Introduction: Restore a Backyard With Dead Soil (Before and After)

Picture of Restore a Backyard With Dead Soil (Before and After)

Live in an older yard? Have a dead lawn? Growing only dandelions?

No problem, this was my backyard, and I fixed it.

Here is what I did, and you can learn from my failures and successes.

You will need:

- one son to hang around with

- a spade

- a rototiller

- a truckload of compost

- some peat bales, or equivalent

- a shwackload of sod (measure to your yard)

- time. This took about a summer of evenings to do with 1 adult person.

Step 1: Start Digging (and Before Pics)

Picture of Start Digging (and Before Pics)

My ground was so hard that a rototiller would not cut it at first.

The plot my house was on was over 50 years old, and the soil was dead, hard, and grey.

If you're in the same boat as me, then grab a spade, lots of water, and start digging.

Mostly, I cut into the ground with a spade, lift up the earth by an inch or so and let it drop. This seemed to be enough for the next steps, which was roto-tilling the dead soil with the new.

I had an area that was "super dead" as it lived underneath some pine trees, and not even dandelions lived there. The soil was acidic, but collected a lot of rainwater, so I decided to turn it into a mini bog. This first area in the picture got a full soil turnover, and a healthy dose of peat moss pales, some coconut fibre, and lots and lots of cut up dead branches.

Get your son to mix it all up with a cool digger while you dig up the rest of the yard.

(just take the bottom of an office chair, and whip up a quick digger on top with dowels and 2x4 scraps ).

Step 2: Dump on Compost, Smooth It Out With a Rake

Picture of Dump on Compost, Smooth It Out With a Rake

Your local landscape supply store will sell you dirt, or compost.

If your soil is in fairly healthy shape, go for dirt.

If your soil is dead like mine was you'll need more of a compost mix.

I ordered a truckload of dirt, and got it dumped before the fence.

I then used a wheelbarrow to haul the dirt into the yard, and then smoothed it all out with a rake.

Make sure that there is an angle so that the water will drain away from your house.

This isn't as expensive as it seems, and once you realize how cheap a truckload of dirt is you'll never pay for a bag of dirt at your local home improvement store again.

Step 3: Till It Up

Picture of Till It Up

Mix your new soil (or compost) with your old soil.

Get ready to dig even more out with your spade if the tiller cannot get into your old soil.

Use common sense, but prepare for your arms to fall off with the vibration of going up and down... over... and over... and over....

When it is all tilled up take out a large level (and/or put it on a large 2x4) and triple check that water will drain away from your house. Do this everywhere because your eye will trick you.

Step 4: Create a Tiered Layer (if You Want) With Cedar Planks.

Picture of Create a Tiered Layer (if You Want) With Cedar Planks.

I wanted a step-down tier layer. Now is the time to add it in before the sod goes in.

Make sure that both layers still angle away from your house to ensure that rainwater and runoff does not pool near your house.

I just used cedars 2x4s. I'm writing these instructions 5+ years after the photos, and the planks are still going strong.

One thing I did do with the cedar 2x4s is I took a steel rod (used for re-inforcing concrete), drilled a hole through the wall, and pounded them into the ground to help ensure they wouldn't shift over time (and they haven't). In retrospect this step was probably not necessary.

I chose cedar because it doesn't rot quickly, and wanted to avoid the chemicals in pressure treated wood.

Step 5: Planting a Blueberry Bog for Areas Underneath Pine Trees

Picture of Planting a Blueberry Bog for Areas Underneath Pine Trees

The trees that killed part of my lawn weren't going away for a while, so knowing that I made a bog, and planted plants tolerant to that (acidic, shady). The best plants that fit this are blueberries, other ground covering evergreens (like juniper). I threw in a few walking onion plants... because they're fun.

To make a blueberry bog:

- dig out the soil,

- layer with as much humus and organic material as you can. I used a lot of branches (mostly) and old mulch. There was a surplus of needles from the trees, so I used that to my advantage.

- put the dirt back on top.

- cover with ground cover material ( I bought fabric, but you can use cardboard )

- plant your plants ( in my case mostly blueberries ).

- cover the fabric with mulch

Step 6: Add a Dry River Bed for the Downspout Drain If You'd Like.

Picture of Add a Dry River Bed for the Downspout Drain If You'd Like.

