Over the years my lawn became progressively bumpier, to the point where scalping the lawn while mowing was a common occurrence, and our two year old would frequently trip when running over bumps or low spots. I began doing research on lawn leveling and after watching a few You Tube videos on professional lawn leveling, I was officially obsessed. This article will outline the results of my research, my results to date, and my plans going forward. I’m not planning on getting all the way to putting green standards, but the principles hold true no matter how serious you are. Keeping your lawn level is an ongoing process, but with some simple steps it’s really quite easy and can make a huge difference to the quality of your lawn.
Why is it Important to Have a Level Lawn?
A smooth, even lawn, without bumps or depressions, is important as it provides a much more usable surface to walk on. Any activity (athletic or otherwise) will be made safer and more enjoyable – from soccer, croquet, bocce ball to just running around. For kids and adults alike.
A level lawn also contributes to a healthier and easier to maintain lawn. Not only does it result in a better quality cut, because your mower won’t be scalping the lawn, you can also mow more quickly because the mower isn’t jumping around. Not to mention, mowing over a bumpy surface is simply uncomfortable (much like driving over potholes in your car). Low spots are of particular concern because as the tires pass over them, the level of the mower blade also drops, plunging it into the higher spots and cutting the grass there too low. The last advantage to a level lawn is drainage. Holes and low spots tend to collect water in pools, which increases chance of lawn disease.
What Causes a Lawn to be Bumpy?
Before anything is done to correct bumps and unevenness, you must first diagnose why they occurred. Often there is an underlying problem that needs addressing. Removing this cause before correcting the effect is crucial to finding a long term fix. Sometimes bumps and depressions can be the result of drainage problems, or even broken water or irrigation pipes causing erosion. If there are, for example, two to three low spots around areas where there may be water or drainage pipes, you should investigate to make sure that nothing is leaking. Consult an expert if necessary.
A sprinkler system is a common culprit for erosion since the water lines are prone to damage and the whole system requires regular maintenance. To investigate, check that the spray heads and rotors are working correctly and popping up to their full height, that the nozzles are not clogged or damaged, and that the heads are not leaking.
Ground settling is another common cause of a bumpy lawn. Over time settling occurs which causes depressions. This is largely unavoidable. Specifically, if you have a new lawn, or if you’ve had yard work done or large equipment on your lawn. Freezing and thawing cycles can accentuate this in cold-winter climates. These cycles can cause soil to heave and become bumpy and uneven. In Spring, bumps often appear as clay soil thaws unevenly. It can heave and create ripples in your lawn like a bunched-up carpet.
Another source of lawn bumpiness is simply having a thin lawn from a disease or insect problems that is weakening an area. This results in patches of bare soil. These areas then erode even deeper with rainfall, wind, and activity, resulting in depressions when compared to the surrounding area of healthy lawn. This was the primary source of unevenness in my front yard.
Other sources of bumps can include buried objects such as wood debris from construction (this should be removed), people walking on lawns that are too soft (like in the early spring or after heavy rains), and animals. Animals, both wild and domestic, sometimes dig holes in lawns. If the bumps are from burrowing animals, like ground hogs or moles, they will have to be removed or repelled. Lastly, ant mounds can be a cause of significant bumps. These will be readily apparent, due to the presence of ants. Ants don’t harm the grass, for the most part, and can actually help keeping other pests in check, however, when they form large mounds it becomes a problem.
Lawn Leveling Equipment
Basic equipment needed to level your lawn is pretty simple: a hand rake, landscape rake, plastic leaf rake, a large push broom, a shovel, an edger, and a wheelbarrow. Additionally, the tool I plan to use this spring is a leveling rake, like the Accuform AccuLevel by Par Aide or a similar one on Amazon. Here is a video of one in action. They are also known as a ‘Levelawn’. Used by golf course greens-keepers, this is the ultimate tool for distributing leveling materials. It removes stones, breaks up small clumps, and creates a super smooth surface. It does a much better job at final leveling than just a landscape rake or push broom.
Steps to Leveling your Lawn
Before you get started, assess the severity of the problem. Do you have mostly small bumps and unevenness or is your lawn like the surface of the moon? The severity will dictate your approach. Small holes and depressions can usually be addressed by topdressing or just filling them in and re-seeding. However, if your problem is more severe, you’ll need to resort to more aggressive treatment such as re-grading.
Leveling Out Slight irregularities
For the slightest of bumps (less than 1”), it may be possible to flatten them by stepping on them during the spring months when the ground is soft. A water-filled roller can also be used. Fill the roller about a third full of water and go back and forth over the lawn. If the surface hasn’t smoothed out, add a little more water and repeat the process until it’s level. However, be careful that you don’t overdo it, as rolling will compact the soil, which can cause other problems.
Topdressing is the least invasive approach and works well for leveling mildly uneven areas. I was able to address most of the unevenness in my front yard through topdressing, however I plan on doing it again this spring with a leveling rake, which I’m expecting will improve my results. These are the basic steps:
- Mow the lawn at the lowest setting possible;
- De-thatch the lawn with a garden rake or de-thatcher;
- In a wheelbarrow, mix up a batch of leveling mix. Compost based mixes are good for this;
- Apply scoops of soil mix to low areas of the lawn using a shovel;
- Rake the topdressing to spread it out evenly. Apply 1/4″-1/2″ of soil mixture on top of the low areas. Only 1/2” of material can be applied at a time so that you don’t smother the grass;
- With a push-broom (or leveling rake), work the soil mixture into the grass as thoroughly as possible. You should see mainly grass once complete;
- Water the grass to further stabilize it; and
- Monitor the progress in the area. If its still uneven, repeat these steps until its level (once the grass has had a chance to recover). For small low spots and depressions, you can gradually correct them by sprinkling top dressing over them.
