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You guys. I am so excited to share this update with you today. As I sit here typing this post, my eyelids are just as heavy as they were when I went to sleep. And it has everything to do with the giant pile of dirt I shared with you in the last post.

giant pile of fill dirt 81 recycling

I just completed one of the biggest projects, if not THE biggest project, that I’ve ever done at the UDH. This pile of fill dirt plus one more load of topsoil were delivered to my house in the last week so that I could fill in the backyard sinkhole. If you’ve been following on Instagram, Facebook or whatever else other social channel popped up in the last five days, you’ve already seen some pictures and video describing this experience. This is where I started:

backyard sinkhole view from tree

And after several days of sitting in the hot sun on what I’m calling “a giant toy”, you could say that I have definitely had some moments where I just couldn’t pull up one more root without getting a little goofy:

Snapchat pulling out roots

I would show you the whole before and after thing in one post, but I have so many details to cover that I’m saving the last few finished shots for the final post. There will also be a giveaway on that post from my sponsor on this project, Compact Power Equipment Rental, so the wait and reveal will be worth it. Sit tight!

If you are wondering if I’m exhausted, you’re 110%, 150%, 1000% correct. In fact, I just noticed this morning that one of my favorite tank tops is now dyed pink on the back in a distinct pattern of the sports bra I was wearing because the sweat-soaked dye bled through (and I’ve worn and washed that thing enough times that there’s no good explanation for how it even happened, other than I guess sweat has extreme dye-leaching properties). I have sports bra and other weird tan lines along my shoulders, my back, and along my legs from being out in the Georgia summer sun for five consecutive days. I have weird muscle aches from working on a machine that was never built for someone as small as I am. In short: I became a dirty, bug-spray-covered, human swamp monster… all in the name of filling a backyard hole.

(So many half-formed jokes are in my head now after reading that last sentence, but since I’m too tired to turn them into punchlines, I’ll just move along.)

How to fill in a Backyard Sinkhole

This saga is a 3-part series:

yard work getting started backyard makeover

Anyway, all of this came together in kind of a weird, serendipitous way. I mentioned the sinkhole in my backyard a few years ago, but since I didn’t really have the budget to fix it at the time (fill dirt + topsoil + renting machinery + hiring labor = $$$$$), all I have been doing for the last few years is throwing various bits of yard debris back there and just avoiding the area altogether. Charlie has been quite comfortable with this scenario, as it’s basically her bathroom and it is left relatively undisturbed and provides plenty of privacy. This pretty much meant that for the last six years, half of my backyard has been an unused mess. But let’s back up and talk about that sinkhole for a second, just so we’re on the same page.

backyard sinkhole and yard debris pit

The Story Behind the Sinkhole in My Yard

I’m betting when you hear the word sinkhole, you’re thinking of the clips on the news where whole streets go missing, cars get swallowed up, and it looks like someone just took a giant bite out of the earth. However, at least in my case, it’s not quite as scary as all of that. Back in 1982 when my house was built, a common practice in Georgia was for builders and contractors to cut corners by burying their excess trash (things like tree stumps, regular trash, other yard debris, etc.) in a hole on the construction site rather than hauling all of it to a dump and paying disposal fees. Over the course of around 10 to 15 years, the debris begins to decay, depress, and sinks down. Then Mother Nature does her thing and washes away even more soil in some cases, and a depression forms, usually by a few feet. The surface area might look like it sunk down or it might not unless you step on it (which can be dangerous). And if this is anywhere near a foundation, driveway, or other structure built on top, it can cause some MAJOR problems, and many builders have often gotten away with the whole thing scot-free (either the statute of limitations runs out, the fine is negligible compared to the cost of paying for dump fees, etc.).

sinkhole side view

Given that I have seen other similar problems in this house related to builders being lazy with this property (things like finding a ceiling fan box up in the attic that was supposed to have been installed but then not, or finding a pile of trash under the stairs when replacing a broken stair tread, etc.)… well, yeah… I can totally believe that the builders did this!

