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Tips for excavating dirt/gravel from yard?

June 24, 2014

Newbie (to the forum and to landscaping!) here. I've taken on fixing up the yard at my new place, and feeling a bit in over my head. I have help in terms of muscle, but welcome advice on process and tools. Excited to learn.

So far, I've raked up and shoveled into trash/yard waste bins as much of the top layer gravel as possible. It was filled with glass, screws and other debris. The bulk of it's gone, but there's still a lot of gravel mixed in with the dirt, several inches deep.

Next order of business is to excavate about 3" of the dirt in preparation for laying DG then artificial grass (found used for super cheap - this yard is on a few hundred dollar budget and professional install costs thousands). We're renting a rototill today to break the dirt up. (Already determined underground piping, etc.) Then, I'm baffled!!

What's the best way to get it OUT?
Where do you dump it?
How would you even get it into a truck without days of back-breaking shoveling? (Not to mention, the closest the truck can get would be outside the gate - top right in pic.)
How many truckloads would approx. 3" over 300 sq ft be?
How much does it cost to dump?
How much would a flat-rate haul-and-dump contractor cost?
Where do you find one, craigslist?

Any direction greatly appreciated!

Comments (10)
  • marcinde

    best way to get it out is to hire someone else. Second best is rent machinery. Since it sounds like those are out, what's left is the only way - picks, shovels, and wheelbarrows. There's no magic answer. You get it into the truck with a ramp, but if you have no idea what you're doing you need to be careful or you'll hurt yourself.

    Where you dump it depends on where you are. If you can find someone on Craigslist looking for free fill, that's an option. Last resort is the landfill, where they usually charge by the ton or the truckload.

    330 x 0.25 ft = 82.5 cu ft / 27 = 3 cu yds, but I always add a bit as material seems to fluff when you dig it out. I'd figure closer to 4-5 cu yd. So several pickup truck loads.

    Best way to figure out the cost of a hauling co is to call one. The odds that anyone on here is in your town are pretty slim.

    On the artificial turf, make sure your base prep is flawless or you'll have a crap finished product.

  • PRO

    The answers to all those questions might be why a "professional install costs thousands."

    If it's not too late, I would nix the roto-tiller. It makes excavation more difficult. Instead of handling nice big clods, you're left with granular material that pours off of the shovel. So you must shovel many more smaller "bites" in order to fill a wheelbarrow. To make excavation easier, sprinkle the area good a day or two ahead of time. While it probably looks daunting, it will not be that bad of a wheelbarrow job, if you make sure to clear a path and have things streamlined a little. Have a decent wheelbarrow, too. 6 c.f. works well.

    A few times I've needed quick help at home and posted on Craigslist Gigs. (Describe the job thoroughly ... what the work will be and your expectations. Include pictures.) Almost always, someone -- or several guys -- calls me back within minutes. Some of the guys will be pros looking for extra work so may have equipment.

  • dreamrthts

    Thanks for the tips and info Yardvaark and marcinide!

    I actually really enjoy the learning, sense of accomplishment, and even physical workout of doing it myself, despite the challenge. I'm a 115 lb girl, but it hasn't stopped me from fixing my places up pretty spectacularly on a limited budget.

    Yardvaark, I did get the rototilling done yesterday. Makes total sense what you said, but in this case it's a good thing I had it. The land was EXTREMELY hard. There's no way to get through some of it without a pickaxe, which I'm borrowing from a friend today (also a wheelbarrow). We rented the midsize rototill and it barely made a dent, went back for the monster one, and with much effort it was able to get down about 2-4". Found sheets of hard-as-clay oil dumps an inch down in some areas that only the pickaxe will be able to break up.

    I think a listing for free fill dirt is out of the question, as this is VERY dirty dirt. Will have to go to a landfill. Is there anything special I need to consider, with that oil?

    marcinide, looks like the average pickup holds about 2 cu yards, so that's about 3 truckfulls. Great to know, thanks!! I'll look into dump costs (I'm in Los Angeles valley area). I'm getting a tarp to start piling the dirt up in the driveway outside the gate for easier truck access soon as I'm able to get one (or 2 or 3!).