What is the Best top dressing for leveling lawns?
There are two main choices for a lawn leveling top dressing: sand or a sand-soil mix. For leveling purposes, pure sand is the quickest and easiest. Sand provides excellent structure and leveling properties, will help with drainage, and can cling to the clay in the soil. Be aware that too much sand can leave your grass dry and thirsty because the water will slip right through.
Sand-soil mixes, on the other hand, come in a variety of compositions, or you can mix them yourself. A common mix is 30% soil or organic compost and 70% sand. The compost/soil brings in nutrients and beneficial bacteria that your lawn needs as well. Sand alone brings no nutrients or microbial value.
The best top dressing for your application should be dictated by your existing soil (which your soil test will tell you), and the extent of your leveling. If you need to over-seed portions of your lawn after leveling, you’ll want a soil-mix, to enable seed germination. If you’re just leveling, and aren’t worried about nutrients, than sand will likely be your best bet.
Filling Small Holes
For small animal holes, sometimes just filling the disturbed soil back in and topping them up with topsoil is a good repair. If they’re small the existing grass can grow over the hole. For slightly larger holes, fill them with topsoil, pack it down and ensure that it’s level. Over-seed with a similar grass to what is already growing in your lawn. Feed and water the seed diligently. Check out my article on overseeding here. For ant hills, I recommend using a spray, like this one. After trying a few ways to get rid of a large ant mound I had, I used a spray, which worked on the first try and didn’t hurt the grass.
Leveling Out a Moderately Uneven Lawn
What if you have a few really low spots in your lawn (an inch or more deep)? For these spots, topdressing is probably not your best course of action as it could take a while to work (since you have to proceed 1/2” at a time). Instead, you should consider removing the sod, correcting the cause of the sinking, and then back filling with new soil with enough extra to allow for settling. The removed sod can be put back in place. Follow the steps below:
- Remove the sod over the low spot (if the area is bigger than 1 foot square, cut out multiple chunks (to make them easier to move without breaking) and set them aside. I recommend not cutting the pieces any wider than 18” strips. Gently pull them up so that the roots separate from the soil. Roll up the strips to keep them moist. Move them to a shady spot if you’re in the sun;
- Shovel enough topsoil into the hole that, once you replace the sod, the area will be even;
- As you shovel the soil into the hole, add water to settle the soil. This will remove air pockets;
- Replace the sod if its still in good shape, or replace with new sod or seed; and
- Water the grass thoroughly. I recommend not doing this project right after a heavy rain. The soil will be thick and damp and hard to handle.
Leveling Out a Severely Uneven Lawn
Finally, if your lawn looks like the surface of the moon, you likely need to resort to more extreme measures. Topdressing or the sod cutting method will likely not be sufficient to solve the problem. You may need to regrade the area and establish a new lawn. This was the case for me in my backyard, as you can see from the pictures. Part of the yard was sloping towards the house and half of the yard was too steep to be usable. I did the majority of the work by hand which I found to be the best option for a yard this size. I was able to be a lot more precise than a machine would be. You can see I did have a tractor, but that was mainly for removing an old patio and digging the foundation for a new one.
How to Re-grade Your Yard
The first rule of grading is that the ground should always slope away from your house. It should drop at least two or three inches every ten feet. The maximum slope in a lawn should be no more than twelve inches for every four feet. If the drop is greater than a foot you should plan to build a small retaining wall or cover the slope with a ground cover or ornamental grass. Here are the basic steps:
- Place stakes in the ground so that you can establish a slope line for the yard to drain properly. Alternatively, a more accurate way to measure your yard’s slope is to use a transit level. This is my preference. They can be rented fairly cheaply from your local equipment rental store. You’ll need two people to get the measurements;
- Once you’ve established your slope, start removing the topsoil from the problem areas. Adjust the subsoil by scraping away high areas and filling in low areas. Depending on the size of your yard, extensive grading may require some larger equipment. This type of equipment can be rented or alternatively a landscape contractor can be hired;
- Spread 2-inches of topsoil and till it in to the first 2-inches of subsoil. This will reduce the chances of drainage problems between the two layers of soil;
- Finally, spread the rest of your topsoil, which should add at least another four inches;
- Once your final grade is established, you can lay sod or you can start grass from seed. The finished grade (after amendments and new grass) should end up matching the level of existing the fixtures (walkways, patios, and the established lawn). This will be an inch lower for sod than for seed.
New Grass Considerations
If using sod, make sure the grass is thoroughly rolled to stabilize the lawn and reduce foot prints in the coming weeks. Be sure to water well to help the grass reestablish itself. Add fertilizer to encourage root growth. Keep foot traffic off of newly sodded or seeded areas as much as possible and set up some sort of barrier to keep people and pets from stepping on the area for at least a couple of weeks.
What’s the best time of year to Level?
Time your repairs carefully. For basic repairs, try to time them for the spring. This will allow your grass time to grow in and will also provide the moisture necessary to help set the soil. Although Spring is the best time, with respect to moisture, it can also be the worst time. The ground is usually very soft because of the snow-melt, which could result in new bumps if there’s too much traffic. Do not attempt leveling in the winter when the grass is dormant.
Once your lawn is level, it goes a long way to take preventative measures to not add new bumps or depressions. The two main things you can do are:
- Avoid creating ruts from your lawn mower wheels when you mow the lawn by changing your cutting pattern in between cuts; and
- Keep foot traffic off of the lawn when it’s very wet.
After reading this article, I hope you can appreciate my lawn leveling obsession, and perhaps learned a few things. Keeping your lawn level is an ongoing process, but with some simple steps it’s really quite easy and can make a huge difference to the quality of your lawn. Stay tuned for more leveling updates!