Emily Winters: The Big Patio Dig

There’s a lot to be said about making progress in a big, laborious project. We feel good. The space in the yard where the flagstone patio is going to live looks good. Our muscles, well, they should look really good after all of the pain subsides, because digging and dragging stones around the yard makes for a workout unlike any that you can get at the gym.

After we selected materials and had them delivered, we were pretty excited to get started on the big patio dig out and begin to prepare the yard. The prep work itself is time consuming and laborious, but so important, and every step we took involved thinking ahead to make sure that the finished surface would be level and graded properly, solid, and not going to be prone to shifting around.

Planning for the patio installation.

The tools of our DIY trade were kept to a minimum for this effort: We obviously needed shovels to dig out the grass, but we used our cordless 36V Tiller to loosen the underlaying soil so it too could be cleared out. We used buckets to eventually move the gravel from the driveway into our patio space, and a manual tamper to compress the base (although in hindsight, we recommend renting a gas-powered vibrating plate compactor for about $50). An axe was used too, but only because we really needed it to remove some old roots.

Keep on reading to see this week’s (amazing) progress, and get some practical tips for preparing your yard for a DIY patio.

Pete and I chose to take on the next part of our backyard patio project during two partly-cloudy afternoons over the last week. The section of our yard that is soon to be home to this new patio is often shaded in the afternoon thanks to some mature trees, and it was much easier to tackle digging and moving rocks in indirect sunlight.

I’m not sure if you noticed in one of our photos of the yard in its before state (shown in last week’s post) but there was a little tree right in the center of what would be our backyard patio, but because it hadn’t shown substantial growth in the time since I planted it a few years ago, I didn’t feel so bad tearing it up. I actually think it was diseased based on some leaf markings, but that’s not my area of expertise. Fortunately, it wasn’t well-rooted and came up pretty easily with a shovel. Timberrr…

Removing a tree to clear room for a patio.

We had envisioned the a round patio all along; whether or not we’ll be able to achieve a nice round patio with jagged flagstones is yet to be seen, but we did cut the grass out with the expectation that we’d be able to make it work. The green garden hose served as our cutting guide, but we’re realistic and know that there could still be some grass seeding and edging work to be done when all is completed.

Using a garden hose to make a circle.

In hindsight, digging out the grass and soil in the backyard would have been ten times more difficult if it had been a rainy week, but we lucked out. The grass was dry, even golden summertime brown in many spots, and the underlying soil was lightweight (in comparison to saturated mud, anyways). The roots of the grass we cut through weren’t like that of healthy lush grass, and using a straight-edge shovel I was able to remove the top layer (the grass toupee, if you will) with reasonable ease.

Using a straight-edged shovel to remove grass in the backyard.

The dog was quick to make himself at home in the space that we had already removed the grass. He does find a way to involve himself in any project we’re doing, and this was no different.

Cody, making himself right in the way.

Removing grass and tilling the underlaying soil loose is the easy part; what’s not easy are all of the obstacles within that soil that we weren’t expecting. Things like metal pipes in cement (I guess there was a clothesline in the backyard at one point!). Old metal garden stakes (those were tough to remove, because the spears dug deep into the earth). And sizable tree stumps and roots (signs that yes, there really were big trees on our property at one point!)

Roots in the way of our patio excavation.

We created some levers using scrap wood to pry up some of the roots, but we had to bring in the axe to sever them in a few places as well. Taking turns, this root, the biggest of all the excavated roots, was freed in about 20 minutes. A 5-year old snapped this photo, that might help you appreciate it’s tilty-ness.

The big root, freed.

After clearing out all of the grass and establishing where the outer edges of the patio would sit, we were tasked with removing 6″ of soil, so that our underlaying crusher rock, sand, and flagstones would sit within the earth and be flush with (or slightly above) the rest of the grass in the yard.

That same first day, we successfully removed about 2 inches of the dirt, creating, incidentally, a bit of a raised garden bed:

Beginning to remove the soil for the patio.

After another few hours digging on the next day, we had managed to the other 4″ of soil removed, leaving us with a nice 6″ trench in our backyard.

Clearing out more soil for the patio.

