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.

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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

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Before and After Contest 2016

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    52 Discussions


    3 years ago

    Hahha, the last step! :D


    3 years ago

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


    3 years ago

    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.

    6 replies

    Reply 3 years ago

    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.


    Reply 3 years ago

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


    Reply 3 years ago

    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.


    3 years ago

    one year after photos would be great !


    3 years ago

    Nice redo


    3 years ago

    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)


    3 years ago

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

    1 reply

    3 years ago

    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.

    1 reply

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


    3 years ago

    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.


    3 years ago

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