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Redneck earth moving

It ain’t pretty, but it works. Or did after some revision.

This homemade harrow — created by The Wandering Monk out of items lying around the property — broke up the nasty, vile, gluey clay behind the house for easier shoveling and removing. It worked better after he added 5/8″ rebar to the small springy tines on the back of the pallet. A final refinement will be fixed bolts. And that should do the job. Particularly since the Monk also came up with a plan that eliminates the majority of the shoveling we thought we were in for.

The Monk has his own beater house with its own problematic yard. So everything he’s figuring out at my place translates to a useful tool for him. I devoutly hope it also means he’ll be hauling away and keeping a lot more construction detritus from my place.

I appreciate you knowledgeable construction guys who recommend heavy equipment and all. I occasionally envy you who have bucketloads of money, equipment-rental businesses at your doorstep, and dozens of contractors eager and able to do your bidding. Goes without saying: I am not you.

The Monk and I have made colossal progress this summer, much of it funded by donations and a generous low-interest/deferred payment loan. It has been gloriously gratifying. But every dollar of friends’ money and mine is committed to particular tasks and will be carefully stretched to fit.

There was one man of the several in town who have small earth-moving equipment who quoted an affordable price for this last bit of earth moving. When it came time to do the work, he flaked out. As he has done before over the years. So I wasn’t surprised.

Others who came out and looked had a glorified notion of their value (one wanted $100 per hour portal to portal — that is, from the moment he started loading equipment till the moment he wiped the last bit of dust from it back at his shop). Or perhaps they didn’t really like the look of the job, which is in a tight space. In any case, we’re doing the work as we need to do it. And as Ellendra said in a comment at the above link, if we have to do it one shovelful at a time, that’s what we’ll do.

Fortunately, we now have a plan that involves a lot less shoveling. It’s TL;DR, but basically we changed our concept of what constitutes grade. Now it’s more a matter of loosening the dirt and pushing it around than of digging it up and hauling it away.

For that job, another homemade contraption awaits in the backyard — this one made from a panel of chainlink dog fencing, concrete blocks, and a tow strap. I might grab a picture of that later.

But after a fairly grim day’s work yesterday, which left me so beat I could barely move even though the Monk did most of the hard labor, we’re on our way to something clever and easier.

This kind of creativity and “make do with what you’ve got” attitude is a huge part of what makes the Monk so good. Combine his creativity, competence, cost-consciousness, and reliability with the fact that he charges a lower rate than anybody else in town, and it’s a small miracle.


  1. free.and.true
    free.and.true September 6, 2017 9:33 am

    Three beers for redneck ingenuity!

    Wish I could copycat your idea for a similar situation at my little place, especially since I’ve got a couple of pallets in the shed.

    Mine’s clayey too, but even narrower and shorter, and with several sizable tree roots involved. Planning to grade it by hand with a stirrup hoe, then put down sand/gravel and scrounged pavers.

    Should make for a sweet little shady garden patio. Nice little spot under an old apple tree and white lilac bush.

    Maybe I can come up with a variation on your idea that’ll help me clear away the excess soil once loosened — but like you, I’ll use some of it to fill in the low spots first.

  2. Claire
    Claire September 6, 2017 9:48 am

    “Three beers for redneck ingenuity!”

    🙂 Absolutely.

    I’d love to see photos of your little patio when it’s starting to take shape. I’m glad not to have large tree roots to deal with — although is there any way that you could make them a “feature” rather than a bug in your plans?

  3. Comrade X
    Comrade X September 6, 2017 11:12 am

    “It ain’t pretty, but it works.”


  4. MJR
    MJR September 6, 2017 1:10 pm

    I only have three words to say about this… very nicely done. I sympathize with you about contractors. Having built a log home, It seemed that every time a contractor came out with a quote and looked at the plans there were little dollar signs that lit up in their eyes.

  5. Arthur Murray
    Arthur Murray September 6, 2017 1:17 pm

    Huh. Funny how the human brain focuses on narrow solutions based on previous experience. I’ve moved more than enough dirt and rock with an idiot stick and wheelbarrow that I’ve come to thinking of moving it with diesel fuel as the solution. That, obviously, places unnecessary limits on available options.

    My compliments to the Monk. Very clever.

  6. R. L. Wurdack
    R. L. Wurdack September 6, 2017 2:09 pm

    How do you get the harrow back to point zero?

  7. free.and.true
    free.and.true September 6, 2017 2:40 pm

    Claire and Pat — oh, yes, I’m working on ideas to incorporate the tree roots. The old apple tree they belong to is dying, but when it goes, I want to keep its stump in place anyway, to hold a birdbath or potted plant. Going for that wabi-sabi ethic.

    The biggest root will end up serving as one edge of the little patio, where it will curve around into the sunny yard to the south.

    I really like the idea of a raised pallet-bench or deck too! Maybe in combination with some sort of arbor, since there are some wild sweetpeas nearby that come back each year, and a Gold Flame honeysuckle I planted to help shade one end of my little place.

    Looking forward to your finished-project pics coming soon!

  8. Kristophr
    Kristophr September 6, 2017 3:37 pm

    It looks like he partially re-invented the Fresno Scraper. Put a c-blade behind it to push dirt to the side, and he completes it. Good job.

  9. Claire
    Claire September 7, 2017 10:49 am

    Arthur Murray — I’ve passed along you compliments to the Monk — and told him that the compliments come from someone very knowledgeable about construction. He is indeed a very creative guy.

    R.L. Wurdack — I wondered if somebody would spot the fly in that ointment. Yes, the contraption has to be unhitched, unloaded, and dragged back to its starting place. In a larger space, he’d be able to drag it in circles, but not here. Fortunately, it takes only a handful of passes to break the ground up enough for us to rake it around. Or drag a piece of chain-link fencing over it to smooth it out.

    Kristophr — I’d never heard of a Fresno scraper, and I’m sure the Monk hadn’t either. Yeah, something like that.

  10. Claire
    Claire September 7, 2017 10:52 am

    free.and.true — Your project sounds beautiful, and very much in tune with your natural surroundings. Earlier you mentioned scrounged pavers, too. I envy you those. My patio is going to have a gravel base with pavers added later, but when I priced nice pavers, I fell down in a swoon. So I, too, will be on the lookout for used ones.

    I do have a lot of old brick, but it’s such a mix of sizes, styles, and conditions that I’ll use it only in a much less visible spot.

  11. Kristophr
    Kristophr September 7, 2017 11:58 am

    It was the 19th century invention that lead to modern road building. Instead of laboriously digging out a road grade, you just ran the scraper over it several times.

  12. Claire
    Claire September 7, 2017 6:26 pm

    I looked up Fresno scraper after you first mentioned it. Pretty fascinating thing for basically a farm implement — and still (according to Wikipedia) influencing the design of earth-moving equipment more than 100 years later.

  13. Arthur Murray
    Arthur Murray September 8, 2017 2:06 am

    Since I’m never smart enough to leave well enough alone, the Monk’s creativity made me curious.

    Through the miracle of AlGore’s Intertubes, I found these:


    There may be others, I didn’t do an exhaustive search.

    Couple hundred bucks for either is still a couple hundred bucks, but it’s an option I had not considered before, and maybe someone here in need of a similar solution can benefit from it. No clue if any rental places might have either. There’s always the option of blacksmithing something up out of salvaged bits and pieces to fit a standard 2-inch hitch.

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