Home ProjectsExterior Retaining Wall Part 1

Retaining Wall Part 1

by Amber

Welcome to our little slice of paradise, our backyard!  If we really get into it, our favorite part about being home is spending time outside.  We have put a lot of blood, sweat, and tears into this space.  I do mean literally!  When I say tears, I’m referring back to the time we had a large copperhead snake in our backyard.  I called my husband and begged him to come home as fast as he possibly could.  He instructed me to stand on the deck and watch the snake.  Let me give you the most important fact, I’m terrified of snakes, especially huge (4ft) poisonous ones!!  Long story short, after standing and watching a snake for what felt like an hour waiting for him to get home, I had an emotionally breakdown.  It was very traumatic!

So enough of that, back to the reason for writing this post…we had to stop the yard from sliding into the creek and keep the snakes out!  How to do that you ask?  Install a very large retaining wall, bring in a few tons of dirt, and the story of our backyard oasis begins.  This is what phase one of the wall looked like when it was finished in March of 2016.When we moved in we thought the backyard was a bit small, but we didn’t think anything of it.  At our first home, our back yard coupled up to a huge open field.  The openness was enjoyable until the sweltering South Carolina summer fried anything it came into contact with, so the idea of trees and their shade seemed amazing in the scorching summer heat, until of course we realized after a few months we had no yard for our dog.  Shortly after this realization, and a ton of rain, we started to notice that the grass seemed to be “sliding”.  We had Vision Scape Group, which is a landscaping company in our area, come look at the yard to give us a professional opinion of what was happening.  It was quickly confirmed that the yard was starting to settle from the fill dirt our builder brought in, and ultimately was sliding toward the creek.  Since this could affect our foundation long term, we decided on a solution that would best fit our budget and ultimately maximize our space.

This is right before we moved in.  You can see that we didn’t have much yard.

This is a few months later during a heavy rain storm.  It gives you an idea of the amount of water we were concerned with as well as the amount of slope that the yard had.

Amber’s Back Yard Before from House Two House on Vimeo.

First up, cutting down some trees, 6 in the beginning and 12 before it was all said and done.  We worked with a friend of ours who removes trees as a side business.  He made it look so easy, laying them down perfectly between trees that we wanted to keep.  Having our friend take down the trees was worth every penny since we aren’t very experienced in this area; we would have most likely dropped a tree on our new house.  In addition, some of them had poison ivy from the top to the bottom (which you can see in the video above), to which my husband is extremely allergic.  Getting both the trees and poison ivy down was very important to us.  The tree with the blue tie around it and the red flag in front of it, that you can see in the photo below, were both removed.

The image above was taken in the fall and you can see on the far right side of the image, that we removed the trees.  You can also kind of see the “sliding” that I was referring to.  The grass was separating and for lack of better words, appears to be clumped together, that is where it was actually sliding down the hill.

After the trees were removed we started on a plan for the wall.  We decided on a size, design, and stone that we wanted to use with the help of Vision Scape.   Ultimately starting a retaining wall means, you get one huge mess!

DAY 1 of the Retaining Wall

Day 1 was the start of the mess! This is what it looked like the first day that I came home, a huge hole with keystone blocks everywhere, but we couldn’t have been happier about this because it meant progress.

Steps for day 1:

  • Dig… and dig…. and dig.
  • Excavate the area 4-5 feet behind the wall and 24 inches below existing ground level.

When installing a retaining wall you want to make sure you have solid ground under the wall for stability.  Once you find solid ground dig an additional 24 inches to start the wall.  In addition you will also need to excavate the area behind the wall, because every third row of blocks you have to add geo-grid fabric back into the dirt for stability. 

The trench on the right side in the image below (left side in image above) is the exact placement of the wall, the flag is our sprinkler system which was on the very edge of the hill before starting this project.  That flag will give a good indication in the remaining images of just how much yard we were able to gain by installing this wall.

It is extremely hard to tell from these photos that this hole was a little over 8 feet deep from the top of the hill to the bottom of the hole.  The blocks needed to be two rows deep underground in order to be stable enough to support the dirt from the yard, and not give out during the rainy seasons with the creek so close.

This is what it looked like from the deck on the house; a lot of keystone blocks and dirt.  Each keystone block is 8.5 in. H x 18 in. W x 11 in. D.  I included the image below to give you an idea of scale and mess, if you decide to have a retaining wall installed yourself. I don’t want you to be surprised. 