From there, our efforts were focused on tamping the soil so that it was packed securely. We lightly sprayed the soil to keep the dust to a minimum, but it didn’t make the process any more easy. And it seems that there are no good pictures of us taking turns at this point in the process, because we were actually doing work on the computer in between taking turns with the tool. The tamper is just set in the soil for this picture. Let’s just say that manual tamping is blister-inducing and physically exhausting labor.

The tamping has begun.

Also not shown, I used a 12′ 2×4 board at this point to determine whether the dug area was close to level but grading away from the garage; by placing the board flat on the ground, and then putting our 4′ level on top of it, we were able to check the grade and take extra little slivers of soil off certain areas of the base, since we wanted any water run off to come into the yard, sort of towards where I’m standing for this photo:

Clearing out the patio.

With the soil sufficiently solid, it was time to move in the crusher rocks. We had bought a few yards, hoping to achieve between 2-4″ of underlayment beneath the sand and flagstone; recommendations varied from supplier to supplier, and even between contractors that we inquired with too.

Because the backyard is a challenge to drive into (as in, you can’t do it) we had the crusher delivery deposited in the back of the driveway, as close as we could get it to the backyard.

Crusher delivery.

To transport it to the backyard, we shoveled the rocks in buckets and carried them back one at a time (or two at a time, if you’re Pete). This took a long time, as you can imagine. We went layer by layer, pouring and compacting only 1″ at a time using two 1″ PVC pipes as a guide to keep the stones raked and tamped to that specific depth. (Using pipes like this is more common with the sand layer, but worked well for us here too.)

Laying crusher for the patio.

Getting it compacted was a long but steady process. Once we had one inch sufficiently tamped and still level/graded as we planned, we proceeded with the next inch, and performed the same action until we were out of stones (getting about 4″ of crusher throughout).

Packing the stones.

As we finished the process, it felt solid underfoot and looked really good.

Laid crusher.

We’re busy gearing up for the next phases this week: laying sand, and figuring out how to arrange stones.

Ready to begin laying sand and flagstone!

More to come next week!

Catching the home improvement bug at an early age, Emily Winters is a now a devoted DIYer living in Rochester, NY. The projects she covers on her blog Merrypad range from painting a wall to building a deck, so it’s only natural she landed at DIYNetwork.com. You can follow Emily on twitter at @merrypad and like her on facebook at facebook.com/merrypad.

18 Responses

  1. caitlin622 says:

    where is the final product??

  2. MarcioWilges says:

    Isn't it just lovely being able to clear out debris and creating a space for yourself in the garden? All the amoving and removals of unwanted plant matter so that you can do what you want with your yard is just so… LIBERATING! Can't wait to see the final product with all the new greenery put in!

  3. Nikki says:

    All the information I have been reading is for mostly level areas,what if there is a slight incline in the backyard ? Do you still use the same method for leveling?

  4. Bernadette says:

    Both are doing great work to make that space into handy part within their house. I really like the way they are continued the job. It's inspiring, because I've a huge space in my backward and looking forward to make that useful by doing similar type of project. Thanks.

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  8. [...] DIY flagstone patios dramatically changed the landscape in our backyard (you can read about that here, here, here, and here) and this year, I’m setting out with a plan to improve the front yard [...]

  9. [...] mini-series, start at the beginning by reading about how we planned to build a new patio and then how we excavated the space. If you like it, share [...]

  10. [...] DIY flagstone patios dramatically changed the landscape in our backyard (you can read about that here, here, here, and here) and this year, I’m setting out with a plan to improve the front yard [...]

  11. [...] of this mini-series, start at the beginning by reading about how we planned to build a new patio, how we excavated the space, and how we positioned thousands of pounds of [...]

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  16. Maria Cartwright says:

    Great job so far! Sounds very labor intensive. I'm thinking about tackling this on an even smaller scale in the fall. Looking forward to the next report.

    • emily says:

      Thanks! You should consider it! When I started planning, I did think this was going to be "smaller scale," har har, and then I got carried away making sure there'd be room for chairs and a chimnea, and the dog, etc. The bigger plan involves creating a interlocking walkway through a whole part of the yard, and I'm already thinking that'll have to wait until next year (or maybe five years from now, I'm pretty sore). This was a good test run for that big project!

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About Emily Fazio 


I caught the home improvement bug at an early age, and now I'm a full-time DIYer living in Rochester, NY. The projects I cover on my blog Merrypad range ...

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