Moving Earth to Change the Lay of the Land

Many landscaping projects require that the contours of uneven ground be smoothed. Gardens, pools, patios, and playgrounds, for example, all need a level tract. Lawns, too, are more attractive and easier to maintain if they are relatively flat. Although some earth-moving jobs are extensive enough to warrant the hiring of an excavating company, a surprising amount of earth can be moved by hand, in short sessions of digging and hauling.


Stones, stumps, logs, and other large debris must be removed before a site can be leveled. If a rock is too massive to be moved by the technique that is shown on page 25, either call in professional excavators or modify your landscape design to incorporate it—as the centerpiece of a rock garden, for example.

Don’t try digging out a large tree stump by hand. Rather, rent a stump grinder; burn the stump with a special chemical solution sold in garden-supply centers; or cut the stump off just below ground level, cover it with dirt, and let it decompose naturally.

TOOLS Spade Garden rake Metal rod or digging bar Sod cutter Line level Wooden stakes and string


If a plot of land is perfectly flat, water will pool there during a rain. To ensure that water drains properly, grade the site so that it drops at least 1 inch vertically for every 4 horizontal feet. Make sure that the grade slopes away from the house.

If different parts of your yard slope in different directions, wait for a steady, heavy rain and observe the natural drainage patterns for an hour or so. Then establish the right grade for each part of the yard by the string-and-grid method described on pages 26-27.


If you purchase earth to top off a grade, buy topsoil—a mix of earth and fertilizers from which stones, wood chips, and other debris have been removed—rather than fill, which often contains dense chunks of clay as well as rocks. A cubic yard of soil will cover 300 square feet of ground to a depth of 1 inch.


To avoid back injuries, lift heavy loads as much as possible with the muscles of your arms and legs. As a further precaution, wear a lower-back support—either a weightlifter’s belt or a back-saver brace of the kind used by furniture movers.



The right way to wield a spade

Standing upright, set your foot atop the blade of the spade and force it deep into the earth. Place your hands in the positions that are shown in the second picture above above, and push the top of the handle down, using the tool as a lever to dislodge the soil. Flex your knees and slide your lower hand down the handle for better leverage. Keeping your back as straight as possible, use your arms and legs to lift and pitch the soil (third and fourth pictures).

A two-hand lift

Holding your torso erect, squat as close as possible to the load to be lifted (far left). Keep the load close to your body and stand up slowly, using your legs—not your back—for lifting force (middle left). To lessen strain on your back, hold the load close to your waist (near left). When you turn, move your entire body, without twisting your torso.


A one-hand lift

Bending your knees slightly and keeping your back straight, lean forward from the waist to reach the load. Using your legs for lifting power and keeping your shoulders level, raise your body upright to lift the load. Extend your free arm for balance.


Clearing logs from a site

With a sturdy, rigid rod or digging bar, maneuver the log onto a roller—a smooth, cylindrical piece of wood or a section of iron pipe. Tie a rope around the forward end of the log. Pull the log slowly over the roller, slipping additional rollers under the forward end to keep the log supported. As each roller comes free at the back, move it to the front.


Moving a rock

With a rod or digging bar, lever a heavy stone—up to 100 pounds—onto a sheet of heavy canvas or burlap. Grasp the cloth firmly at both corners of one end, and use your arm and leg muscles to drag the rock from the site.




Skimming sod from the surface

With a sod cutter, remove the sod in strips from the area that will be leveled. If you intend to relay the sod on the plot after grading, gently roll up the strips, move them off the site, and unroll them again. Keep the sod well watered until you are ready for replanting.

Leveling ridges and depressions

Working when the soil is neither wet nor dry but slightly moist, transfer the dirt from obvious high spots in the plot to low spots. After you drop each spadeful, use the blade’s end to break up compacted soil into chunks 1 inch across or less.


Setting a slope with stakes and strings

Drive stakes at the four corners of the plot. The stakes at the lowest corners (generally farthest from the house) should be tall enough to roughly match the level of the highest corners’ stakes. Tie a string to one of the higher-corner stakes and stretch it along the side of the plot to the lower-corner stake opposite. As a helper checks a line level (photograph) hung from the string, raise or lower the string as necessary to level it. Mark the lower stake at the level of the string. Move the string down the stake to set the desired slope (page 29). Tie the string in place there. Repeat the procedure on the other side of the plot, then complete the boundary by tying leveled strings between the stakes at the top and the bottom of the plot.


Line Level

Laying out a grid

Drive stakes at 6-foot intervals just outside the strings that mark the boundaries of the plot. Create a grid over the area by tying a string between each opposite pair of stakes, setting the string at the level of the boundary strings. Make sure that the grid strings are taut.


Grading the surface

Working in one 6-foot square at a time, use a heavy rake to break up the soil to the consistency of coarse sand and spread it parallel to the plane of the string grid. Smooth the plot with the flat top side of the rake. Remove the stakes and strings.