I moved into my house back in December of 2015. We still have a dirt yard and want to try and get something in before summer time.

I have had a few quotes that are a little out of budget for me so I was thinking about taking this project on myself and then anything I cannot do I save up for and have done professionally (possibly cement).

My yard has a slight grade at the retaining wall going towards the house. The front left of the house is where the draining areas are on the bricks. That is the direction that the yard is flowing towards.

My question:

Since the yard is pretty tough right now, with a few holes from the dogs digging, what would be the first recommendation in terms of leveling out the yard?

Do I need to till the yard to break up the hard dirt and then screed it out and make it level?

I will be adding in sod, rock and eventually a cement area for seating/fireplace.

I am just trying to figure out how to give myself a good starting area.

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For those who care to see what I ended up doing, pics are below. Also added a citrus tree in the middle of the back wall (not pictured). Most difficult part of the process was getting the ground level for the bricks, the rest kinda fell into place. AZ dirt is a pain in the ass, especially for the trenching, the machine struggled :)

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  • nice job! came out really well
    – JStorage
    Commented May 24, 2016 at 22:08
  • Nice work, well done!
    – Viv
    Commented Jan 31, 2017 at 4:25

3 Answers 3


The ground looks very compacted, so first step would be to aerate and loosen the surface. Some easy tips here: http://www.gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/soil-fertilizers/improving-compacted-soil.htm

Is the block wall around the perimeter of the yard retaining any soil behind it or is it there for security/screening. If it is retaining I would do some more investigation before trying to direct the overland flow/drainage. Otherwise the key is to make sure the ground falls away from the building, so creating a simple swale to direct the overland flow away from the house is probably going to drive the design.

  • 1
    The walls are just there to divide the lots between the houses. They have recently broke ground on the lot behind me so it will be a house with the same type of yard. I figured I needed to do something with the dirt first but wasn't sure if I needed to have anyone come in with a bobcat or anything to break things up and level it out. Again, trying to do this as lost cost as possible so whatever I can do myself would be preferred.
    – SBB
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 14:21

Use the link from the answer above as a good starting point. Do any hard landscaping e.g. paving, paths first. As long as it doesn't impede access for any heavy equipment you may need. All prep now will pay dividends later on. Get the soil right from the start and any plants and trees will establish better, quicker and strongly. That will reduce losses of sometimes expensive plants purchased. I don't know what the building industry is like where you are, but generally in the uk, a lot of contractors will scrape off the top soil (with the nutrients and humus and organic matter) before construction and retain this. The subsoil left behind becoming compacted from the construction. Some less scrupulous will leave rubble and rubbish and bury this, before turfing over it. You at least don't have that one to sort. I don't know if what you have visible is the top soil or the sub soil. It looks from the picture to be quite sandy. If you have sub soil only, hire a rotovator and ensure that to a depth of about 18" there is no compaction. Levelling as you want to. Then you will need to import top soil (from a reputable source to ensure there are no noxious weed seeds in it) and then use this for any cultivation. If top soil is present, take care not to dig this into and under the subsoil. In any event add as much organic matter as you can. Test the soil for pH and nutrient deficiencies. Remedying this to start with. Then start your gardening. Take care to put the glasses in the fridge along with the drinks, to enjoy the fruits of you labour.

  • Thanks for the detailed answer, @rosie. The ground is pretty tough so I figured I would need to use some type of equipment to break it all up. It sounds like I would first do that, then add some top soil and level it out as needed. Since I will be running sprinklers, would I break up the soil, then dig the trenches, then put on the top soil? I just want to make sure I understand the order of things and avoid any costly mistakes :)
    – SBB
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 22:47
  • No problem. Use the kit you need to, to break up the soil for your hard landscaping foundations. If you can put those in first. You will need space to put bags of cement, sand etc nearby. Rotovate the rest, then add topsoil. Try not to re compact the soil. If the soil is very compacted possibly using a sprinkler may make it easier to break up - try a bit in a small area if you're not sure. Put the top soil and organic matter on last. You may find it easier to complete one area before starting in the next. Lay the turf last, but that is a whole different question.
    – user13638
    Commented Mar 10, 2016 at 23:05

I had to do the same thing when I moved into my new house a few years back. However, I used outside help but can tell you the sequence and steps.

  1. Get a detailed design together as to what you want the yard to look like. This includes all drainage, electrical, gas lines and irrigation

  2. I don't know if you need to get approval or permits but that would be the next step before you start the project.

  3. Figure out what you want to do and what to outsource to others.

  4. Start with the drainage. It is important to get this piece right and before the concrete is laid down

  5. Get the electrical and gas lines in place

  6. Get your concrete or tiles done

  7. Finally, prepare the soil, lay down the irrigation and finally plant the trees, lawn, etc.

Good luck

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