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how to level a steep garden slope

How to level your garden

A well-levelled, flat garden can add curb appeal and value to a property. It can also improve drainage, minimise soil erosion and make your garden a more aesthetically pleasing place to spend time. Luckily, as long as you source the right tools for the job and are prepared to get your hands dirty, achieving the slope-free lawn of your dreams can become a reality. Simply follow our step-by-step instructions below.

What tools do I need to level a garden

First things first - before you start any work levelling your steep garden slope, you’ll need to ensure you have the right tools and materials needed to complete the job properly and safely. This includes the following:

a level garden lawn with neat retaining wall

Step 1: Measure the height and run of the slope

Once you have checked with your utility companies and the local council to make sure there are no cables or pipes buried under your garden that could be damaged, you can start levelling.

The first thing you need to do is to determine the gradient of the slope you want to level out. In doing this, you will be able to work out how tall your retaining wall needs to be. Doing this is easy and hassle-free. Simply place one wooden stake at the highest point of your garden slope and another at the lowest point. Next, attach one end of a piece of string to the bottom of the high stake at ground level, and the other end to the low stake. Ensure the string is as taut with no slack, and that it is as level as possible. A spirit level should be used here to ensure you take an accurate measurement. The string is known as the ‘run’ while the height of the string’s position on the lower strake is called the ‘rise’.

Once you have done this, you can now work out the height needed for your retaining wall and the amount of soil you will need to fill in behind it.

Step 2: Rotovate and water the ground you'll be digging

To make the process of levelling easier, turning up soil in the area you will be digging (usually at the lowest point of the slope) can be a sensible choice. This will make the ground soft, malleable and easier to shift. Ideally, try to make sure the ground is dry before turning it up, as this makes the processes easier. To do this, you can either use a shovel to turn up the ground by hand, or hire an industrial lawn rotavator to make the job quicker and easier. Simply push the rotavator through the lawn until the ground is completely overturned.

Next, it's a good idea to water your turned up ground. This will soften the soil and make it easier to move. However, be careful not to waterlog the earth, as this will make the ground difficult to work with.

rotovate and water ground
a garden retaining wall made from railway sleepers

Step 3: Build a retaining wall

Once you have measured the run and rise of your slope, it is now time to build a retaining wall. This is the most important part of the process, and also the most time-consuming, but it needs to be done correctly in order to properly level your garden.

How to build a small retaining wall

To build a small retaining wall, start by digging a trench that runs across the entire width you want to level, parallel with your bottom slope. This should be the lowest point of your garden’s slope. This trench should only be around a foot deep and the same width as the building material you are using for your wall (typically retaining walls are made from concrete blocks, gabion mesh baskets filled with rocks, engineering bricks or old wooden railway sleepers). You can either dig this trench by hand using a shovel, or hire a small digger to make the job easier.

Next, starting at the end of the trench with the lowest elevation point, place the first block/sleeper in place and check it is level using your spirit level. Continue this process until you have the foundation of the wall built in the trench. You can then slowly build up your wall in layers, ensuring you use the correct cement/mortar/nails/adhesive (depending on your chosen material) to ensure your wall is structurally sound. Be sure to also use your spirit level regularly during this process to make sure your wall is level.

Ideally, your retaining wall should be no more than two to three feet tall - anything higher than this is unlikely to stand-up to the pressure placed on it when spoil is placed behind it. If your garden slope is steeper than this, you will need to consider building a series of staggered terraces in place of one, overly-tall, retaining wall.

Step 4: Reinforce the retaining wall with soil

Once your wall is built, and is structurally sound, it is time to fill the space between your new wall and the top of the slope with soil to create a new level surface. To do this you can either pile in the soil taken from another part of your garden (if you are lowering a separate area) or soil you have bought in, using a shovel or a mini digger. Alternatively, you can use topsoil if the slope is not that steep. This will make planting grass to create your new level lawn much easier.

Once you have piled the soil in behind your new wall, ensure all cavities are removed by compacting it. This can be done using a roller. Once complete, check to ensure that your new lawn is level using a spirit level. If it’s not, add more soil, repeat the rolling process, and measure once again.

reinforce a retaining wall with soil.jpg
plant new lawn

Step 5: plant your new lawn

To complete the levelling process, plant new grass on top of the newly exposed level soil, or purchase turf which can be rolled out to create a new lawn. If you are planting grass seeds, follow the planting instructions provided on the packet and water accordingly. If you opt for pre-grown turf, place the sheets as close to each other as possible, ensuring each is flat. Don’t worry if your new lawn appears patchy at first - once the grass has fully taken root, your new level lawn will look great.

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