when removing rocks from topsoil. Additionally, lawnmowers can throw rocks at high speeds that can hurt people or animals and even break windows in homes and vehicles.
  • Remove the rocks before planting. Don’t try to handle the rock problem after planting. This is a sure-fire way to destroy any hard work and kill off plants, so always make sure to sift through the rock problem before placing plants or seeds into the soil.
  • Make sure to dig 10 to 12 inches below the surface. Just because the rocks can’t be seen, doesn’t mean that they are not present. Roots will meet rocks below the surface, which will either stand in the way of their nutrients or take up too much space. Always make sure to go at least 10 to 12 inches down.

Plants That Can Live in Rocky Soil

For those who live in an area where rocky soil is prominent and it would be useless to try to remove them all, don’t worry – the option of growing a big, beautiful garden is possible. “Top 5 Plants for Rocky Soil” by Bonnie Grant explains that we can have a beautiful garden even in areas where there is an overflow of rocks.

So, which plants grow best in rocky soil? A wide variety of options are out there, making it a breeze to find something any gardener will love. Let’s look at the top plants picks for rocky soil:

  • Herbaceous Perennials. These types of plants have incredibly tough roots that won’t be compromised with a lack of nutrients or rocks invading their spaces. Consider starting with these easy Herbaceous Perennials: Butterfly Weed, Coneflower, Rose Campion, and Verbena.
  • Herbs. Some herbs can do well in rocky environments, including sage and oregano.
  • Succulents. Succulents have become incredibly popular in recent years because they have a modern appearance that’s cool and fashionable, and they are undeniably the easiest plants to grow. Succulents come from the desert and require minimal nutrients to thrive, so gardeners can never go wrong with adding succulents to rocky terrain. There is also a large variety of succulents to choose from, leaving anyone with a varied and colorful garden!
  • Juniper Trees. Gardeners may think they cannot have a gorgeous tree in their rocky backyard. Think again! The Juniper Tree species can do well in rocky environments, so go ahead and give it a shot.
  • Ferns. Bushes are known for giving a stunning dimension and atmosphere to any backyard, but again, many of them need plenty of nutrients and high-quality soil. The fern, however, doesn’t need this and is, therefore, an excellent choice for rocky soils.
  • Ornamental Grasses. Ornamental grasses can flourish in rocky environments and provide any backyard with a stunning view that covers the rocks with ease.
  • Desert Sage. Wanting some color for the garden? Consider the striking, colorful desert sage. It makes for a great addition to any backyard and adds a hefty dose of flair and attitude.


Rocks can be damaging to gardens, except for plants that can survive in rocky environments such as herbaceous perennials, junipers, ferns, or succulents. To avoid the negative impact rocks can have on a garden, make sure to remove the rocks from the topsoil using any of the methods discussed in this article.

Make sure to go 10 to 12 inches below the topsoil to get a proper, thorough rock removal so healthy, strong plants can be grown successfully. Neglecting to remove the rocks thoroughly will only result in a failed garden or unnecessary work in the future.

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Corey Leichty

Hi, I’m Corey and I love using gardening as a way to provide food for my family, learn life lessons alongside my wife, Andrea, and teach life lessons to my two sons. Do you have gardening questions? Not finding what you are looking for? Please feel free to Ask a Question (Click Here!) and I will get back with you as soon as I can!

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