I bought a new home with a moderate size (90x40 ft) back yard. Unlike the front lawn, the back has never been planted and is pretty much home to weeds, aside from a small maple tree.

Last year I paid to have the entire lawn sprayed to keep down the weeds. This year I'll likely be doing the same. However, next year I want to spend the time and money to finish the lawn properly, complete with paved patio area, planters and trees. I've had a landscape artist draw up some preliminary plans, so I know what kind of layout I want. I know I want to invest in a sprinkler system and will do some of the labor myself.

Before I get started, I'm puzzled by a couple of things:

The soil seems rocky, with clay, sand and gravel in places. I am unsure whether to bring in some new top soil and till everything together, or remove the existing soil first before bringing in new top soil.

What major steps do I need to take to truly transform a weed-infested zone into a beautiful back yard?

  • if you removed the existing soil, would there be more rock and clay underneath?
    – Doug T.
    Jun 8, 2011 at 21:24
  • 1
    @Doug I'm sorry I should clarify - I meant remove the existing soil before bringing in better quality soil. I suppose this particular item would require someone with experience to make a determination in person.
    – JYelton
    Jun 8, 2011 at 21:55
  • Depends on your climate. A hardy local grass might do fine on that sandy soil. But you might not like the look/feel. Jun 9, 2011 at 16:09
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    @JYelton "a small maple tree" isn't going to stay small forever. Also, "finish the lawn properly, complete with paved patio area, planters and trees" -- what trees are you planing to plant & how many? Do you have a finalised plan of your garden design you can share, so we can see total lawn area & amount of shade the trees will provide to the lawn area?
    – Mike Perry
    Oct 31, 2011 at 19:36

3 Answers 3


Have your soil tested by your local extension office. Its not very expensive and will give you a good idea of your soil contents, composition etc.

My opinion is that depending on what you want to do you will be better of working with what you have than bringing in new top soil. Do some work on your soil, add organic material if necessary etc. However, find plants and develop strategies that work with your soil type and climate.

However, if you want perfect, and your soil doesn't measure up, then you may be better off replacing it.


Many builders will fill a lot with "fill" which sounds like what you're describing. This is not a suitable planting medium, so you will need to add topsoil.

If you're working with a landscaping company, they should be able to tell you whether or not you need to add topsoil. The only reason for removing the existing before adding new topsoil would be to maintain the current grade.


@wax eagle's answer is excellent. I'd just some additional steps to consider. I completely redid a dead lawn a few years back, and I started by spraying the weeds, tilling the whole thing and having about 10 yards of "dillo dirt" (our local municipality's processed, cleaned and composted.. organic matter) dumped, then I spread it, tamped it and put down seed. I'd imagine a similar prep would be good for sod. Top dressings are great, but mixing the new medium with the existing dirt worked extremely well for me- eventually those roots are going to get to the real thing. Follow the sod installer's advice on watering the type of grass you pick. The watering (well the bill) was the most painful part for me.

edit: My biggest regret was not getting a soil test. No big issues, but it could have done nothing but helped

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