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Replacing compacted soil - can it be done?

First of all apologies for the total ignorance in this question! I am an enthusiastic gardener but still only a beginner.

I am moving to a new house with a huge south facing back garden which is a total blank canvas - it was pretty much why i bought the house! It is all lawn, the previous owners did nothing to it except mow the grass. I plan to put in flower beds and a new path and a pond etc too.

However because the garden has literally never been touched the 'lawn' is actually extremely lumpy weeds and the soil is heavily compacted very, very clay soil. In my previous property it was much the same but on a much smaller scale and it took literally years of back breaking work of adding compost and grit, and it was quite soul destroying - I'm not ashamed to say there were tears at one point!! It genuinely put me off planting anything in the end as the soil was just so heavy and clay like even after all the compost added.

In my new garden I would really like to avoid this scenario somehow if I can. One idea I had was using raised beds for all the new flower beds, however I'm not overly keen on the look of this. My question is - is there any way of literally being able to (pay someone else to) dig up and replace all of the existing soil with a new top soil / compost that is better to work with. A bit like sunken raised beds, if you like. Would it cause drainage problems?

Or is there anything else I could do (hire a machine of some kind?) to help with the back breaking task of sorting the existing soil out with new top soil? All ideas welcomed! 


  • josusa47josusa47 Posts: 3,531
    One thing I advise you NOT to do is rotavate it.  It looks like a quick, easy way to break up the soil, but it will chop the weed roots into lots of little bits and each one will grow a new plant, so it will be weedier than when you started.  Best thing I think is start nearest the house and work on it bit by bit, cutting and composting the top growth, digging out roots and digging in well-rotted manure.  This will improve the soil structure and add nutrients.  Maybe add some horticultural grit too, to improve drainage.  Maybe have a weekend work party, invite all your mates round, lay on beer and pies and enjoy the craic.
  • Lizzie27Lizzie27 SomersetPosts: 10,527
    You could hire somebody with a mini digger (if you have access) to scrape up all the existing top soil and replace it with fresh bought in topsoil but it wouldn't be cheap.
    You might like to get at least three quotes to see if it was doable.
  • Thanks both for your replies! Lizzie, if I did do that there wouldn't be any issues with drainage? If the top X amount of feet of soil was top soil and compost ie. great drainage but it sat on top of heavy clay underneath that was very compacted, I wondered if this would cause any issues?

    Josusa - thanks on the rotavater - that is something I had been thinking of, so good to know! In my previous garden I tried to do just this but it was such soul destroying work on a fraction of the size garden and it didn't actually seem to help a huge amount - after 5 years and a lot of hard work with compost and grit I still didn't seem to have soil that wasn't big lumps of clay....
  • OmoriOmori North YorkshirePosts: 1,659
    I've had something similar done.  We had a double garage removed, as you can imagine the soil was very poor indeed, being covered in a thick layer of sub base and what not, and completely compacted from the weight of the garage.  We had a landscaper remove all of it and replace with tonnes of top soil.  If there is good access, it is actually fairly quick if they can bring in equipment to move the soil.  Only took a day with two people.  Regarding drainage, we are also over heavy clay in this part of the garden.  We had this done a year ago and so far no problems. 
  • Omori, thank you! That's great to know! Out of interest to you know how much soil was removed and replaced? Wondering how deep I'll need to go.... 
  • OmoriOmori North YorkshirePosts: 1,659
    I can’t recall the amount in tonnes but it was about a two foot depth.
  • hogweedhogweed Central ScotlandPosts: 4,053
    You may want to think very carefully about this. Most lawns can be salvaged. I think over 50% of this country's lawns are on heavy clay and they can look good. So perhaps only think about replacing the soil in the areas you want flower/veg beds. In which case you need to have at least a proper plan of where you want to have beds as if you do go ahead and get soil replaced, you need to do it all now rather than do it piecemeal (you will not want a digger to be trunding over your beautifully cared for lawn in a few years time!). 
    You say you are a beginner gardener - how big is your garden?? You may also want to seek some help from a professional gardener before you are much further down this line. He/she should be able to tell you whether the lawn is salvageable - which I'm sure it will be - and give you advice about the soil, best position for new beds etc. I think a few pounds spent now on reliable advice will be money well spent. 

    Me, the first thing I looked at when buying my current house, was the type of soil in the garden. Heavy clay and I would have been well gone! That's why I have a cottage with 'well draining loam'. 
    'Optimism is the faith that leads to achievement' - Helen Keller
  • HelixHelix 704m altitude...Posts: 631
    Look online for images of raised beds.  There are some lovely ideas with soft curves and flowing shapes. It could end up easier and cheaper just to do some beds and work on the lawn over time than dig things up.
  • KT53KT53 GloucestershirePosts: 7,548
    Rotovators can do a great job but, as josusa47 says, they are not without their own problems.  On heavy clay they can certainly make the problem worse as the tend to compact ground at the limit of the 'dig' depth.
  • Thanks all - yes sorry Hogweed I wasn't clear - the only place I'm wanting to replace the soil is in the areas where the new flower beds would go (quite a large area). The garden is approx 80ft - image below! What will be left of the lawn I will try to salvage before going down the route of replacing the turf, as I know this would be an expensive job. Although the lawn is in terrible condition - this photo doesn't show how much really is weeds and there is a huge raised hump running all the way down the middle that you can just about make out in this pic.

    What I'm most concerned about getting decent soil where I'm going to be planting. And yes, definitely intending to have a full garden plan in place beforehand and will be doing this work at once rather than piecemeal. 

    Unfortunately everything around here in Essex is heavy clay but the worst of it is a garden like this which hasn't ever been touched or improved the soil - it's a great blank canvas, but so hard to work with! I dream of well draining loam  :D

    Omori - thanks on the two foot, that's what I wanted to know! 

    Helix - I have done a lot of Googling and while there are some (I will need curved) which are ok, I just feel "ok" about them rather than loving them. I guess it's trying to weigh up that with the ease of working with raised beds vs replacing all the soil as I'm wondering about...

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