To read most of the articles out there, it seems like this is still a sneaky practice that’s happening occasionally, though laws since the 1990s have made attempts to curb the problem. Regardless, in my yard and those of my immediate neighbors, we are pretty lucky. These trash pits were buried in a back corner of each lot and nowhere near the home foundations, so they are pretty much little more than annoying chunks of the yard that sink down a few feet (and insurance companies don’t care if it’s not really causing structural issues). The previous owner disclosed (required by law) to me that she had filled in the hole once before with fill dirt, but since the materials below had likely not fully decomposed, it made sense that the area continued to sink down a little. Most of my neighbors have done similarly, filling in these areas once or twice and then leveling out the rest of the yard. I’m pretty glad they have, too, since it gave me a good idea of what I needed to do to fix the one in my yard, and how I might go about accomplishing this on my own.


Before I move on to the next part of the story, I should just go ahead and address it before the comments start rolling in: there are plenty of people with experience with this who have given me advice on the matter. Some websites will use every exclamation point in their arsenal and say that how I did this was completely the wrong way for how to fix it, since what you’re supposed to do is dig up the offending area and fully excavate, just in case there are still stumps and other things buried below that will continue to decay (which of course means that the yard might sink again and it will need to be filled in again). I chose not to do this for a few reasons:

  • it’s been almost 35 years since the trash was buried and not the 10-15 year window where most people try to remediate the problem, so a lot of the decay has already taken place
  • the previous owner already compacted the soil down once before when she did her own filling in 15-20 years ago; to excavate would mean to first dig up all of the soil she put on top of the area to begin with
  • obviously, excavation is a much bigger project and costs tens of thousands of dollars, and I don’t have $25k sitting around for dirt (student loans and whatnot); so even if I had to fill this pit in twice before moving out of this house, it would still cost me considerably less with the route I chose, and most of my neighbors have successfully filled in theirs in the same manner for many years without issue
  • it’s my yard and I’ll cry if I want to?


How to Find the Right Equipment

I knew many years ago when I bought this house that I might someday want to add some fill dirt to the back yard, but since I had so many other renovation projects in mind, this one kept getting pushed to the bottom of the to-do list. I thought after removing the pine trees last year that it might be time to look into the cost of fill dirt, hiring labor, getting the job priced out and such, but that’s where the serendipitous part comes in: a few months ago, I got an email from Compact Power Equipment Rental, who rents out large, towable equipment from select Home Depot retailers to both pros and DIYers alike. I never even knew equipment of this size could be rented by homeowners (I suppose I assumed a special license would be required?), but I was so excited to see their email that I immediately wanted to jump on board with them as a project sponsor. I sent them a few pictures of what I had in mind, they asked for dimensions to determine what equipment would fit through the gate of my fence, and made their recommendation to provide a tractor loader backhoe. Not only would the front of this machine help me to push the existing mound of dirt on the left side of my yard around the sinkhole to help fill it in, but if I got a load of fill dirt, I could use it for that too. Plus, the rear backhoe would be excellent for digging some new garden bed areas, digging out the extensive tree roots left behind from the removed pine trees, and I could even dig a small trench to run lights out to the remaining pine tree I left in the yard for shade. WIN!

Kubota tractor loader backhoe back yard makeover

Who to Call Before You Dig (VERY Important!)

It took a little planning to coordinate everything together. And even then, not everything will go smoothly. But before I did any digging, I checked in with 811 to let them know of my project plans. What this service does is contact your utility companies that might have underground lines buried around your yard.

call before dig 811

Each company that might be impacted will come out, mark off the areas you shouldn’t dig, and you basically get a legal window for a period of time to complete your project. If the project goes on past the date, you just call them up again. It took just a few days before the project was to begin to have them come out, but I would recommend a week’s lead time just in case there’s a delay. Since the back yard was the only place I intended on digging, this was kind of overkill (the spot had already included pine trees previously, so I knew there weren’t gas lines below them), but it was more peace of mind to avoid driving a heavy piece of equipment over areas where I knew would be more trouble if things went sideways.