A dry river bed in the context of a yard only has water when it rains, otherwise.... well it's dry.

It's a nice way of draining water away from your downspout without having to have a big long downspout.

Pretty easy, the time consuming part was lifting the rocks. For my river bed I used rainbow rock.

Learn from my mistake: make this wider than what I did. The grass every year tries to go into the rocks.


- dig a small trench

- lay down some plastic (optional )

- put rocks on top.

My dry river drains into my blueberry bog.

Step 7: Time to Lay Out the Sod

Picture of Time to Lay Out the Sod

Yes... you need a lot. I took this picture after it was halfway laid.

Sod can recover after sitting in a stack, but sod will seat best if it's laid out shortly after it's delivered.

I found I could place my order ahead of time.

Sodding is pretty simple:

- put it on the ground.

- step on it

- water it like all heck in the evening and weekend

Cutting around the corners and existing structures was pretty darn easy, and can be done with an old steak knife.

Lessons learned: account for a bit more waste than you'd normally expect.

Step 8: After Pictures With the Sod

Picture of After Pictures With the Sod

After the sod is laid out, your backyard will look awesome.

Just remember to water it a lot for it to keep.

The ragged edges around the dry creek only took about a week to smooth themselves out as they grew in.

Step 9: After - After Pictures

Picture of After - After Pictures

Finally, the day after you're done sodding, a wind storm will knock a pine tree into your freshly sodded yard.

Then you're done!

Feel free to skip this step.


matthewtweedie (author)2016-09-14

Now i like this house

CraftAndu (author)2016-05-09

Hahha, the last step! :D

TwiggyT21 (author)2016-03-03

Great work, the tree part in the end made me laugh, sorry about that tree though.

nell.matthews.31 (author)2016-02-14

I have a much bigger dry creek bed, 50 ft x 4 ft, to deal with major runoff because I live in an area that often deals with multi-inch rainfalls over 1-3 days. The rock river looked great for the first two-three years. Since then, it is a battle each year to remove weeds and eroded dirt. Section by section, I've removed everything, scraped up all dirt, even washed rocks, and replaced it all only to see more weeds within a few months. The only way to ensure weed-free is to use herbicides, which I dislike because all runoff eventually ends in creeks and rivers. I need a new idea.

Gordyh (author)nell.matthews.312016-02-14

My sister gave me a recipe for an organic weed killer. I have not had a chance to try it yet, but she has and said to be careful not to get it on desirable plants. It kills by contact with the foliage, more delicate weeds will show signs of wilting in a few hours and may be dead in 24 hours.

1 gallon white vinegar

1 cup table salt

1 table spoon liquid dish soap

Mix till the salt is dissolved, then apply to the weeds.

jproffer (author)Gordyh2016-02-23

salt and soil? you're going to wind up with a lawn in which absolutely nothing can grow at some point.

Pointy (author)Gordyh2016-02-22

A more organic weed killer is boiled water. You have some of that stuff left over from cooking anyway. I usually go out back and kill of a couple of unwanted plants at a time. Works a charm. :)

Are the weeds growing from the bottom up, or growing near the top of the rocks? If it's from the bottom up you could try laying down plastic underneath the rocks if you haven't tried that yet, or maybe a deeper depth.

When I re-did my front yard, I did the dry creek bed quite differently than what I did in my backyard (which is this set of pictures). For my front, it was about a 1ft deep * 2ft wide ( * 30ft long), I laid down a thicker plastic. Whereas my backyard the dry creek was only a few inches deep and thinner plastic.
Our back dry creek bed (the one in this instructable) also fills with weeds quickly, but our front does not. I suspect the deeper depth, and thicker plastic helped.

What kind of weeds are growing in yours?

All kinds of weeds from dandelions to loco weed to muscadine grape vines. What every blows in or is dropped by the birds. The lining is a heavy woven ground cloth, which does make for firmly anchored roots, but the real issue is the erosion of dirt into the creek bed. No dirt, no weeds. But the flow of water, wind, decomp, etc. produces lots of organic detritus for weed seeds to root. I will try the burn, baby, burn technique. The extent of the bed makes for a lot of work to hand clear it.

Weedburner ? Very cathartic

masterleo (author)2016-02-22

one year after photos would be great !

