Let’s brainstorm the cheapest way to clear land so you can reclaim your yard, agricultural plot, or garden. It reminds me of the day when, in all my naive inexperience, I thought that just two homesteading rookies could vacate a 2-acre old family farm in just two days – while tending to a bunch of kids simultaneously.
Sure, we’ll get a strimmer with a blade, a hand mower, and a pair of loppers, and we’re all set. We don’t need to read up on it – I mean, it’s just cutting grass and overgrown shrubs. How hard can it be?
It was tremendously taxing – in case you were wondering! And for these two people – impossible, at the very end.
For one, we didn’t get halfway through it. Secondly, two weeks later, we were back to square one. It was a warm and rainy spring that year, and all the grass we had cut and all the water sprouts we removed were elegantly back in business.
Live and learn! Well, not always – if you’re smart, you can learn from other people’s suffering instead of going through it yourself. That’s precisely what this article is for!
If you’re looking for the best ways to clear an old yard or reclaim an overgrown plot on a budget, today, I will share with you the best land-clearing practices I know of while minding the land-clearing costs and the environmental considerations.
Then, let’s get to it!
- By-the-Book Agricultural Land Clearing
- Sustainable Overgrown Land Clearing – Step by Step
- Step 1. Start Planning and Organizing
- Step 2. Finding Help
- Step 3. Gather the Equipment
- Step 4. Clear Out the Overgrowth
- Step 5. Cutting Down Unwanted Trees
- Step 6. Tree Stump Removal
- Step 7. Removing the Debris
- Step 8. Mowing
- Step 9. Maintenance – Sustainable and Frugal
- To Sum (And Clear) It Up
By-the-Book Agricultural Land Clearing
What do most homesteaders mean when they talk about land clearing? And – what about when you hire or seek advice from land-cleaning companies?
Well, consider the following classic agricultural and construction land-clearing steps.
- Removing most or all significant vegetation from the land’s surface – including trees, shrubs, and old wood – trees are usually cut down and cleared, and the stumps and the shrubs are grubbed up with stump grinders and wood chippers.
- Draining marches
- Moss and tussock removal
- Stone and rock removal
- Soil leveling – leveling out earth hills, filling up ditches and pits
- Tilling, topsoil cultivation, and creating irrigation systems
This principle has one goal – to make the land clear, flat, and fertile enough so you can grow monoculture crops over large swathes of land (or build something) while ensuring easy access to the machinery.
Unfortunately, these principles get copy-pasted as a golden standard of land reclamation, even in cases where there’s no need to do such a radical land transformation.
This article doesn’t advocate draining marches and making the ground flat (as you might suppose, these services don’t come cheap!). Instead, it leans more on permaculture homesteading principles, where you use the terrain you have (with some modification such as terracing) and make the best of it to grow fruits, vegetables, and other plants in tune with the native natural environment, plus create micro-habitats for wildlife.
Still, some of these classic land-clearing practices will be unavoidable even when you aim for green and frugal land-clearing – that’s why it’s worth knowing the drill. Besides, it’s what you do afterward that counts, too.
My Four Pillars of Sustainable Land Clearing and Reclamation
When making plans for land clearing, the focus will be on four principles: efficiency, frugality, cooperation, and sustainability. Let me explain.
Reclaiming land can be expensive if you’re hiring land-clearing companies to do it. They will likely do a good job, but some of us don’t have the money to cover professional land-clearing costs, especially if we’re clearing a significant piece of land. Thus, we’ll explore ways to do it frugally.
Free help is one of the top ways to clear land on a tight budget. The more hands work on the property – the easier and faster it will be to get things done. Manual labor and human cooperation have built literal world wonders in the past – and indeed, they can help you clear your land.
However, (and unfortunately?) we live in a world where time equals money and money equals survival for most people. Even if you get free help, your volunteers won’t be able to give you unlimited time. Indirectly, it is expensive for them. Because of that, we’ll also focus on efficiency – how to do the most work in the least amount of time.
Last but not least – we’ll focus on sustainable and environmentally friendly practices because land clearing and repurposing are among the biggest drivers of extinction and biodiversity loss.
Sure, if you’re clearing a few acres, it’s not like cutting down the Amazon rainforest. But, you are impacting, modifying, and perhaps even destroying your local ecosystems – and you should be aware of that. Overuse of herbicides can affect plant communities and also human communities. And also our shared water resources! Why wreak havoc when we can work (for the most part) in balance with nature?
