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Levelling garden and starting from scratch

Hi everyone,

I'm new to gardening, due to finally living somewhere with a garden, and we're hoping that quite soon we're going to be able to get some work done on our back garden.

We've got roughly 130 square metres of area, which I think is clay soil, and is very lumpy and uneven, weedy, grass is in patches, and there's probably submerged rubble too. We want to get it all dug over and levelled and basically start from scratch. However I hadn't quite appreciated before the amount of materials we will need to achieve this for our size garden. So I'm exploring the options we have to try to save money if we can.

We've planned to bring in a friend in who is experienced with using mini diggers in gardens. However I am not sure whether they have a gardener's knowledge on the best methods for preparation so am trying to do as much research as I can. As we're on clay, and I've read that this can cause drainage issues for lawns, I want to try to make sure we do everything correctly to give the lawn the best start. 

So my first question is, would the digger effectively work like a large rotavator, just to a deeper level? Would this be enough to break up the lumps of clay with no further concerns, or is it a better idea to bring in a rotavator just to be sure?

I've read that it's a really good idea to work in organic materials to clay soil to prepare for lawn, but with 130 square metres it seems this would be a lot of materials. Is this necessary, or just a bonus if you can afford it? I've read somewhere online that wood chips can be very good to dig in to clay soil, and we do have a large oak tree which we will be exploring getting removed as it is very close to the boundary and the roots are already causing issues. Could we use chippings from that to dig in to save on costs, or would it give us the wrong soil nutrients?

Due to the size of the area I think we will realistically have to seed the lawn. I wanted to avoid this as I'm worried about weeds coming through, and whether this will prove to be a false economy. We've already got plenty of weeds in the lawn, and don't want to end up doing all this work to get back to where we started. Is it safe to seed this size of area? And if so, should we use more top soil to eliminate the risk of weeds?

I know that Rolawn Medallion seems to be the preferred turf and seed brand of many professional gardeners, but are there any other brands worth looking in to? I imagine their top soil is also highly recommended but it is very expensive compared to others. I've found a site called and wondered if anyone has used this company before and knows whether the materials are good quality? They are cheaper than Rolawn but they don't seem to mention how many square metres one of their bags covers so I'm finding it a little tricky to work out the true comparison in price.

I appreciate any help and advice you can give.

Lucid image



  • GemmaJFGemmaJF Posts: 2,286

    Using a digger may actually compact the clay. First though you will of course need to remove any rubble, so you may have no option but to bring in a mini digger if it cannot be done by hand. What is the drainage like now? A picture or two will help. There is a lot to your post, I'm sure though the good folk here will work through all the options and provide all the information you need. image

  • i agree that a mini digger will just compact the soil, we laid 250m sq of turf last week that my boss had repeatedly gone over in a mini digger to level and spread top soil! It'd have been better just to do it with wheel barrows and rakes in my opinion. He is obsesses with engines though, I mean he uses hedge trimmers to prune camellias 

  • LucidLucid Posts: 385

    Thanks for the replies GemmaJF and Rhod Crompton.

    I just tried to upload a photo but it didn't seem to want to work. I guess we haven't exactly had huge puddles of water in the garden, aside from when it has been very heavy rain, but even then not huge puddles. It's a little tricky to know for sure as we don't go out there much at the moment. Most neighbouring gardens have got nice looking lawns though so I'm wondering if it's as much of an issue as I'm expecting it to be.

    Would a rotavator also risk compacting the soil?

    Lucid image

  • Busy-LizzieBusy-Lizzie Posts: 21,695

    I think a rotavator would be better than a digger, I use one in my veggie garden, which is well over 200 m2. The only problem is that they tend to chop up perennial weed roots like bindweed so you end up with more weeds if you don't pick them all out.

    Woodchips are fine as a mulch to keep weeds down and moisture in but they shouldn't be dug into the soil, especially when fresh. They tie up nitrogen and inhibit natural fungi in the soil which makes it less fertile. That is one reason why they are a weed inhibiting mulch. You can add wood that has been through a shredder to a compost heap to rot down.

    We had a firm to level and sow our lawns as the area was over 2000 m2. They rotavated, didn't remove perennial weeds or use weedkiller. With hindsight I think it would have been better if the whole area had been treated with glyphosate and left to die down before the work started. But not everyone wants to use weedkillers.

    There is a problem on the site at the moment for photos. Click on the oak tree symbol, upload your photo as instructed, then an error notice in computer speak will appear, just click on OK at the bottom right and it will disappear, then wait. Your photo will eventually appear depending on you internet speed, then click on "save".

    Dordogne and Norfolk. Clay in Dordogne, sandy in Norfolk.
  • LucidLucid Posts: 385

    Thanks Busy-Lizzie.

    So we could possibly keep the wood chips for mulching then - although storing them would be an issue as I imagine we'd have a lot. 


    Here's my 2nd attempt at uploading a photo, taken soon after we moved in. It shows most of the garden, other than the section nearest the house. The top left side of the garden (in the photo) is a higher level than the house end.