    Any tips on replanting the baby avocado tree in the middle of the yard? We tilled around it. How far should I dig down so as not to kill the roots?

  • emmarene9

    I used a spade with a flat edge to excavate my front lawn area, I was lucky that I could dump the soil into my back yard. The way I did it was more like scraping rather than digging. I'm a girl too :)

  • littlebug5

    I have no advice, just encouragement: Never underestimate the power of a GIRL. When I've tackled a project that seems insurmountable, I just think of an irresistible force meeting an immovable object.

    One day I tackled an old brick and mortar retaining wall with a sledge hammer. My neighbor (about my age - 60) came out and said, "What are you DOING???!!!" Well, heck, what does it look like I'm doing?

    Put your mind to it and you can do it. If it's beyond your physical capabilities, cajole, nag or hire some muscle to help you. Good luck.

  • marcinde

    just fyi, while the average pickup may hold 2 yards, that doesn't mean that's a safe load. A yard of topsoil weighs around a ton, maybe more with mixed fill. Looking online a brand new 2wd f150 is rated for 1800-2000 lbs. If you push the loads beyond the truck's capabilities you can blow tires, break axles, or even worse - the brakes won't stop you at speed.

    Honestly, if it came down to renting/borrowing a truck vs getting a dumpster dropped off, I'd look at the dumpster. Easier to load (sits at most a foot off the road) and unloading is easy. Pick up the phone, say "come get it", write a check, and you're done.

  • gregbradley

    A couple points:

    If you are actually going to remove 3 yards, it will expand as mentioned above. A general rule is double so that would be 6 yards. However, lots of gravel means less expansion. Expanded dirt with gravel will weigh at least 2000lb per yard. Rock and heavy clay is about 3,000 lb/yard. A pickup truck would simply be insane to haul that to dump as there will be a minimum fee for each dump and you would be making lots of trips. If you absolutely must do it yourself, it would probably be best to hire your local waste hauler to deliver a low roll-off for construction debris. You might run an ad on craigslist or find someone advertising on CL that would come dig it out and haul it off for about the same price.

    The oil in the soil can get VERY ugly. I hope it is in very localized places. I would dig it out very carefully and get it all into a trash can for disposal. It may cost you several hundred dollars to dispose of that can. You don't want to get caught dumping it anywhere including the trash haul. You may have a serious claim against the seller of the home since it seems you just bought the house. You city may have a procedure to take that waste and it could actually be free. It varies according to your locality.

    If you are putting in fake grass, you might as well take out the Avo. Even putting in real grass and leaving a small ring will not allow the Avo to thrive. Avo requires fast draining soil and aeration for the roots. Long term will also need to allow the leaves to accumulate around the tree and decompose into the soil to encourage the symbiotic relationship with the microorganisms that allow Avo to absorb water and nutrients.
    There are lots of trees that would survive in a ring in fake grass but an Avo is NOT one of them.

  • Serge Duval

    It's tough when you have gravel mixed in with your dirt. Shovels just don't go in as easily. When I dug a hole in my back yard for our trampoline, I hit a hard layer of clay about 2 feet down. The best thing I found to get through it (without renting any heavy equipment) was to actually use the garden tiller to loosen the clay, then shovel it out. I don't know if that will help you with your project or not, but it worked for me. I hope you get it figured out!


  • rhdrico

    Looks like you have a back gate for truck access? I just hired a contractor to remove +9 yards ($150) of clay at the end of my gravel drive, took about 1 1/2 hours (had to empty the truck once). I also got 4 tons gravel ($100) delivered, same contractor. I'm waiting for 3 yards of black earth ($165)...its been raining so much this month (+11 inches for June) they can't get dry dirt.

    Don't forget to call "Julie" (in Illinois) before digging..takes 2-4 working days for the various utilities to mark everything (or paint ok and flag if there's nothing there).

    This picture is before the 4 tons of gravel was dropped, of course.

  • Jessie Harrison

    This summer I want to do a little excavation in my yard. I'd like to get a hole dug for a trampoline I'd like to put in, along with a hole for a pool. Do I need to get the measurements for it myself? Also, is it better to get a dump truck or a dumpster? http://www.asphaltingdm.com.au/civil-works 

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