What NOT To Do
First and foremost, don’t just move in rudimentary tools and see what you can do right there on the spot without prior planning (in other words, don’t be me). It just won’t work. Perhaps you’ll gain some experience points. But you will lose a ton of time and energy. You’ll feel demotivated and frustrated and likely won’t get it done.
There’s only one way a hit-and-run approach works. You need enough experienced people with you. Or – it can also work if your plot of land is small and uncomplicated (e.g., flat terrain, no waste to move, no tree stumps to remove, et cetera.). However, even in these cases, it is better to plan it out beforehand – it saves a lot of time and protects you from misunderstandings, even when working with land clearing companies.
Also, the season you pick to do the work is vital. Do not choose mid or late spring, the worst time to get into land clearing! You may lose many work days to rain, and the vegetation you’ve cleared will quickly regain ground. Also, you’ll surely disturb and destroy wildlife – in many countries, vegetation and shrub clearing is banned roughly from March to October due to bird nesting season.
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What’s the Best Season for Clearing Land?
It depends on your area, but as a general rule, you don’t want to do radical yard work when precipitation is high, when you’re experiencing drought, and when it’s too hot or cold.
Technically, the best time to do the yard clearing work in temperate climates is winter – the mild kind. The vegetation is at rest, and there is not much precipitation, so you can easily do all types of clearing, including the earthworks.
However, while this is a perfect time to do heavy equipment work such as excavation and digging, it may not be the most comfortable time to do a lot of manual labor (also, it could be tricky to persuade your friends to volunteer, no matter how much they love you).
Early spring is a good alternative – the plants are still dormant, the birds are not nesting, and the weather is a bit more comfortable (but you may get more precipitation). Also, you can start sowing and planting many plants immediately.
Dry autumn time is also an opportune moment to start land reclamation if you can complete the land-clearing project quickly.
Sustainable Overgrown Land Clearing – Step by Step
Now that you know what to avoid, let’s explore what you can do to reclaim a plot of land affordably and according to your desires.
Step 1. Start Planning and Organizing
Planning helps you know what you’re dealing with, avoid the pitfalls, estimate how much money, time, and people you’ll need, and decide what machine equipment you need to buy or rent. Organizing these resources guarantees saving bucks in multiple steps of the land-clearing journey.
Here’s how to go about it.
Scout the Land
Have a walk-through to explore all the corners of the estate. Take notice of the landscape, the rocks, and the tree density. Actively think about what you want to keep and what you want to remove and make notes.
A land survey in late spring or early summer is best because you can see what everything looks like when vegetation is in full swing and what creatures share the land with you.
Plot It Out
Even if you’re bad at technical drawing, I highly suggest you draw the mini-map of the land. A visual overview of the land is an immense advantage for you and your helpers and contractors.
You can add notes for each sub-site, making it harder to leave out something important.
Make Technical Plans
What’s the property size? What’s the general land condition? What land-clearing equipment will you need at what part of the land? What plants need replanting? Do you want to till the soil and sow cover crops or no-mow lawns for easier future maintenance? These are just some considerations – there are plenty to add.
Make a Budget
After you’ve figured out what you want to do, make a financial plan for how much it will all cost, and see what steps you can modify to save money. This budgeting process is also the right time to look into the prices of your local machine renting and land-clearing companies. Although it inevitably drives the expenses up, for busy people, it might still pay off to offset at least some of the work to the professionals.
Reach for the phone book and try to remember who can help you. Plan for your volunteers to stay. Would your guests be there for several days, or will you ask for day-to-day help? Do you need to organize accommodation? Also, check if any organic or small-scale farming cooperatives in your area could help you.
Step 2. Finding Help
Asking your friends for free help should not be shameful or embarrassing. Doing free work for others, with an understanding that the person helped will return the favor if asked, is how we’ve built and kept communities together for centuries. It’s an entirely natural, human thing to do! You’ll make it up to them by setting up lunch, having cool drinks, and returning a favor if needed.
Yes, we live in times of (increasing) machine domination, but here’s the thing – having multiple pairs of human hands doing the work is a machine in its own right. Each added pair of hands increases progress exponentially, and the more cooperative people you have on your side, the easier and faster the job will be.
