How I Used Newspaper, Grass, and Leaves to Level My Yard and Amend My Soil

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In the above image, it is apparent that my garden area is far from level.  What you cannot see is that my plot is currently 10 times more level than it was 10 years ago.  It is also not apparent that the soil in my yard is extremely sandy. [I live just a few houses away from the Atlantic Coast].

When I bought my house, there was a severe drop from the back door to the back and side edges of my yard.  My yard was not even suitable for placing garden furniture.  Invariably, the back legs of furniture would be several inches lower than the front, and there wasn’t a level path anywhere.  When walking from any point A to any point B, my body had to assume a slanted position.  I had to walk diagonally.

My first project was that of creating a relatively level path from the side gate to the back door.  Doing that required several truck loads of dirt.  Then I tried to stabilize the path by planting several different levels of various ground covers, but it was almost impossible to control the erosion.  I realized that I couldn’t afford to buy enough dirt to level the entire yard, and instead, I launched a campaign to create the dirt that I needed.

Because grass and weed control was initially also a problem, I began by covering my entire backyard with several layers of newspaper.  On recycling day, I would raid the trash for an immense amount of newpaper.  At the back property lines, I stacked newspaper at least 2 feet high, and this barrier became almost as strong as a concrete retaining wall.  Then I began filling the yard by varying layers of grass clippings, compost, and dry leaves.   It became a seasonal routine for me.  During the first summer, I covered my yard with several sheets of newspaper.  In order to stop the lawn’s grass from growing and to prevent weeds from sprouting, the first few sheets of newspaper were overlapped at the edges.

Then I began the soild-building process.  I covered the bottom sheets of newspaper with grass clippings 2 or 3 inches high.  This is a green layer.  On top of each green layer, I placed 2 or 3 inches of a non-green layer of dried leaves and or shredded newspaper. Whereas the sheets of newspaper become rather impenetrable, the shredded newspaper breaks down quickly.  Then I topped the non-green layer with another green layer.  As the top green layer began to decompose, earthworms began tunneling through the dry layer to feed on the green layer above it; and as the earthworms tunnel through the dried matter, they chew the leaves into smaller particles and they  excrete waste that serves as fertilizer.  Continuously moving and chewing, the earthworms are actually responsible for the soil’s transformation.

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The above image is a patch that has been working for about a year.  Last summer, I piled grass clippings here, and during the fall, I covered the spot with leaves.  Months later, in July of this year, I needed leaves in a new area that I was beginning to build.  After the top leaves were removed, I could see the almost decomposed grass.  As I gathered the leaves near the grass layer, I found several huge, red worms.  For me, that is a sign that the process is working.

Earthworms are essential for good gardening–especially for organic gardening.  Their castings provide natural fertilizer; and gardens rich with earthworms have fewer problems with garden pests.  In addition, as earthworms move throughout the garden, they increase its aeration.

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The process is slow.  At best, I create several inches of actual soil each year.  Above that soil, the old layers of decomposing grass and leaves are a good level to begin  the coming year’s soil project.

This year, I scattered a couple of inches of soil on top of the previous year’s mix; I added new plants; and I filled around the new plants with soil that I had stored in another area from previous years.  Considering that the plants had been in containers that were about 6 inches tall, as I filled in around the new plant, I feel sure that the usuable garden’s level increased 6 to 8 inches during this one season.  It is reassuring that as the garden has begun to level, the process is beginning to speed along.

Now that the summer’s grass clippings are available, I plan to begin another level of soil building on top of my current layer.  By this time next year, this area will have risen about 9 inches and of that,  I will have created several inches of actual soil.  That doesn’t sound like much, but considering that the entire garden rises that much each year, the results are more impressive.

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It has taken several years for me to build the higher ground behind the planters.  This year, I have used some wooden boxes to retain the high ground.

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I am using wooden boxes as planters that simultaneously serve as a terrace.  This summer, I’ll place grass clippings to reach the top of the planters.  The planters will help me guage how much new dirt I actually create this year.  No doubt, I’ll move the planters to a higher level next year.  I essentially replant much of my yard each year–raising the plants to the yard’s new level.

At this point, there is about 10 feet from the back of my garden to the back of my lot and the side boundary is about 6 feet behind the rose trellises.  Although I have leveled the enitre side of my yard,  the far back of my property is still very low.  Both the back and the side boundaries of my yard are very shady and little will grow in deep shade.  I have concentrated my soil building to the sunny areas in front of that shady back and side. The first few years, I concentrated on leveling the first half of my side backyard. I have continuously added some grass and leaves to the rest of the backyard, too, but most of my effort has been on the front side of my house.  This year’s focus will be on the middle side of my backyard.

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