Day 2 brought more mess and a lot of progress! These are the steps completed during day 2 though I don’t have images of all of it:

  • Add a 6-10 inch compacted crushed concrete base to the bottom of the hole where the retaining wall will be placed. This hole will then have a 2 block layer on top of the gravel that needs to remain under existing ground level.   Note: They dug down 24 inches below existing ground level to ensure 2 blocks would fit underground.  24 in. deep hole = 17 in. (height of 2 blocks) + 7 in. compacted crushed gravel.  If you are doing this yourself then make sure you adjust these measurements according to the size of your blocks.
  • Level the first keystone block base.  This step is very important!  You need this to be level to ensure the entire wall remains level.
  • Start stacking blocks while adding fiber glass pins on each layer and extending geo-grid fabric back into dirt every 3 layers of blocks.
  • Create a french drain 18 inches behind the wall and extending from both end points. Using socked perforated piping and washed stone. Since I wasn’t home for this part I can’t give you a detailed explanation of how they installed it, but for a general install of a french drain check out how Haylie installed her’s here.

See these images below for a better understanding of the steps listed above and what the end of day two looked like.

The yellow things in the blocks are the fiber glass pins and you can see where they sandwiched the geo-grid fabric between the third and fourth rows of block.

They also added gravel to the front of the wall when filling in the hole to ensure proper drainage.  

It is very hard to tell scale from the photos but phase 1 of the wall is about 24 feet long and 3.5 feet tall from ground level.


They were getting so close to being finished! This is what happened on day 3:

  • Finished the 3rd and 4th rows of blocks.
  • Ran gutters from the back corner of our house underground, and connected it to the french drain in the retaining wall.
  • Added another layer of geo-grid fabric since the top row is the 6th row, and the fabric should be installed every three rows.
  • Core fill all the keystone blocks with #67 washed stone gravel.
  • Started adding the keystone caps on top of the wall.
  • Back filled with fill dirt/topsoil to get the ground and wall even.

This is the wall at the end of day 3 after most of the steps above were completed or started.  Just look at how close to the creek we were able to get! 

The image below is a good view of the amount of space we gained from doing this.  The tree stump at the edge of the grass line was at on the beginning of the hill.

The image below is a better view of the side they were still finishing up. I don’t have any additional photos of this side in progress but it really only needed caps and fill dirt to be complete.

This is the finished side that the image above will look like once complete.

While finishing up the wall, the crew also ran our gutters off the back corner of our house underground.  We were having issues with moisture and since the yard gets a lot of shade in that area it was becoming a swamp.  The best solution long term was to divert the gutter runoff away from the house.

The gutters are connected to the french drain behind the retaining wall, which is diverted out of the wall and into the creek, since the yard was torn up already it was the best time to have it connected.  In the image below you can see the pipe, and my dogs tail, he was very curious of what was going on (he LOVES water and mud). 

The yard was still not 100% level, but look at that slope at the end of the wall.  They had to bring in a few tons of dirt to get it close to leveled out.

Day 4

The final steps of the wall were pretty easy, but I don’t have any photos unfortunately:

  • Clean up all extra materials
  • Make the final grade
  • Spread grass seed and straw

Part 1 is finished!

In four days, they had the wall finished.  Amazing right?  This is the finished wall of part 1 once we got a little bit of grass to grow.

These are bad photos below but they show the size of the wall in relation to the entire yard, and just how much it helped to level out the slope.  It really did add a ton of usable space.

This also gives you a birds eye view of the yard to gain perspective.

Perks to installing a retaining wall:

  • Gained a ton of usable yard space
  • Solve the problem of the yard sliding
  • Stability for the foundation
  • A bigger yard for our dog

We decided to hire a professional for this job, because we felt this was way above our heads.  This is something that could ultimately affect the foundation of our home long term which is a very big deal.  It is also no small wall!  This took an entire crew of well experienced men 4 days to complete.  Daniel and I may still be installing this today had we done this ourselves.  I am all for DIY, but sometimes it is best to trust in local professionals and know when something is above your understanding and ability to do it the right way.

Now… if only we could have stopped at this point.  After we started to look at our fencing options we quickly realized that if we wanted to install the fence the right way, the first time, then we needed to extend the wall.  “Yay!”… said no one ever!  Click here for phase two. 

If you live in Charlotte, NC or York County, SC feel free to contact Vision Scape Group.  I highly recommend them, they are always honest and work with us to get exactly what we are looking for at a fair price.

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