If you undertake a more ambitious land-clearing project like creating or expanding an organic farm, consider becoming a WWOOF host. WWOOF is a service connecting organic farm owners and volunteers from around the globe doing farm work in exchange for food and accommodation. These are mostly travel and sustainable farming enthusiasts, so you’ll likely meet fascinating and like-minded people while getting help. Check out the community rules before considering applying, and also look into other people’s experiences.
Animal Helpers – Using Grazing Animals for Land Clearing
So far, we’ve only mentioned the human helpers. However, grazing animals can be surprisingly helpful in land clearing! Not long ago, homesteaders regularly rented their neighbor’s sheep, goats, or horses to clear as much overgrown vegetation as possible. In return, their animals would get fed.
Today, goats are especially popular for land clearing. Goats take on the shrubs as well as the weeds and grasses. They even devour problematic plants such as Kudzu, Poison ivy, and English Ivy. (But, of course, the area should be fenced!)
Having a friend who owns a herd of goats or sheep is invariably the cheapest way. Alternatively, there are goat rental services for land clearing. How convenient!
The Pros of Goatscaping
Goat grazing is incredibly sustainable and natural. There are no emissions from fossil fuels and no electrical power use. Unlike the fancy mowers that are trouble-free only on flat land with no obstacles, goats will successfully work on any terrain. Instead of rotting on a landfill, the plant biomass supports the naturally grass-fed animals, producing superb-quality milk. Also, the herbivore poop will enrich the soil and support various beneficial invertebrates, while any machinery you use will inevitably disrupt or destroy these organisms.
The Cons of Goatscaping
Compared to mowing, grazing is slow. Estimates are that 40 goats take five days to clear an acre of land. Sixty goats need three days, and 150 goats to wrap it up in 24 hours – but the opportunity to rent such a large herd is rare. Comparatively, you can do the same work with a mower in an hour or so. Still, if there is no rush, it is worth considering this neat alternative to the machinery with all its benefits.
Step 3. Gather the Equipment
Goats are glorious! But no land clearing and reclamation can be satisfactorily done without the correct type of equipment. Now, we’ll make a quick list of what you’ll need.
One way to cut expenses is to ask fellow homesteaders to lend you the tools. However, many items on this list are perfect for land maintenance and homesteading, so consider buying them.
- Lawnmowers are ideal for flat ground with grass and regular weeds. However, be aware that, unlike the strimmer, it grounds down everything it sucks in – including all the tiny life (insects and spiders). Also, it is unsuitable when the grass is wet (unlike the strimmer).
- Hand push mowers are a mechanical alternative for those who dislike mowing noise, fuel emissions, or spending three figures of money on a mower. They are also easier on the wildlife – the relatively slow pushing and blade rotation ensures higher survival rates for small creatures.
- String trimmer (stimmer). Whether you have the mower or not, the strimmer will help you get to all the corners and tricky terrain, especially since you should never use a classic mower on uneven ground – because you can ruin the machine and scar the earth. Also, you can get a brush cutter attachment to help you deal with thicker plants.
- Chainsaw. One of the land-clearing essentials. You’ll need it to cut down trees, branches, or shrubs with wide stems. There are several sizes and designs, so research the best one for your case. If you don’t think you’ll need it in the future and prefer mechanical tools, this is one of the items you can lend.
- Axe or hatchet. Axes and hatchets might be the best tools when you don’t want to make noise or need them for a quick job, perhaps removing a small tree. You can also use an axe as a hammer. However, taking down a thicker tree with an axe takes a lot of strength and skill – don’t count on it.
- Loppers and pruning shears are essential when removing single branches or quickly tackling water sprouts – or tree suckers.
- Spade. Whether planting new trees or removing old roots, have a spade in your toolshed inventory.
- Rakes. Essential for debris removal. And there will be a lot. I promise!
- Wheelbarrow. A wheelbarrow is a helping wheel you need – from loading debris to moving heavy tools.
- Personal Protection Equipment (PPEs). Gloves, safety goggles, and some workwear are necessary for keeping yourself and your crew safe. Safety hats are also requisite if the clearing involves felling trees and larger branches.
Besides these rudimentary tools, many types of heavy equipment can help immensely. To save money, consider renting them instead of buying them.
