Introduction: 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)

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

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

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.

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

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.

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

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

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

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.

Before and After Contest 2016

Second Prize in the
Before and After Contest 2016

Brave the Elements Contest

Runner Up in the
Brave the Elements Contest