How do we get our backyard flat for a patio and ready for plants?
May 5, 2005 10:47 AM   Subscribe

We have a gently sloped backyard and we want to put in a patio. We think we can handle the patio thing ourselves (following instructions out of a book) but (being totally urban and having never had a yard before) we have no clue how to level the ground and prepare the garden area.

We'd like to hire someone to level it, but when I call "landscapers" and "gardeners" out of the phone book they are not interested in simply leveling the ground. So, is there a specific specialty name for this work (ie, plumbing is to water pipes as ______ is to making our yard flat)?? What is the best way to find someone inexpensive to do this? Is there a machine someone needs that I need to reference if I put in a Craigslist ad? And, is there anything special we have to do to prepare the area we hope to garden in (ie, do we have to dig out all the hard packed dirt and put in some kind of special soil?) Obviously we are completely naive about all things yard and are in dire need of help! Thanks!
posted by izizi to Home & Garden (12 answers total)
How steep is the slope and how large a garden do you want? In an urban situation I would recomend some 4-square gardening. Basicly, get some railroad ties and make some squares out of them. if you need ot build up one side higher than the other, it isn't hard to do. That way you don't have to dig too much and you can control the dirt in your garden. Do not just till the dirt in your yard - unless you can account for the levels of crap that may have been put into it over the years.

If it is very steep, you may need a retaining wall, that will interest a landscape arch or contractor ($$$).
posted by jmgorman at 10:56 AM on May 5, 2005

Response by poster: The total yard is 220 square feet and is a rectangle. We want to have 2 feet of garden space along 2 sides. The rest we want as a patio. We could put in the railroad ties, but we still need to get the patio area totally level before we lay the patio bricks. The slope is 5 to 10 degrees I think (the nw corner is about 1 foot higher than the SE corner.)
posted by izizi at 11:02 AM on May 5, 2005

Best answer: You can buy or rent a laser level to do this. (they're about $20 for an all-purpose model, much fancier models up from there.) Basically you put a stake in the ground at one end of the space, another at the opposite end, and put the level down at ground level and aim it at the opposite stake. Tie a piece of string from the first stake at the point of the origin of the beam, to the second stake where the red dot is hitting. That's your level line. To excavate a given depth, just use a tape to measure down from the line.
posted by stupidsexyFlanders at 11:21 AM on May 5, 2005

Psst, don't use railroad ties if you plan on eating anything you grow, or any other pressure treated wood.
posted by Specklet at 11:33 AM on May 5, 2005

You may want to do your own research on the pressure treated question, Railroad ties are pretty poisonous, as is CCA-treated lumber (the older pressure treatment), but the newer ACQ stuff is much safer. I use it (ACQ, not the other!) for gardens; others deem any treatment unacceptable. Do your own research and see what you're comfortable with.

On the original question, I've done stuff like this and I've laid it out, (correctly) installed retaining wall blocks on the low side, and then proceeded to move the dirt from the high side to the low side. It's that simple (heh heh--lots of work!). Hard-packed dirt may require tilling and/or amendment to grow better plants.
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 12:00 PM on May 5, 2005

Best answer: If you scroll down here, there is a little bit about grading (I think this is the phrase you're looking for) your yard. Looks like you don't want it completely level. It might be better to have just the patio level--thicker at one end than another--than to level the whole yard.
posted by frykitty at 12:02 PM on May 5, 2005

Best answer: ssflanders has it, but there are other ways as well.

Before the advent of laser levels, the common method was to use boning rods. A very simplified method might work something like this:

Get three sticks of equal length. Insert one stick on either side of an area you'd like level (make sure you insert the sticks the same distance into the ground--let's say 2"). Tie a string to the two sticks at the same distance. Now, take the third stick and insert it 2" into the ground somewhere along the string. The string should cross the stick at the same point as the two other sticks. If it's higher, the ground is too low. If it's lower, the ground is too high.

I'm including a very, very, very simple image to illustrate this:

posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:23 PM on May 5, 2005

Of course, you could just as easily lob 2" off the bottom of your third stick (the "moving stick") so you don't have to keep reburying it every time you take a measurement.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:25 PM on May 5, 2005

Sorry to keep adding to this...

One other key point I forgot to mention is that the string must be level. Otherwise, you'll have a perfect grade that could be slanted down or upwards (I'm assuming you want it to be totally flat).
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 12:27 PM on May 5, 2005

Can't really tell where you're located, but where I am (Westchester) there are a ton of little groundskeeping/handyman outfits--they go from neighborhood to neighborhood mowing, blowing leaves, etc., but they're also usually more than happy to pick up this type of work.

We moved into a house last summer that had a very steep backyard that was totally overgrown--they cleared the out about 2 feet of vines and leaves and then leveled it by about us much as you're saying, for about $400. At our last house, we had a similar outfit put in our fencing...they did great work, really affordably.
posted by LairBob at 2:00 PM on May 5, 2005

It sounds like the leveling question has been answered, so I'll try to answer the garden question. You don't need to replace the soil, but you will need to amend it with nutrients and minerals. The best way to do that is with organic compost and/or composted manure. For a 2' square garden, it will probably be easiest to just go buy a couple of bags at a home and garden store. I like Whitney Farms brand compost, and I've had good luck with composted chicken manure. I've always added gypsum to new beds, but I believe that's only necessary in areas with heavy clay soil. Check with your local garden store to see if there are any amendments that are commonly required in your area.

If you have easy access to a rototiller, it will really help matters if your dirt is hard-packed (and it will mix in the amendments very well). If you don't have access to a tiller, I'd suggest double-digging. It's not easy work, but it shouldn't be too hard with a small garden bed. Good luck!
posted by letitrain at 3:53 PM on May 5, 2005

You may not want your patio perfectly level. In general it is good if all of your landscaping slopes away from your house slightly for better water runoff. You don't want water pooling up on the patio, running into your basement, or soaking in near the foundation. Maybe once you find your laser-leveled line, tilt the grade just slightly away from the house. I'm guessing that something not very noticeable like 1 degree of slope should be sufficient.
posted by jacobsee at 9:28 AM on May 6, 2005

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