811 markings call before you dig

How to Find Filler Dirt

Finding a fill dirt provider turned out to be the most difficult part. Granted, things came together both over a long period of time and yet seemingly overnight, so making sure everything was going to be there at the same time was a bit tricky. The dirt needed to be delivered before the equipment, 811 had to come out too, but most fill dirt places had weird hours and some places wanted to see my house before they’d even be willing to drive their trucks over. I finally got lucky with a disposal company that recycles dirt waste and offered clean fill dirt, a discounted rate from competitors, and dropped off more cubic yards than initially quoted. They were very helpful over the phone and could deliver in just a few days. Boom!

The only thing to remember about ordering fill dirt is making sure a key piece of communication is clear: where does the fill dirt go when it gets dropped off? Make sure you have this planned! In my case, as you saw from the photos above, the dirt was dumped directly into my driveway. Not the best of circumstances if you have somewhere you need to go (or in that case, you might want to plan to park on the street for a few days). But for my yard, they weren’t able to bring the dirt all the way back because of low power lines hanging in the way (there was a risk that when the truck tipped back, it would raise up directly in the way and that would be a whole new can of worms I didn’t want to risk opening).

How to Rent a Backhoe for Yard Work (Yes, you can!)

My hands-down favorite part was when Chuck, the regional rep from CPER, dropped off my shiny, brand new backhoe. As part of their service, CPER includes a training session that shows you how to use their equipment so that you can jump right in. He also gave me his card for when I inevitably ran into a couple of learning curves (things like spinning the seat around to use the backhoe function, figuring out that it was my weight — or lack thereof — for why the engine kept shutting off, etc.). But seriously, I was thrilled. I don’t think I’ve ever felt like such a badass. My friends came over (more on that later), neighbors got an eyeful too, watching me move all of the soil, seeing a giant mound of dirt in my driveway, etc. I got lots of looks, a few stares, and at least one old dude giving me a big grin and thumbs up. And knowing that I was soon going to be left with a yard to build on, I couldn’t wait to get started!

compact power equipment rental dropoff

Since we’re already over 2,000 words for this post, I’ll wait to share a play-by-play of the first few days of progress. In the meantime, you can check out some of the live videos I shared and get some sneak peeks here. More soon!

kubota tractor loader backhoe

Continue on with this story…

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  1. Woah, that is a lot of dirt and terrifying looking roots! Really looking forward to seeing the results of your hard work!

    (Just finished reading your archives after falling down a rabbit hole of Diy blog links – you’ve done an amazing job on your house!)

  2. Sarah,
    I am local to Marietta & would love to know the company you got the fill dirt from. We are doing something similar to you in our front yard & raising our driveway.
    Would you mind sharing the name please? You may email it to me to teri12@mail.com.
    Thamks! And love what you’re doing with your house.

    1. Sure! It’s 81 Inert Recycling. I am a little hesitant to recommend them, though (I was going to get to that in part 2, so you might want to read it when that goes live before making your choice on who to use).

        1. I have posted them already! It looks like something may have gone wrong in the links to link to all 3 at the same time but I’ll update that today so they are there for you to see! Here’s Part 2 and Part 3. Enjoy!

  3. Sarah,
    your post is a God send for me. I was doing research last night regarding sink hole issues and found nothing that seemed to explain what I needed to do. This morning I sat down with my cup of coffee and there was your article. I am happy to see there is a DIY way instead of hiring someone. Thanks for sharing this post. I am a new blogger learning and will make this a post someday. LOL! This too, will be my biggest project EVER. Have a blessed day!

    1. Glad I could help Sue Ann! The dirt will settle/change with water flow, so definitely plan for that as much as possible! Filling in this yard has helped the back yard in SO many ways. Good luck on your project!