- Brush cutter. This land-clearing tool looks like a heavy-duty mower and will help you eliminate thick vegetation that regular mowers are powerless over.
- Tractor. The tractor is a versatile farm vehicle with all kinds of handy-dandy attachments. The most frugal option is to have a neighbor with a tractor come over to give you a hand. If you want to buy a tractor, smaller ones with 25 to 28 horsepower have average price ranges between $4,000 and $18,000.
- Bush hog. Bush hog or brush hog is an attachment that may come in handy if you have a lot of bushy woody vegetation to clear or thick weeds (this takes ages to do by hand, even with a bladed trimmer). But please don’t use it during the bird nesting season – it grinds down everything in its path.
- Brush grubbers are attachments for pulling out small trees, five inches or less in diameter. It also works to remove stumps.
The land-clearing machine industry is very prolific, so many heavy-duty machines and attachments exist – from skid steer loaders to excavators. Many of these are beyond the scope of this article. (But if you have questions about them – feel free to ask.)
Step 4. Clear Out the Overgrowth
Clearing the overgrowth is a top-priority task because thickets can stop you from accessing all parts of your property and make it difficult to bring in the machinery if needed. Besides (to be frank), it’s a pain to deal with, especially if you’re working manually. Doing the most taxing part first makes the rest of the work easier.
So, before taking on more significant challenges like tree felling, remove all the unwanted mid-to-large shrubs and the surrounding undergrowth. You can do this with hand tools, like chainsaws, axes, shears, loopers, and or strimmers with blades. Or by using heavier equipment such as brush mowers or brush hogs.
I might be biased because I love them, but I’ll mention the goat herds again. Goats can take out both the brush and the tall grass, so the services of these horned allies are worth considering.
Again, to protect nesting birds and other wildlife hiding in the brush, I have to emphasize never to conduct overgrowth and shrub clearing during the nesting and breeding season. In many European countries, cutting down vegetation on uncultivated land from 1st March to 31st August is an offense. Conveniently, this is the worst time to do land clearing anyway.
Step 5. Cutting Down Unwanted Trees
It’s unfortunate when a tree needs to go. However, there are situations where you have to have a few removed.
So, what makes a tree “unwanted?
- Dead or diseased trees. Dead trees are at risk of falling, take up space, and may harbor pests such as bark beetles or pathogenic fungi.
- Security threat. Trees that might fall onto a walking path, resting area, or a house can present a grave danger. If you live in a windy or storm-prone area, bringing in an arborist to asses large trees in risky spots would be ideal.
- Wrong type of trees. Hardy non-natives that spread far and wide can become invasive. They can disrupt entire ecosystems. If you have trees such as Tree of Heaven (Ailanthus altissima) on your property, consider removing them.
- Tree density. Sometimes, too many densely packed trees exist on wooded land, so you’ll want to remove some to free up space for growth or activities.
- Other reasons. The decision to remove a tree is highly personal. But always think twice before getting on with it.
After you’ve decided what trees to remove, plan how to cut them down. Although there are plenty of instructions on how to do it online, use them at your responsibility. Felling trees is a serious and dangerous business. If you’re inexperienced (and – if you need instructions – you are), I highly recommend calling a tree removal expert to do it for you, even if it costs you some cash.
Removing a single 50-foot tree in the US will cost you between $341 and $1,523. (Meaning that saving trees from unnecessary removal also saves money).
Step 6. Tree Stump Removal
Stump removal is, arguably, the trickiest part of clearing vegetation remains. First, tree stumps take up a lot of space. Secondly, if the fallen trees seem healthy and you don’t deal with their stumps soon, they will produce shoots that grow fast. And those shoots can create a thicket in no time – more so if you’ve cut down multiple trees. (For example, in an old orchard).
Considering the implications, using a grinder for stump removal or pulling them out could be a worthy investment. In 2023, renting a stump grinder costs $100-$400 per day, $350-$1,000 per week, or $900 to $3,000 monthly.
If you want to kill the tree stumps – but you’re not in a rush to get them physically removed, you can kill them by drilling holes into them, filling them with Epsom or rock salt, and pouring water over the filled holes. Using boiling water only in the same way can also do the trick.
Also, if you don’t live in a fire-prone area, you can consider using kerosene to burn the stumps.
