Just ripped up pavers--steps to grass & flagstones?

pbl_ge(5/6)August 26, 2013

Hi Folks,

We just pulled up brick pavers from our backyard. They popped right up, so I don't think there was any mortar involved.

Underneath it was a bit gravelly and sandy. Here's a close up, for what it's worth:

I'm sure they dirt is also very compacted--those pavers were there for close to a decade.

So we want it to look like this eventually:

We're wondering if we need to rototill, or just hoe. We have some high quality dirt to spread thinly, but we're hoping that we don't need a ton of it. What do you think?

What steps would you recommend?


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Just curious as to why the pavers were lifted up in the first place.

I have a tight set un-mortared brick patio that's held up for 60 years so far. I might pull an errant weed or two occasionally, but I'm not tripping over heaves or uneven spots, weed whacking or clipping around lots of edges - or hop scotching from paver to paver as your third photo shows. I suspect I'm older than you and I do know I'm not as sure footed as I once was.

Obviously, I can't offer suggestions as to laying stones or the amount of dirt needed. I'm quite surprised no one has chimed in so far.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2013 at 1:14AM
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10 years is nothing next to Duluth's 60 and our 30+, but you are probably right about that soil being compacted. If the job was properly done, the area was tamped before the first stone was laid.

You are going to have to do something to loosen that soil, and, depending on the soil, may well need a ton of good quality soil - spread it thinly and your turf will have a shallow root system susceptible to every stress. A perfect scenario for weeds.

Test the soil first: pH, nutrients and composition (percentage of sand, clay, silt, organic matter). Choose a turfgrass suitable for the location - consider amount of sun, water, traffic (with a walkway running through it, probably something that can take a good deal of foot traffic ... you know feet won't always land on the stepping stones) and the amount of maintenance (irrigation, fertilizing, pest/disease control) you are willing to invest. Then amend the soil according to the chosen grass's needs.

You can rototill, but by experience I learned it takes a lot of work to break up and level out all the clumps, and if you don't you'll end up with a lumpy lawn. An easier option, though probably not desirable for that location, is the lasagne technique: layering compost ingredients right on top of the compacted, poor soil and letting the soil organisms do the work for you over the next couple to several months.

This is the best time to renovate or establish a new lawn, so you're on track in that respect.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2013 at 11:38AM
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I hope you like to run the weed eater. Once the grass is established you will find that each stepping stone will require weed eating to prevent grass from overgrowing them. An endless job. Hope you saved some of those pavers as in time you may want to install a paver sidewalk instead. Also, setting each stone level at the time of installation and keeping it so over the years requires time and attention. Pretty to look at landscaping feature which requires additional maintenance.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2013 at 1:09PM
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Thanks for the responses. We ripped up the pavers because they were actually already uneven (there used to be a nearby tree) and needed a lot of weeding. Additionally it was the wrong place for a patio-type area. It made that zone hot, dusty, and uncomfortable, when it should be a pleasant walk to get to the real deck midway in the yard. We also just didn't like the aesthetics.

My husband has assured me that he'll take care of all the edging. We're not fans of razor-straight edges, so we likely don't have the same standards as some of you. We'll likely clean it up thoroughly a couple of times a year and otherwise just let it go. We like a wilder look, as opposed to super-"built" hardscaping.

So to the soil: I did some additional investigation, and it appears that the top few inches are a sandy mix of soil and gravel. (The soil test is a good idea, although my OH is rather antsy about this project.) I think you're right that just layering the better soil on top would lead to poor root quality. The lasagna method doesn't seem like a good plan here, as this is near the house and we have a lot of critters trying to get into our compost. We do have good soil and a lot of compost prepared--what would you recommend we do with it, short of rototilling, to avoid the shallow rooting problem? Just hoe it in with the first few inches and let the "soil organisms" do their thing?

Also, someone on the lawn forum suggested we apply a dilute clear shampoo solution to the area, but he didn't come back when I asked him what the purpose of that was. Anyone have an explanation?


    Bookmark   August 29, 2013 at 2:37PM
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mad_gallica(zone 5 - eastern New York)

For heavy rocks in clay soil, it works to just dig out a hole, and place the rock even with the soil. They stay put remarkably well. They aren't a tripping hazard that way, and the mower just goes over them. However, the grass can just grow over them also. So if the rocks aren't going to be totally covered with grass, they have to be cleared out regularly. That's your maintenance, and it is fussy, hand and knees work.

For a walk the length of what you are talking about, this is probably going to be at least a day's job every time it is done. Much, much lower maintenance to either have a grass path through the lawn, or a paver path.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2013 at 3:08PM
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It was a lot of pavement for that setting, I can understand the undesirable effects, especially if tree roots lifted some of the pavers.

Except for nutritional analysis, your soil testing will be a snap:

1. For pH, check with the local office of your State Cooperative Extension; they usually do a pH test while you wait, free of charge ... and will tell you what and how much to add to adjust if necessary. Soil for turfgrasses should be in the 6.0 (preferably 6.5) to 7.0 range.

2. For soil composition, use the jar test. If you have children, they'd love to help and watch the results. Take a clean, straight-sided jar (mayonnaise, Mason, etc.) and fill about halfway with your soil. Fill almost to the top with water. Add a drop or two of dish washing liquid. Screw on the top securely. Shake to mix thoroughly, then set it down. You will see the sand begin to settle out immediately. Silt will settle next, and may take an hour or so to settle out. Clay will take the longest to settle out, several hours possibly. Organic matter will float or settle out last. You will clearly see the proportions of each component of your soil.