     Lucid image

  • GemmaJFGemmaJF Posts: 2,286

    The picture helps a lot. It does look like it may be a bit wet in the winter. I can see where people have walked on it and left a path, usually a sign it is a bit squidgy under foot. It does not look drastic though. You have some shading going on to one side too, which tends to leave the ground wet for longer.

    Rotavating will cure compaction, my rotavator is my best friend for gardening clay soil. image A good thing to add to the soil is 'long manure' that is manure that has some straw still visible in it. Also coarse horticultural grit both will help with drainage.

    My approach would be to first hand dig it over, turning the existing turf over face down ( that will help add some organic material to the soil). Spread some long manure and grit, rotavate over to a fine tilth. That would be the basic prep.

    I would then want to see that is is draining OK. If all is well level it and finish either with top dressing or bought in top soil.

    Seeding works OK without too many problems in my experience, if you can avoid going on it as much as possible while it establishes. Turf is very instant.

    There is the option to slope the lawn down as it moves away from the house. Then if there are any wet patches they are at the far end where they hopefully won't cause any problems. I've done this with my garden as we had a couple of very wet winters that caused a lot of problems with standing water.

  • TopbirdTopbird Posts: 7,882

    Hi Lucid

    Some good advice above - particularly Gemma's advice about using some coarse organic matter to improve the soil structure. What are you actually planning to do with your garden? Are you just intending to grass it or are you planning borders / patios / veg patch etc? If you are planning any / all of those it might be worth working out just how many square metres you will then need to grass. If you are losing large chunks of the garden to any of the above it might make the purchase of turf more affordable - and turf does make for an instant garden that you will be able to walk on after a couple of weeksimage

    I garden on clay soil which is very heavy, sticky and compacted in places. We used a mini-digger in our garden because we had to have quite a bit of drain work & landscaping done. If it's definitely a mini-digger (ie one small enough to go through a garden gate) and the 'driver' walks it between locations (ie doesn't sit on it to get from a to b - he just sits on it to do the actual digging) then we found it didn't cause too many additional compaction problems.

    However, I would not use it in place of a rotovator or garden spade for breaking up the soil. I would use it solely for stripping off the existing turf and digging out really large chunks of rubble. 

    I would also be very wary of using a rotovator (if you do have clay soil) when the soil is very wet and sticky. We found the rotovator skidded around all over the place, was actually extremely difficult (possibly a bit dangerous) to use and really started to compact the soil - so much so that we abandoned it until things had dried up a bit.

    We used a mini-digger to strip the turf and then the rotovator to turn the soil & levelled using spades and rakes. We bought in loose organic matter (half top soil and half farmyard compost) by the truckload and barrowed it round the garden before using the rotovator again to incorporate the organic stuff into the soil. 

    When I say 'we' I actually mean a couple of burly chaps - it's pretty hard physical work - but I'm a good foreman & make good tea and bacon butties  - so it was a team effort image

    Heaven is ... sitting in the garden with a G&T and a cat while watching the sun go down
  • GemmaJFGemmaJF Posts: 2,286

    For sure a rotavator is a no go on wet clay. Even if you can get it going it will quickly just clog up around the splines and be useless. It can take ages then to clean all the clay out. Guess how I know. image Picking the right time with clay is very important, mine is workable right now, but we have had a very dry spring so far.

  • LucidLucid Posts: 385

    Thanks for your posts GemmaJF and Topbird.

    We have had a quote in the past for the work so the 131 square metres was for turf based on our plans according to the gardener. We are planning to measure up ourselves as well just to double check.

    Our plans will depend on whether the tree removal is possible, which depends on cost etc. We expect it's going to be expensive as it is a tall tree, but at least it doesn't spread right out as well. We would like the concrete at the bottom of the garden to be removed - some of it already has been since the photo above was taken. The plan is to have a workshop type building there in the future (pending tree removal), but for now it'd be a shed. We are going to have flowerbeds on either side, but not running the entire length of the fence. We're very new to gardening so want to keep things manageable in the start. We're also planning for a patio at the house end. I'm also keen to have a wildlife area with a small pond, so thought the digger would be useful for that too.

    I think we worked out the Rolawn turf would potentially cost a bit over £500, so it's not ridiculously expensive, especially considering the issue of weeds, but I hadn't quite realised just how much top soil and compost we'd need to use to prepare the lawn area. It'd be impossible for us to buy enough top soil to make up the recommended depth of 150mm, so I'm hoping this isn't absolutely essential.

    Lucid image

  • TopbirdTopbird Posts: 7,882

    I think I would be tempted to dig a few test areas by hand just to see exactly what  the soil is like and to get a feel for how much rubble etc might be there - you might be pleasantly surprised. Remember the golden rule of gardening - plants really do want to grow & that includes turf. If, therefore, the soil is actually in reasonable condition and you are prepared to dig it and get in a friable state, (sounds as though you are!) you might get away with no top soil at all.

    Have you spoken to your neighbours? They appear to care for their garden and might be able to give you an idea of what sort of work you will need to to do to get things as you would like them. They might also have some contacts for sources of cheaper compost etc and maybe some good general gardening advice (gardeners love to share!!)

    Heaven is ... sitting in the garden with a G&T and a cat while watching the sun go down
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