SusanH75 (author)2016-02-17

Nice redo

mlowinske (author)2016-02-16

As one who has restored extremely dead soil in my yard, I'd offer some other tips. Don't mix "cut up dead branches" into the soil. They take far too long to decompose once buried to offer any benefit and have the same effect of rocks - impeding root growth. Beyond peat and other fine particulate decomposed organic material, utilize manure. That will add beneficial microorganisms into the soil to aid in further decomposition of the other organic matter you've added. Additionally, add gypsum to the soil to help break up compacted soil if it's high in clay content or you live in a coastal climate where there is excess salt. If your soil is real sandy you don't need to do this however. Finally, never forget to test the soil pH! You can find plenty of resources in books or online to tell you what it should be depending on what you want to plant. You can adjust pH by adding sulfur (to lower soil pH, or make it more acidic) or Dolomite Lime (to raise pH, or make it more alkaline)

valcider (author)2016-02-14

Nice job!

benderjamesbond (author)valcider2016-02-15

Thank you. Nice car, is that a Barracuda?

MY (author)2016-02-14

Nice work! Thanks for sharing. Also, thanks for the additional tip, Pieterv22

benderjamesbond (author)MY2016-02-15

Thank you.

caligulathegod (author)2016-02-14

When tilling the yard it's not a bad idea to check with the local utilities and call before you dig. Most communities have a free call before you dig service who will come out and mark your yard for underlying cables. You'd be surprised how close to the surface they can be.

Great comment. We took advantage of the call before you dig as well in our area. Safety first.

jim_shipley (author)2016-02-15

my yard would not grow grass to speak of but moss did just fine on old hard soil. Moss requires no maintenance at all. All it wants is a little sun and moisture once in a while it is green and looks great.

david.buschhorn (author)2016-02-15

Forgot to add "Sod... loads and loads of sod," to the list of things you'll need.

JohnD316 (author)2016-02-14

It is unfortunate that some yards get neglected and yes the goodness does go away over time unless the original soil is watered and fertilized on a regular basis. Been there and done that and I do not envy those about to take on the task. Nice job though and good luck with it.

I MP (author)2016-02-14

As an alternative to the dry creek/river structure which I admit is an attractive addition to the landscaping, create a rain garden of native pollinator plants. Here in the Twin Cites in Minnesota some of the local governments will give you a stipend for a rain garden since that reduces the run off which eventually ends up in our rivers and lakes. The use of a rain barrel is also an option and provides a source for watering your lawn and associated gardens.

benderjamesbond (author)I MP2016-02-14

Good idea. I tried to apply a similar concept to where the blueberries were planted. It worked well, the rainwater would pool in that area and the blueberries loved the moisture. We wanted to get the water as far away from the house first, and we'd previously had problems with moisture seeping in.

warriorethos2 (author)2016-02-14

benderjamesbond, nice work on the yard. I like landscaping and I enjoy the smell of fresh cut grass. It was a shame that the tree fell onto your lawn but at least the tree is out of the way and the sun can hit your grass so it can grow. Good job on your instructions and pictures.

Thank you. Yes, the tree falling was poor timing, but it became part of the features. I turned the branches into mulch with the blueberries, and the log portion I laid beside the blueberries. It did increase sun exposure, and let me plant brighter flowers along the garage.

valcider (author)2016-02-14

Nice job!

benderjamesbond (author)valcider2016-02-14

Thank you!

anu bubbu (author)2016-02-11

nice restoring


pettitda (author)2016-02-14

Did you run into any tree roots while tilling the soil? I have a large area where grass doesn't grow under a live oak tree. I'm afraid that I'll kill the tree if I till up the soil around it.

benderjamesbond (author)pettitda2016-02-14

I did run into roots, but only when I was digging deeper for the bog, it did not cause a problem when tilling.

I left them alone when I found them.

DBCPhoto (author)2016-02-14

That looks great, the only issue I see is the landscape cloth, it's marketed as being used to suppress weeds. It's really only good if you are doing a bed filled with rocks, even then you'll eventually end up with weeds but it's main purpose there is to stop the rocks from merging with the soil.

Here are a few examples of what happens with fabric in gardens.

In a completely new lawn or garden, you put down the soil, plants, and mulch. The weeds will be minimal for the first couple of years hopefully. But eventually some of the seeds will get mixed in with the mulch and take root. They love rooting into cloth as it gives them a lot of strength. Certain perennial weeds will down roots that will go past the cloth and remain allowing them to keep coming back.

