I've been reading posts here and there, all that deal with bits and pieces of my own lawn issues, but have decided to just put my own inquiries out there and see what I get.
My husband and I purchased our first home last fall. We sit on a quarter of an acre lot, it's a gradual slope from the SW corner toward the house and the NE corner of the property. The soil looks to be heavy on the clay. My flower beds are thick with grub worms and I've even occasionally found some scattered across the lawn. We have every weed imaginable. It drives me nuts! During our heavy rain season (which is now) water will collect in small pools, including one particular area near the house which my husband and I agree can largely be fixed with some guttering ([I]not sure why it wasn't there in the first place[/I]!) We can't go out into the backyard after it rains for weeks because it's so soggy. The yard is very uneven. One of the nitwit homeowners before us dug a trench to divert water from the house, but it turns into a river that pours out over the retaining wall to the north of the property and into our neighbors yard/driveway like Niagra Falls. The fence on that side is beginning to rot because of the water damage it's sustained.
My thought is to start from nearly scratch on the backyard ... till up the soil, add whatever amendments it needs to get it draining better, bring in some fresh soil to fill in those holes and trenches ... I'd like to flatten it out from the house with a slight slope away toward a retaining wall that we would install after building up and flattening out the higher ground toward the rear or SW part of the property. It would still have a gradual slope toward the North, so we can continue the natural runoff, but we'd install a french drain along the newly installed retaining wall in the backyard as well as along the existing one on the north side ... replacing the rotting privacy fence while we're at it.
My husband takes issue with this because we have underground utilities in our backyard and I don't believe they're very deep. We would be working directly on top and close to the utilities. If we were to flatten out part of the backyard, we'd probably cut into the gas line. Would the utilities bury them deeper on request?
I would love some input on whether my expectations are realistic, if it would work and solve our landscaping/lawn issues, if the underground utilities pose a problem and if it can be worked around, and even some alternative suggestions. My husband suggests building up the dirt level around the house and basically just dumping new soil on top of what we have. But I'm concerned that his idea won't truly solve our problems.
Thank you all.
Re: Backyard Landscaping
In general, I think your stated plan is a decent approach, although you may want to call a landscaper or other such person (soil scientist, or call your local agriculture extension service for likely free advice) to consult with you and offer some advice from real world experience. It may be as simple as tearing up the top 6 - 18 inches of clay topping that with good soil, although I'm not sure where you're located and the exact profile of your local soil.
As for the buried utilities, I'm not sure what you have in the yard besides the gas line, but utilities typically don't move buried structures unless there is a safety issue or other compelling public interest (at least here in PA); although you can probably pay someone to move and re-install for you. Call your state's utility markout service (we have one here in PA [PA One Call] w/ an 800 number) and have them markout the approx. locations in your yard. DO NOT dig if you don't know where the utilities are; in many cases once a utility crosses onto your property, you are responsible for any costs necessary to repair it, particularly if you damage it (acts of God are another thing). Depending on their age, public and private utilities are generally buried at least 18-inches below ground, and, at least in PA, you have to assume that, when marked out, the utilities can be at least 18-inches on either side of the marking line.
Anyway, hope this helps a little bit. Good luck!
Re: Backyard Landscaping
First and foremost, you don't want water pooling up next to the house. Any grading you do should cause water to drain be away from the house. You can spend a lot of money on new soil and amendments and be back in the same situation in a few years if your not careful.
I thought that you might be in a new subdivision when I first started reading your post and those are common problems in new subdivisions. The top soil is scrapped away when the new houses are built, then some sod is thrown on the sub soil and they call it landscaping. But you mentioned nitwit previous owners.
I'm guessing the previous owners cut the grass too close and always bagged and threw away their grass clippings. If there are any trees in the yard, the leaves were also bagged and disposed of, so no topsoil has had a chance to form.
What ever you decide to do short term, do mulch your grass clippings and leave them in the yard. Thatch is not a bad thing, its just a step to better soil. If you have trees, mow or shred the leaves in the fall and leave them in place too. If you have to buy earthworms, do it, but if there are any there naturally, and there should be at least a few, the thatch and leaves will feed them and they will multiply and loosen up your soil.
If you don't have any trees, you should plant a few. Pines soak up a lot of water, but they are not always the most desirable trees to have around. You really want trees that you will enjoy. The roots will go down deep and give water a place to drain downward. They will also provide the leaves that your yard needs.