A bumpy, lumpy, groove-ridden yard that looks more like a battlefield than something you’d practice your putting on is not only unsightly but notoriously difficult to maintain. While a professional landscaper could do the job for you, in this article we’re going to show you how to level your backyard all on your lonesome and on the cheap in seven easy steps.
Before that, let’s take a look at a few questions you might have about leveling your yard.
Should I Try to Level My Yard Alone?
Paying a professional to level your backyard could cost anything between $1,000 and $2,000, depending on the size of your yard. If you choose to do take on the task on your lonesome, however, it should cost no more than $500, even if you have to buy or rent new equipment, but is far more likely to be closer to $100 if you are resourceful and make do with DIY landscaping equipment (see below).
In addition to the savings you can make by going it alone, the other considerations are the difficulty involved and time. While some of the stages described below require a fair amount of manual effort, for any moderately fit person capable of handling a rake and shovel this should not be prohibitive.
How long it will take you to complete the job will naturally depend on your own pace, the size of your yard, and just how uneven your lawn is. Even if you happen to work at a very leisurely pace, however, the job shouldn’t take more than a day or two. As a ballpark guide, you should plan on taking roughly one full day of work per 300/400 square feet of lawn.
What’s the Difference Between Grading and Leveling?
Although some gardeners use ‘grading’ and ‘leveling’ interchangeably, there is, in fact, a distinct and important difference between the two:
Grading refers to sloping your yard away from the foundation of your home so any excess water will drain properly and away from your home. This not only helps prevent the lawn from becoming waterlogged in spells of heavy rainfall but also protects your house and its foundations from potentially damaging exposure to excess moisture.
Leveling your lawn or yard area refers to making the surface area smooth and bump-free. While primarily aesthetic, leveling your lawn can also help to prevent other problems like improper drainage, pooling (which can lead to outbursts of weeds and attract mosquitoes), and scalped areas where your lawnmower blades scrape over bumps or hillocks.
How to Level Your Backyard: 8 Easy Steps
Step 1: Collect Your Kit
If you happen to already have heavy-duty landscaping equipment like a roller or even a Bobcat, then leveling your lawn is a lot easier and quicker. If not, however, the job is perfectly doable with the following kit:
- Landscaping rake
- Flathead shovel
- 4 Stakes
- Ball of string
- Line-level/carpenter’s level, brick layer’s level, or a string level
- Lawn Roller
- Wheelbarrow or Cart
- Topsoil or Mulch
Step 2: Decide How Much of Your Yard Needs Leveling
At this stage, you can gauge how much of your yard needs to be leveled by visually determining whether the bumps and lumps are confined to one area or are prevalent throughout the lawn or yard. Doing so will save you digging up the whole lawn unnecessarily or, alternatively, digging up just one section only to later discover it would have been better to de-turf the lot.
So, how’s it done?
First, give your lawn a quick trim with your mower. Next, walk around your lawn looking and feeling with your feet for grooves and bumps or ridges. As you go, mentally dissect your yard into quarters and assess which quarters need to be leveled.
Step 3: Tear Up the Old Turf
For depressions or sections of your lawn that are only one inch or less lower than the rest of the soil, you can save yourself the trouble of a full-blown re-turf by using topsoil to level out the low spots and reducing bumps with a shovel.
After adding the topsoil, use the reverse of a landscaping rake and/or a lawn roller to level off the new soil and compact the soil further by watering, adding more soil if need be.
If however, the grooves and depressions are deeper than one inch, or if the slope on your lawn drops from one end to the other, then the easiest way to level things up is to start from scratch by removing the old turf.
This can be done as follows:
- Use a flathead shovel to remove the turf in the desired area by cutting squares roughly two feet on all sides and 2/2.5 inches deep and then sliding the shovel under the cut square to extract it
- If you find the turf is coming up easily, you can make larger squares to save time
- When cutting under the square, try to do so at a uniform height to keep the soil as level as possible
If you have de-turfed just a section of your lawn:
- Add topsoil in the de-turfed area, making sure the new soil or dressing is at more or less equal height to the surrounding terrain
- Flatten the topsoil with your rake or shovel, add lawn seed if desired, and water the area to compact the soil/dressing
Step 4: Redistribute Soil With Your Shovel
When dealing with a larger area of lawn, you’ll probably have to flatten bumps and lumps and fill in depressions in order to make things as level as possible before the next step.
This can be done by simply transferring the dirt you remove from the raised area to the depressions and low points, removing rocks and clods of dirt as you go.
Step 5: Till the Ground to Soften It Up
Making the soil more manageable and malleable before you get down to the next step in the leveling process will save you a lot of time and effort, particularly if working on a larger section of the lawn.
This is done by using a tiller, which will essentially break up the top 3/4 inches of soil, leaving it loose and easier to work with.
If you are looking to raise the height or level of your lawn with topsoil, add one or two inches of topsoil to the tilled ground and pass over the ground once more with the tiller. Spread 2-inches of topsoil and till it into the first 2-inches of subsoil. This reduces the potential for future drainage issues between the two layers of soil.
If you don’t have a tiller and have time and energy to spare, you could feasibly take the shovel-jump approach demonstrated in the video below in smaller lawns:
Step 6: Stake Out the Area You Wish to Level
Remember those four stakes mentioned back in Step 1? Now’s the time to get them out!
- Start by sharpening the points on one side
- Drive them into the four corners around the area of land you want to level
- Tie your string around the tops to create a square or rectangle
- Fix your line level to the string and measure every 3-5 feet to determine which areas require raising and which require lowering: if the bubble in the spirit level is between the two lines, then you’re good to go; if not, get your shovel out and redistribute the soil accordingly
Step 7: Flatten the Soil
Using the back of your landscaping rake, flatten the soil, taking care to check your level from time to time to ensure you are nearing a flat finish.
To simplify this task, it may well be worth making yourself a DIY lawn drag like the one featured in the video below:
Step 8: Lay Sod or Start From Seed
Finally, finish off the job by laying fresh sod or seeding the soil for regrowth. In both cases, be sure to water the treated area regularly in the subsequent days.
Deciding which of the two methods is best for you will depend on a few factors.
First up, if you are in a hurry to get the job done, then sod is the way to go. As demonstrated in the video below, laying your sod can be done in a matter of minutes, giving your lawn a brand-spanking-new appearance with the minimum of effort.
Secondly, if you’re working on a budget or simply don’t fancy shelling out hundreds of dollars for sod, then seeding the leveled area is the way to go. The downside to this method, however, is that it may take several weeks before the new grass is fully through and, depending on the temps in your area, you may be limited to planting or seeding in late spring, summer, and early fall.
Finally, when buying your sod be sure to check that you’re getting sod that’s a good match for the soil in your yard. This can be done by taking a sample into your local garden center or store and having them send a soil sample to a lab for analysis. When the results come back, you can then choose the sod best suited to your lawn’s existing soil type.
To see how to lay sod in your yard, check out this video from Odell Complete:
Leveling your yard all on your lonesome may well seem like a daunting task, but the benefits of learning how to level your yard and then taking on the challenge — better drainage, increased manageability, overall better appearance, lots of saved $ — far outweigh the hardship entailed in the job’s requisite dirty work and manual effort.
And once your friends see what a good job you’ve made, moreover, you’re sure to get plenty of invitations to lend a hand with leveling theirs!