3. As for nutrient analysis, the test kits available in garden centers will give reasonably good results if used correctly. Sending a soil sample off to your extension service soil lab would give you more accurate results, but that can take several weeks for results and probably not necessary in this case.

Clay has minerals, but tends to compact, resulting in poor drainage. Sand makes for good drainage, sometimes too good, taking any fertilizer with it, resulting in a nutrient-poor, dry soil. Turfgrasses are not happy in either situation. Organic matter will lighten clay soil to help with drainage and aeration (plants get oxygen through their roots), and will improve the water and nutrient holding capacity of a sandy soil.

Turfgrasses need a minimum of 4" good topsoil, preferably more. 8" would be better. The deeper the topsoil, the deeper the roots can grow and the more resilient your grass plants will be.

Check to see if the soil in this area is like the soil in the rest of your yard. It is common practice when laying a walk or patio to dig out some soil and replace with gravel and then sand for a good base. If there is a hardpan of compacted clay beneath the sand and gravel, you could have drainage issues.

I have no idea what the dilute clear shampoo solution is supposed to do - would love to know if you ever find out.

It looks like you are already well into gardening, so probably know the importance of good soil and a healthy, diverse population of soil organisms. Doing the prep correctly now will save time and effort in the long run.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2013 at 6:21PM
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To understand the reference to applying diluted shampoos or organic liquid soaps do a search for the general topic "surfactants".
A worthwhile practice which greatly aids 'opening up' compacted soils.

    Bookmark   August 29, 2013 at 9:10PM
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All the articles I read (from educational institutions) note that surfactants can be an effective remedy for poor infiltration if the soil is hydrophobic (water-repellent) but not in the case of compacted soils. So I still don't understand the recommendation for a surfactant in this case.

    Bookmark   August 30, 2013 at 12:08AM
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If you want a good healthy lawn that does not require excessive amounts of both fertilizer and water and that does not immediately turn to weeds, take the time to develop a good, deep seed bed. That means at least 6-8" of loose, organically rich and well drained soil. You could add 6-8" over the top of your existing soil but that may very well raise the grade too high, not to mention the expense of that much additional soil.

Ideally you need to loosen the current soil down to about 4-6 inches and bring in another 2-3 inches of amended garden soil. Rototilling is hard to avoid in these circumstances, as you need to blend the two soil types. Then rake to grade and seed, hydroseed or lay sod. The same preparation is required regardless of how the lawn is installed.

This is one of those situations where taking shortcuts in either time/labor or investment is just not worth it. Do it right the first time as you cannot go back to correct (without starting over from scratch) and you will be struggling with weeds, water and fertilizer from now on.

    Bookmark   August 30, 2013 at 6:46PM
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The subject of surfactants and compacted soils has come up for discussion again. Speaking from personal experience, I began using non-ionic soap surfactants for this type of situation over 30 years ago. Much of my work was associated with construction lands that had been heavily compacted by panning with heavy equipment. When a soil is compacted it does become hydrophobic. Also, a discussion with someone working with Arnold Palmer who was attempting to get a Scottish golf course whipped quickly into shape for a major tournament indicated that surfactants had helped greatly to improve poor draining, compacted golf greens and fairways. I have used it ever since and these days almost every horticultural spray has a surfactant included, used as a 'sticker' as do many of our food stuffs.

For easy application I use Method dish washing soap (from Target. It does not include a lot of additives) poured full strength in hose end container. Set dial on 3 tablespoons per gallon and spray compacted areas. Also works sprayed on those pesky non draining spots around the yard several times a year for those dealing with that type of situation.

    Bookmark   August 30, 2013 at 8:12PM
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Thanks everyone for your input! This is very interesting information. I did want to add what the other posted wrote in the lawn care forum:

Posted by dchall_san_antonio 8 San Antonio (My Page) on Thu, Aug 29, 13 at 21:26
I did not develop the shampoo treatment. In fact I developed another technique to soften soil that has been successful for many people who tried it. However, the surfactant works much faster and, I dare say, better. Surfactants have been available for a long time to soften soils. One or more of the gurus on another forum tried them and found they worked. The formula was reverse engineered and the ingredients sourced on eBay. The new formula was tried and found successful by everyone who tried it. I was not up for buying a lifetime supply of soap for my garage, so I tried it with baby shampoo. It worked just as well for me as it did for the others. Here's the theory.
The soap is a surfactant that allows water to penetrate deeper into the soil where the temperatures are much cooler than at the surface. Down there the moisture levels will remain more constant once damp due to less evaporation. When the soil is continually moist like that, then you have the perfect conditions for increasing the population and size of the beneficial fungi that live in the soil. That process only takes a few days to get going really well. Then if you repeat the shampoo it reinforces the fungal growth and, as they say in Great Britain, Bob's your uncle. You should not have hard soil again for months or years. I tried it in 2011 and my soil still gets soft when it is irrigated. If you try shampoo, you can use any shampoo that you can see through. Cloudy shampoos have conditioners in them that interfere with the process. And don't use dish soap because it is antibacterial these days. Back when Jerry Baker was selling his ideas, there was no antibacterial dish soap.

We spent the weekend tilling the soil by shovel and adding in compost, garden soil, and some fertilizer. We don't have a way to spray the detergent, but we'll see if we can figure something out. Although did we mess up by amending first?


    Bookmark   September 2, 2013 at 11:46AM
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Hose end sprayers available at HD, Lowes, garden center, not expensive. No, you didn't mess up a thing!

    Bookmark   September 2, 2013 at 1:35PM
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