This was the situation of woe we faced in our back yard. The yard slopes downward towards the woods, and is in the shade for most of the day. It was getting to be — unpleasant. Instead of a verdant sea of grass, we had a lot full of dirt and gravel. Who wants to sit out on the patio and look at all that?
We had tried patching, and had only brief success. The first sign of extended hot weather and it all wilted. The topsoil had been washed away, and all that was left was hard-baked clay with a little dust on top.
We decided to take some more extreme action. the BIL suggested trenches filled with white gravel then covered over, to help move the water away safely without turning the yard into a full-blown canyon. A little reading suggested that the more thorough approach involved lining the trench with landscaping fabric, putting in some gravel, then some 4″ perforated PVC pipe, more gravel, wrap the top with the remaining landscaping fabric — a burrito! — then covering it all with soil and planting seed on top. I guess technically it’s a “swale,” a word that was sort of new to me.
A simple plan
Ow, my back
Turns out that hard-packed clay and dirt is in fact really hard-packed. We banged on it with shovels to scant effect, then I went out and rented one of these things: A gas-powered tiller. The soil was so hard-packed that the thing mostly bounced up-and-down. Finally with a lot of focus I was able to drive the thing a few inches down to loosen the top layer. Then I rolled it 90 degrees crosswise in the trenches to un-stick them.
Along the way we dug up boxes of rocks and, interestingly, coal. We’ve found hunks of iron down in the woods that indicated the house was heated with coal once upon a time. The bottom of the yard was layered with coal ash, as though they’d just clean out the furnace and drop the debris out back. And interspersed was a pretty good quantity of chunks of fossil fuel.
At the end of a run, we found one (fortunately, only one) concrete footing for something. A swingset? A fence? A bird feeder? Who knows — but it wasn’t going anywhere. For all we knew it was three feet deep, and it took 15 minutes to expose even this much.
And after all that digging and gas-powered grinding even that wasn’t really enough. I took a heavy 18-inch screwdriver that a home inspector had left behind, and started hammering it in with my 3-pound hammer, then tilting it to break up the dirt. Finally after hours of hands-and-knees digging and scraping I thought I had enough to start to lay down my burrito.
This part actually wasn’t so bad, though it involved some serious bending over.
25 bags of topsoil wasn’t going to do it. A nearby person was giving away fill dirt, so I took two wheelbarrows full. I also went down to Public Works and got four big contractor bags full of compost. It’s amazing how that much soil just sort of disappears when you start to lay it down. Nevertheless E., with some smart raking and spreading was able to get a nice coating of fertile dirt all across the yard, topped off with a layer of peat moss.
Once that was done, she started distributing grass seed!1 She devised a little shaker gizmo out of an unused drainpipe cap, and started distributing the lovely green seed across the yard.
The exciting part
Watching grass grow! I picked up a wide-range sprinkler with a timer wheel, so I can turn it on a few times a day. As a more faithful lawn waterer I’m confident we can finally succeed at this!
Update: A week later
1. I’d thrown in the towel at this point and was reduced to getting drinks. Turns out hauling a half-ton of soil on a 90-degree day is a bit much for me. I’d started to feel sunstroke coming on.