Step 7. Removing the Debris
After clearing woody vegetation, you’ll have lots of woody debris. If you don’t remove these leftovers, you won’t be able to cut the grass properly and wrap up the clearing, so debris removal is a must. It is especially vital not to let the debris contaminate the local waterways!
There is not a lot of philosophy about clearing debris – it’s only rake and load. Also, using a grapple attachment, if available, could save you a lot of time.
As with any repetitive, time-consuming task, having several helpers means a lot. So, you may want to save some members of your volunteer army for this particular step.
Trees and branches can ride in your vehicle pickup truck for removal. Cutting them into smaller logs can help with transport.
You can use some debris (e.g., wood chips) for mulching and some for composting. If you want them gone fast, burning is the cheapest option – but only if you do it safely and there is no wildfire risk.
As for the logs, if you have a wooden stove, you’ll probably want to save them for winter. Also, sometimes, the neighbors using wood for heating and cooking will likely exchange their labor for firewood.
Green tip: If it fits your space, I recommend leaving a piece of a healthy, large log to rot slowly and support an invertebrate population. Nifty and neat insects such as stag beetles and many solitary bees depend on old, fallen tree logs to reproduce and survive. For aesthetic pleasure, you can make it a centerpiece of a small garden.
Step 8. Mowing
After the land appears clear, you can cut the overgrown grass.
Most gardeners have their preferences for mowing and grass-clipping. I prefer string trimmers because they do the slightest damage to wildlife and can work on any terrain. Push mowers can also be excellent for small and flat landscapes. Also, manual mowing tools are cheaper to buy and require less (or no) fuel.
However, motorized mowers are undoubtedly faster, so in the end, it all depends on your circumstances and preferences.
Here are some tips for environmentally friendly mowing.
- Try to use the least invasive methods for mowing, with driving mowers being the most invasive. Hand-held string trimmers seem slower than mowers, but several people working with them can complete the work swiftly.
- Setting your mower deck low might seem a wise option to reduce your workload. But the low-cut grass regrows faster and is easily stressed by drought or excessive water. The recommended grass-cutting height is 2 to 3.75 inches, but remember that the higher-cut grass is more resilient and cools the soil better.
- Consider leaving some unmowed patches where wildflowers and herbs can grow freely and provide food and shelter for pollinators. You can do that by leaving unmowed edges (e.g., near the fence) or – cooler – creating a pattern with shorter and taller grass. That’s called mosaic mowing or Mowhican style cut.
Step 9. Maintenance – Sustainable and Frugal
Starting the follow-up maintenance as soon as needed is crucial to avoid having to do work all over again.
Doing routine maintenance tasks like grass clipping and mowing, regularly removing offshoots and water spouts, and seasonally trimming shrubs and trees can help you prevent the return of overgrowth. It may take more time and effort upfront, but it’s much cheaper and greener in the long run.
Also, when re-designing your homestead’s lawns and grassy areas, you can opt for sustainable, low-maintenance – or even no-mow – alternatives to traditional grass lawns.
Why do I have to point this out? The neat monoculture turfgrass lawns have made us willing slaves of our green spaces with zero gain for nature. It was supposed to be for leisure and pleasure, but it became an overwhelming chore – constant mowing, irrigation, and worrying about pests and diseases. And don’t get me started on the costs and the adverse effects on the ecosystems!
But, guess what – land reclamation is a perfect opportunity to change that.
To Sum (And Clear) It Up
Starting with land clearing on your own seems daunting, but with some knowledge, tools, and people (and even animal helpers), you can do it sustainably and within a frugal budget!
Many “classic” land clearing and maintenance principles are costly and outdated, but today, you can swap at least some of them for greener and more frugal methods. Consider those prioritizing the environment’s well-being and avoid harsh chemicals like herbicides or damage-causing machinery. Conveniently, the nature-oriented ways are usually cheaper!
Depending on the land condition and size, you’ll need some assistance. A helping hand (or many) is the key to successful frugal land clearing. Free help from friends, family, and volunteers is pivotal. But – do not hesitate to call land clearing services for dangerous tasks such as large tree removal. Or to rent heavy equipment if it saves a ton of time and effort.
In the end, regularly maintain your land after clearing to prevent vegetation from taking over again. With careful planning and execution, you can turn a nightmarish task into a beneficial land-clearing project that, hopefully, strengthens ties in your human community.
May you enjoy your piece of land for a long time!