How to dig earth full of rubble by hand


I’ve had a nightmare job which I’ve recently started which involves removing the previous decking from the garden and replacing it with a new patio. Since the current garden rises upwards on a slope, we knew that we would have to dig the earth beneath the decking allowing for a more level patio before landscaping the surrounding lawn. It all sounds so easy! But what we didn’t know until we started digging was that the earth was full of rubble, bricks, broken concrete, hardcore large rocks and the rest! Very quickly I knew this was not going to be a simple job!

As soon as we started to remove the decking I saw signs that the earth may be full of rubble and may be difficult to dig. You see, usually when someone builds decking you would dig post holes for the feet to drop in to before filling with concrete, but instead of post holes being dug there was mountains of cement surrounding the feet. I immediately wondered why no holes had been dug, and whether the ground in the garden was full of rubble, concrete, broken bricks, hardcore, water pipes, electric cables or anything else that might stop you from digging the ground. Surely if it were just soil and dirt in the garden then this absurd way of building a decking project just wouldn’t have happened.

Before starting to dig the ground, I asked the customer if he knew of any rubble that might sit beneath the garden. He explained that there use to be paving below the decking and that the builder employed to take on the decking project was also paid to remove the old paving and concrete. I knew that they must have broken the concrete and patio up, mixed and covered it with top soil and finally built the decking. I mean, who would know , right?

We started to dig the ground and yes, it was full of old slabs, bricks and concrete. Too far away to go back and collect other tools, we made very little progress digging through the earth with nothing but spades. And there were 3 of us!

The best tools to dig earth full of rubble

We went through a few tools trying to dig the ground full of bricks, concrete, hardcore and all other rubble which all played a part so I will go through them 1 by 1 below and explain which role they played in this particular garden. Depending on how much your earth is contaminated with rubble will depend on how far you will need to go with the tools.

Let’s start with the obvious…a spade & fork

I know it’s stating the obvious, but just in case you go and buy unnecessary tools, give your spade and fork a go and start attempting to dig through your rubble infested soil! If the pieces of rubble and rock aren’t too big then you will likely get away with using nothing but your trusty spade.

Sometimes it’s more about technique than the tool itself so try digging your rubble filled earth from above, breaking sections off at a time and working backwards. If this doesn’t work then try digging from below, as the rubble might only be on the surface of your ground. As if you were scooping something off the ground, only with a bit (or a lot) more effort.

If a spade doesn’t work, try using a digging pry bar to help dig out the rubble from your soil

Digging pry bars are great at prying out old bricks and lumps of concrete from your garden but they aren’t exactly a digging tool as you would see a spade. More of a loosening the ground tool from the rubble within and then using your shovel to scoop the earth away. With this in mind, I would recommend the help of a digging pry bar for smaller areas in your garden that need digging. Maybe for post holes, a flower bed or small pond.

A digging pry bar is a long bar with a chisel shaped blade on one end and usually has a tamping base on the other end allowing you to hit it by way of a club hammer or sledge hammer to create extra impact to help break the rubble and hardcore loose from the ground below. We mostly use these to help dig post holes when installing a new garden fence.

If you have a long alignment bar or wrecking bar to hand then it’s worth giving these a go before spending money on a digging pry bar.

Need something bigger and better than a wrecking bar? Try using a mattock for larger areas

A mattock is one of my favourite tools when it comes to digging earth, especially when it’s full of bricks and other hardcore. I have used the same one for about 2 years now, you can see my review of my Roughneck mattock here.

If you’ve never heard of a mattock before, it’s a hand tool similar to a pick axe and can also been known as a grub axe. It usually has a curved like axe on one side, like a pick axe with a wider blade and therefore better at chopping as opposed to digging in your garden. But the other side has a horizontal spade like blade which is the side we want for digging hard earth with rubble and hardcore hiding inside. These hand tools really are amazing!

If you’ve not had much luck with the mattock then it’s time to get an electric breaker

There aren’t many tools that could out do the mattock, but if the lumps of concrete are just too big to dig through then I would recommend purchasing an electric breaker which will set you back a good £150 at least. I’ve written a review on my budget breaker here.

It’s only worth spending money on an electric breaker if it’s a large area of garden that needs digging as opposed to digging a small area of rubble filled earth. Although coming with a higher price tag, you will likely save money compared to paying a professional to do the work for you and you will have a tool there ready for the future.

Things to remember when digging a garden full of rubble

Yes it’s a pain to dig through earth full of half bricks, large rocks, lumps of concrete, hardcore and other rubble but with the right tools and the determination to keep going it can be done. If a professional can do it then so can you! Within reason of course!

Take your time and assess the situation. Work out how deep you need to go and dig a few test holes to see how much rubble, if any, is within your earth. If you have a post hole digger readily available then this would be perfect for digging your test holes in your garden. Depending on your findings and the size of area you need to dig, you can then make a sensible decision on whether or not you can take on the work. You can always give it a go now and call the professionals later if needed.

Don’t forget about the waste! Where will your rubble filled earth be going? If you need to get a skip then check with your local supplier which size skips allow for earth, rubble, hardcore and large rocks. I find that some suppliers allow up to a 7 yard skip whilst others allow for an 8 yard skip. It’s also worth asking for one with a drop down ramp as lifting wheelbarrows into a skip is hard work!

If your clearing your rubble filled ground to make way for a new garden project then try to find ways around it. If your having a new patio, can it be raised? Steps could help. Decking could also go on top. And if not then why not ask for some quotations from local landscape gardeners and ask them for alternative ideas as you may be surprised.

Of course you could always use a digger to remove earth filled with hardcore but this will likely require a professional that would be use to using such machinery. As well as this, not all gardens have access to allow for mini diggers etc.. anyone can call a professional to dig the earth for them and those specifically looking to pay someone likely wont be searching “how to dig earth full of rubble by hand” on search engines.

I wanted to write this guide for all of you that enjoy working on your own garden and building projects by hand where machinery isn’t always needed. I hope this article has helped!

If you have any questions or have had success digging in your garden with other methods then why not comment below? Or visit our gardening forum where we all help find the answers to each others questions.

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Andy says:

    Excellent post. I’ve found a painful mix of bricks, tiles, tarmac, and soil under the garage after having it removed. I thought no problem, I’ll gradually dig it all out and separate it with my spade. Way too frustrating with every piece of rubble you hit, purchased the roughneck mattock and wow what an instant difference it has made.

    1. Hankintech says:

      Hi Andy, it can be awful using a spade especially with the shooting pain through your hand when you hit rock – The mattock is definitely my weapon of choice for digging rubble filled earth!

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