Cloth over an existing lawn or garden will actually trap old seeds and weeds which will kill some but the strong will push through and now it's harder to pull them.

The best option if you're renovating an existing area is to use a few layers of newspaper or flyers, or cardboard. They have to overlap or the weeds will just go through the cracks. With this you get a chance to get a handle on the new garden or lawn and allow the new plants to become better established. The paper will also break down and become food various insects and worms as well as fungi, all which you wants in your soil(provided they aren't destructive). I know some people say using newspaper is bad as some inks have heavy metals in them but worms actually hold the heavy metals in their stomachs when they eat soil or scraps containing them.

danzo321 (author)2016-02-14

There were long-dead cars in my backyard when I got the house, took years of digging up oily dirt and replacing to get it back. It took years because I thought they'd disappear on their own.

hortiproyect (author)2016-02-14

Hi James B. In order to maintain the good job you did I suggest you visit a garden centre and ask for 50 grams of endo-mycorrhiza, 100 ml of fulvic acid and a bio activator with bacteria like rhizobium and bacillus subtilis (serenade).

Mix it and irrigate your garden with the mixture. Attention the micorrhiza should be within 8 hours inside the soil (out of the uv light of the sun) or they are killed.

This little zoo of funghus and bacteria will keep your soil alive for a very long time and will let the grass roots get to 1.50 m deep. Pieter

ac-dc (author)hortiproyect2016-02-14

Ridiculous suggestion. With proper pH and nutrients the grass will already grow TOO fast. Further, even if you were to sterilize the soil, within days it would be repopulated with bacteria.

Even if you seed it with your microbes, in days the native bacteria will take over anyway = pointless for long term, it might accelerate the lawn by mere days for the extra time and expense.

It's hilarious that you think you need to do something for their to be fungus and bacteria in lawn soil. More like there's nothing you can do to not have fungus and bacteria if you have a (live) lawn.

MitchH8 (author)2016-02-14

Hi . Great DIY info here. Just curious however. If my lawn is not any where near as dead as yours was, I can't just rototill it into the old dirt can I? I assume you did this rather than remove any old grass? Cheers :)

benderjamesbond (author)MitchH82016-02-14

If you've got nice soft soil you could probably just till it, but it depends a bit on what your weed scenario is. If you have a lot of dandelions for example, then the dandelions will just grow right back through the sod that you'd lay on top If your weeds are already in control then there is no harm in just tilling the grass in. If you don't want the labour of removing the weeds but are bringing in dirt/compost then you could just layer cardboard or landscape fabric on the old lawn, and dirt on top of the barrier.

PaulS126 (author)2016-02-14

Great job . A lot of fun just reading through...."Feel free to skip this step"

anu bubbu (author)2016-02-11

voted !

anu bubbu (author)2016-02-11

nice restoring

krutais001 (author)2016-02-10

Loved the last step! Will try to repeat it :)

AdrianH2 (author)2016-02-08

Great job, not so good about the pine, but nice to see that it fell clear of the house or other structures -- At least I hope it did. Also nice that you took the extra step/cost of not using treated timbers. A++ job.

benderjamesbond (author)AdrianH22016-02-08

Thanks! It landed on the garage first and then took down the power line, but it missed the house thankfully and everybody was safe, so life is good.

AdrianH2 (author)benderjamesbond2016-02-08

Nice to hear, the storm that followed a prolonged dry spell has placed stressed on the local gum (eucalyptus) trees. 6 major sized limbs completely totalled my little boys playhouse... :(

benderjamesbond (author)AdrianH22016-02-09

Bummer, I hope the best for you. On the positive side, at least nobody got hurt. Good luck.

benderjamesbond (author)AdrianH22016-02-09

Bummer, I hope the best for you. On the positive side, at least nobody got hurt. Good luck.

oscardelben (author)2016-02-09

Awesome idea, I'm so inspired! It'll be great to do some DIY projects to update my backyard and this a perfect one!

Good luck. A nice side effect is it trimmed me up a bit that summer with the effort. I work in an office, so it was fantastic to have a project that had a real-world visualization of progress.

ThatGuyDuncan (author)2016-02-09

I need to get rid of a pine, do you have a separate instructable for that part? ;)

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