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Leveling Your Soil and Preparing for Installation

Man Leveling Soil

Before installing a beautiful new lawn of fresh grass, it is of utmost importance that the ground is properly leveled. Properly leveling your lawn makes it easier for new grass roots to penetrate deeply and evenly. In turn, this makes the lawn more dense and drought resistant, allowing for more efficient use of water and nutrients. A dense lawn also outcompetes weeds and resists insects and disease a little better. This week, Sod University discusses how to level your lawn right before installation so that you can anticipate the best looking yard. First, it is important to take note that this step takes place AFTER you have already removed old or dead sod. There should be nothing left in your yard except for dirt. Refer to our Sod Installation Guide for more details.

To grade a yard is to alter its slope and drainage—a more serious job that is often left to professionals. It is not recommended that a homeowner tackle a grading job on his or her own because of the equipment and professional knowledge required to get the job done right.  On the other hand, leveling a yard is a job that is quite simple for a homeowner to accomplish. A few tools and a bit of time are required, but in most cases, the task is not difficult.

1. Reduce Compacted Soil

First, evaluate the condition of the soil. You don’t want any dirt that is compacted or packed down closely to the earth. Over months or even years, the ground slowly settles. This leads to an uneven surface that is hard for roots to penetrate. If roots can’t penetrate into your soil, your sod eventually dies off. New grass cannot grow and water will not soak into the soil. The worst part is, if water can’t penetrate your soil, it will flow to the lowest lying point in your yard. If the lowest lying point happens to be where your home is located, the water might begin to leak into your cellar or basement. This can be an expensive fix. If your soil is packed, you may need to loosen areas with a hoe or pick. In the future, consider aerating your lawn every so often so that this doesn’t continue to be a problem later.

2. Pull Up or Add Organic Matter

Next, use a hard landscape rake to pull up any growth or organic matter that remains on top of the soil. Before sodding, working the soil is important. Amend poor soils such as heavy clay by adding organic matter. Organic matter includes compost, rotted manure, peat or quality topsoil—all of which you can find at your local hardware store. Lightly comb the rake over the soil so that it loosens everything up. A little bit of organic matter goes a long way into making your soil a little better. When you improve your soil, it helps whatever is growing there—including your garden or grass.

Start by lightly combing the rake over the soil so that it loosens everything up. The darker your soil, the more organic matter it is likely to contain. If the soil comes up in hard clumps or you spot stunted root growth, you may need to add organic matter. If you determine that you need more organic matter, you want enough to add about four to six inches of topsoil to give your sod the best chance of developing a good root structure.

See below for images representing a visible difference between dry soil and soil with organic matter. Recommended product links for a landscape shovel and a bag of organic topsoil are also listed below for examples of what you should look for. Lastly, we recommend using the Area Calculator Tool to find out how many square feet you will need to cover, and then use the topsoil calculator here to find out how much topsoil you will need for your yard: http://www.topsoilcalculator.net/

Pictured above from left to right: soil with organic matter and dry soil without organic matter.

3. Smooth the Soil’s Surface

After the soil has been loosened and moved to the general areas for leveling, flip the rake over and begin the process of smoothing the soil so that you can get a better view of your work. The backside of your landscape rake proves to be a nifty tool for this. See the image below for a visual representation. You may need to do this a couple of times to see how level the ground looks as you add more topsoil to the surface. Using the back of a landscape rake also encourages consistency in leveling across the entire surface of your yard.

4. Wait for Rain or Irrigate

After the ground has been sufficiently leveled, it is a good idea to wait for rain or to irrigate the ground. Many times, air pockets or unsettled areas remain unseen from above ground. This helps the soil settle again so you can anticipate what your yard will look like once you lay sod on top of it. If areas still seem to look unleveled, go back and add more topsoil or try shifting some of the soil around to create a smooth, leveled surface again. If you don’t have rain forecasted anytime in the near future, go ahead and use a sprinkler to irrigate your soil. Don’t over-irrigate to the point that your soil becomes muddy.

5. Smooth the Soil’s Surface One Last Time

After rain or watering, go back over your work once again with a rake to level and smooth the ground. You should now have a perfectly leveled yard with the right amount of organic matter for your new sod to be rolled out on. Adjust soil as necessary.

As previously mentioned, this is one of the steps that goes into properly installing new sod. To learn more, take a look at our installation guide. If you are looking for instructions to level your yard without ripping it up, click here. Lastly, if you are one of those homeowners who tend to get really compacted soil over a period of time, we highly recommend aerating your lawn periodically. Take a look at our Why Aeration is More Important and Less Daunting Than You Think blog written by a product manager for RYAN® , a turf care equipment company.

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