Grading and Construction: Steps

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Grading includes anything from raking the surface to make it even for a lawn or leveling up a slight slope to make a terrace to the larger operations where a bulldozer carves the earth and moves tons of soil. The home owner may be concerned with one or more aspects of a grading problem. Usually, one of these is control of water flow. A lawn area so level that water collects and lies for some time should be pitched (graded) to some point for surface drainage, especially if it has garden water features such as outdoor fountains or waterfalls dispelling that much more moisture.

This is less critical if the soil is sandy. If there is no possibility of grading it in one direction, the area could be graded to a slight drop either towards the center and where a catch basin connects with a sewer�or another outlet, perhaps near a path or drive. Failing this, a dry well is dug. This is a hole three to four feet deep and equally wide. Large stones or rocks are thrown on the bottom, smaller stones on top, then gravel, several inches of tamped cinders or ashes and finally soil. A line, string level or a carpenter's level, set on the straight edge of a piece of lumber is used to determine the necessary pitch.

Allow a drop of one-eighth inch for every foot of run. In twenty-five feet, this would be a drop of three and one-eighth inches from the level. Establish levels at various distances and drive in wooden pegs at the high and low points. Each peg is marked to indicate the finished surface or grade. A slope which drops away from the house and was not remedied during construction presents a problem. This can be uncomfortable for getting around if the area is much used. Only a terrace or leveled-up area near the house can remedy the fault. Extent of the operation will naturally depend upon the site and its slope.

A level area six to ten feet wide could be established, then graded down to meet the original grade. A ground cover or low shrubs may suffice to hold it. More often, a retaining wall will be needed to support the terrace or leveled area. The cheapest kind of retaining wall is a dry wall. This can be made of rock, boulders or cut stone. No cement is used. Soil is rammed behind and between the stones. Pockets are left and plants set. These will grow down the face of the wall. This could be an interesting and beautiful feature, along with the addition of perhaps some large fountains, garden statuary, or a patio waterfall.

It is a form of rock gardening without the upkeep a rock garden needs. As in all constructions, the height of the wall and the mass of soil to be supported dictates the strength of the wall. A dry wall, because it is not held with concrete, is given an incline towards the bank. Dressed stone makes beautiful walls. Some are set in mortar; others are built as free-standing walls. Free-standing walls have no mortar or cement foundation. They are usually started below grade level. The largest stones are laid as the foundation; other large stones are wedged in with smaller ones.


Like walls, steps are constructed with various materials. If they form part of the retaining wall, they should be built of the same materials to give unity. Narrow steps should be avoided when built into a bank, or wall. They spoil proportion and give an unsafe feeling. Also when built amongst any permanent standing outdoor fountains, mounted wall fountains, or garden statuary, they can look misplaced. The risers height, 4 to 5 inches is more comfortable.

The tread or platform should be not less than 11 to 14 inches. Bricks in cement, stone, tile, poured concrete are often used. Wood risers and gravel treads make inexpensive steps. Rough stones of various thicknesses make picturesque steps in a garden. They give a feeling of strength and solidity. They fit well into a rock garden environment, too. Old railroad ties are useful for steps or ramps. They are held in place with stakes driven into the ground and nailed to the ties, or secured by a similar method.

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Allison Ryan is a freelance writer from San Diego, CA. She specializes in landscape architecture, gardening, and enjoys collecting wall fountains and garden statuary. For a variety of beautiful outdoor fountains, stop by

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