The Story of the Root Slayer

People ask me sometimes how I came up with the idea for the Root Slayer.  Well, it's a long story, but there was one specific incident that led me to develop the shovel.

First, I'll share some background experiences.  I've been a hobbyist landscaper for most of my life.  From clearing my grandmother's beds of Lily-of-the-Valley roots, to home gardening, to collecting wild trees for bonsai, to native plant landscaping, to transplanting and dividing hundreds of hostas and daylilies, I've had more than my share of experiences coping with interfering roots.  My own yard in Ann Arbor, Michigan is completely filled with a dense network of Norway Maple, Black Walnut, White Cedar, Sugar Maple, Dogwood, Lilac, Serviceberry, Paperbark Maple and even Dawn Redwood roots.  It's nearly impossible to plunge a round-point shovel or traditional spade into some areas of the ground.  When I decided to replace the grass in part of my front yard with hostas I had to resort to using an axe and pruning saw just to get into the soil in some spots!

You would think that after all of this experience the idea of developing a shovel that would make all of these tasks much easier would be an obvious one.  You would think, too, that having run a company for more than 10 years that designs shovels that this would be a no-brainer.  Well, it wasn't.  Like many gardeners and landscapers, I had a small collection of tools I would use when confronted with a digging task that put me in conflict with roots, which was nearly every digging task in my yard.  I would use shovels and spades, curved pruning saws, hatchets, pry-bars, etc.  I even once hired a tow truck to cable a shrub and pull it from the ground with a heavy duty winch!

None of this seemed wrong to me.  I just kept battling roots with a small arsenal of specialized and only partly effective tools until the day I met Vincent Vultaggio.  Actually, that day I used the same ragtag collection of tools as any other day; but, unlike all previous days, I had an inspiration.

Vincent Vultaggio and his brother grow thousands of acres of conifers in Northwest Michigan.  They raise Scots Pine, Blue Spruce, White Fir and many other trees popularly used as Christmas trees.  I met Vincent after noticing his phone number on a little sign in a field of Blue Spruce near Mesick, Michigan.  I was looking for Douglas-fir, which is not a fir at all, but is actually Pseudotsuga menziesii, or "false hemlock.  Imagine going through life with a scientific name that implies you are impersonating another tree!  But, I digress.  I was looking for Douglas-fir that were still small enough to transplant onto my property in Northern Michigan.

I called Vincent and asked him if he had Douglas-fir.  He said, "Yes, but if you want them alive you'll have to transplant them yourself.  I can't help you."  I needed 16 trees.  So, I made my way to Vultaggio headquarters, which was another story in itself, with a borrowed trailer and some very nice Radius tools.

Before I began digging I carefully selected 16 trees that were within the size range I thought I could manage and were close to the two-rut "road" running through the field of Douglas-fir.  I marked them with hats as you can see above.

During the course of a grueling and unusually hot spring day I learned that Douglas-fir roots aren't soft, supple and cooperative like the roots of most other conifers, but are very resistant to shovels.  Having forgotten to bring a pruning saw I could use to cut through roots, I nearly got lost trying to find the nearest hardware store to buy one (it was 20 miles away).   Vincent seem somewhat amused at the idea that I was going to dig up 16 trees on my own, so after leading me to the remote nursery field he stayed long enough to watch me struggle with the first one.  He actually helped me with it even though he'd said he wasn't going to.  He told me he wasn't going to accept any payment until he knew how many trees I'd dug up.  I said it would be 16.  He said "We'll see."

By the end of the day I was dehydrated, sore, tired, sunburned, bruised, and cut, but triumphant.  As most of us hobbyist landscapers, and even professionals, prove time after time, you can accomplish many surprising things with the wrong tools and a ridiculous amount of effort.  The best part of the day was driving back to headquarters and showing Vincent my trailer full of 16 trees.

While it was easier to plant these trees at their new home the following day, it was still a struggle working my way through other established roots to dig large enough holes for the transplants.  Increasing the difficulties of re-planting the trees was the fact that my 60-year-old body was screaming in pain from the pounding it had taken the previous day.

After all of the trees were back in the ground and after I awoke from my afternoon recovery nap I started searching the internet for shovels that would cut roots.  It turns out that several companies sell shovels they say are designed for this purpose.  I bought them all and tested them.  Without getting into the gory details, let's just say I found them all to be inadequate.  So, I decided to design my own.

Obviously, I've done enough digging to know what makes for a great digging tool.  It has to be very strong.  It has to be sharp.  I has to have cutting edges.  And, it has to be designed to attack the root, rather than slide off of it.

I had observed for many years that some members of landscape crews used spades that appeared to be worn away at the point, with a notch or an inverted curve instead of a point or flattened or rounded end.  I always thought this was just from wear and tear until I saw a crew member on a project intentionally sharpening the notch with a file.  This type of notching centers the force of the shovel blade on roots when it hits them, guiding the user's weight toward, rather than away from, the root.

That observation was the last piece of the puzzle for me, allowing me to design Root Slayer prototypes.  The owner of the factory we use to produce the Root Slayer was initially quite skeptical of my design.  So much so that he produced several alternative designs he thought would work better.  He had a round pointed design with saw teeth on the edges and versions with a an inverted curve rather than the Root Slayer's "inverted V."  The Root Slayer has root cutting teeth on the side of the blade that look like saw teeth but are actually very different.  The difference is that the Root Slayer's teeth are actually a series of of blades all facing the same direction and specially designed to cut on the down stroke.  They are much more efficient at this than regular saw teeth, which are designed to cut in both directions.

We tested all of the variations and found that my original design for the Root Slayer was in fact the best one.  The excitement and very strong demand for the Root Slayer in the market since we released it this winter has been incredibly gratifying.  It has also led to the conception of an entire Root Slayer product line.  The first products in this line will be available later this year and next spring.

Happy Digging!