5 Ways To Level a Yard This Spring

There are only two ways to move fill dirt for lawn leveling, but several for determining how much you need. Here are four of the most common.

Got gophers? If so, that’s one reason why you might want to level your yard. Those pesky little critters can wreak havoc, turning flat earth into an obstacle course of dirt mounds and caved-in tunnels.

And if your ideal is a nice flat yard covered with healthy turf, you’ve got some work to do before you plant any grass seed. That is, of course, assuming you first get rid of the gophers.

There are plenty of other reasons why you might want to level your yard. Perhaps you need to solve a drainage issue, like a depression that fills with water when it rains, creating a mosquito breeding ground.

If the slope around the house directs water toward the foundation instead of away from it (AKA a negative slope), re-grading can stop basement flooding and prevent the foundation from settling. Or maybe you just want to spot-fill depressions to make mowing easier.

To accomplish any of these tasks, you’ll need to move some dirt around. While renting earth-moving equipment is always an option, Tim Gillett, the founder of Santa Cruz, California-based pond installation service Pond Magic, says he and his crew usually opt for the less costly shovels-and-wheelbarrows method.

Those two methods are your only choices for moving dirt. But there are several more ways to measure slope and determine where the dirt should go.

The String Method Is Most Common

To level a large area, Gillett pounds stakes into the ground around the perimeter, stretches strings between them and levels the strings with a line level. It’s a great way to measure slope as well as identify high and low areas between the stakes.

On sloping ground, tie the string close to the ground on the high side and stretch it as tightly as you can before tying it the stake at the low side. Make sure there’s no sag in the middle. Hang the line level on the string and move the end on the low side up or down as needed to center the bubble.

The difference in measurements from the string to the ground at both ends tells you how much dirt you need to bring the low end level.

You can also use a variation of this method to correct a negative slope around the house. Instead of leveling the ground, you want a slope in the opposite direction. So set the string to the slope you need. When you add dirt with a shovel or earth mover, keep the surface a uniform distance away from the string.

Go High-Tech with a Laser Level

A laser level works like an invisible string. Here’s how to use it: Set the transmitting unit on the highest ground, then set a 2×4 on the lowest end. Both need to be vertical or it won’t work. The difference in heights between the two indicates the slope. Then add the amount of fill needed to correct it.

Use a Water Level for Large Areas

Water seeks its own level, a characteristic used for centuries to measure ground elevation. If you fill a transparent plastic tube with water (preferably dyed so it’s easier to see) and leave a small amount of air in each end, the water levels at the ends will always rise to the same height relative to the earth’s center of gravity.

One advantage of this method over strings and lasers: It works when vegetation obstructs the two areas you want to measure. It’s a good way to identify a gradual slope that directs water in a direction you don’t want it to go, and tells you how much fill you need to correct it.

Use the Screed Method for Depressions

When you fill sunken areas of the yard, use a length of 2×4 as a screed to bring the added dirt level to the surrounding ground. Use a straight 2×4 that’s long enough to span the depression, and drive two lengths of rebar on one side to hold the end and act as a pivot.

When you add dirt, overfill the depression slightly. Then lay the 2×4 on its edge and draw it over the depression to create a flat surface, moving excess dirt out of the way.

When you fill a depression, the fresh dirt will settle, so you usually need to wet down the first load to compact it. Then add a second load. You can also compact the soil with a lawn roller.

Spot Leveling

Divots, gopher holes and other depressions make mowing a pain and create tripping hazards.

If the depressions are more than two or three inches deep, don’t dump dirt directly into them or it will probably wash away. Instead, cut the turf around the holes with a shovel, remove it, fill the holes with a soil/compost mixture and replace the turf. The roots will stabilize the fill dirt and hold it in place.

Chris Deziel
Chris Deziel has been active in the building trades for more than 30 years. He helped build a small city in the Oregon desert from the ground up and helped establish two landscaping companies. He has worked as a carpenter, plumber and furniture refinisher. Deziel has been writing DIY articles since 2010 and has worked as an online consultant, most recently with Home Depot's Pro Referral service. His work has been published on Landlordology, Apartments.com and Hunker. Deziel has also published science content and is an avid musician.