If you’re tired of your boring, flat landscape, it might be time to bring in a little height variation – and this is where building a berm comes in.
Berms are mounded hills of dirt.
They’re used for aesthetic reasons, but they can also be quite functional in terms of landscaping.
If this sounds like something your yard needs, keep reading!
We’ll show you how you can build a berm in no time at all.
1. What is a berm?
A berm is a rounded mound of soil (and sometimes fill dirt) built upon an otherwise level patch of land to improve the design of your property.
The rounded character of a berm is what distinguishes it from a raised bed, which has a flat surface and a rectangular shape.
2. Why build a berm?
Building a berm is an easy way to add interest to your landscape, especially if you have a dull, flat area you’re trying to make into something more desirable.
Here are our top reasons for building a berm.
A berm raises the viewer’s eye level.
Flat expanses are boring, and it injects a vertical element, which makes a space more interesting.
A berm can function as a planting bed in an area with poor soil.
A berm can provide a windbreak and/or noise barrier.
A berm may serve as a privacy screen in conjunction with the plant material used.
A berm can divert runoff around whatever you want protected.
Are you ready to get started on your berm?
Fortunately, building a berm isn’t as complicated as you may think.
Follow our design and building tips below, and you can get started on this project as soon as possible.
3. How do you design a berm?
Before you can get started building, you must design your berm.
You can do this yourself or you can have a landscape designer do it on your behalf.
Before creating the design, you must determine the berm’s overall purpose as well as the drainage patterns within your landscape.
In general, a berm should be about four to five times as long as it is high.
It should gradually trail out into the remaining landscape.
Most berms are not higher than 18 to 24 inches and giving it more than one peak provides additional interest.
One way to make your berm more natural-looking is to give it a curved or crescent shape.
However, this is ultimately up to you!
4. How do you build a berm?
Berms are often built using some kind of fill like sand, plant debris, rubble, asphalt, or soil.
Simply use the fill material for the bulk of the berm and form your desired shape around it using soil, then firmly tamp.
To build a berm, outline its shape and dig up any grass.
Next, add the desired fill to the excavated area and begin packing around it with soil.
Then, continue piling on the soil, tamping as you go, until you reach the desired height.
The berm should carefully slope outward.
The peak of your berm should be situated toward one end rather than the center for a more natural-looking appearance.
In #7 through #9, we’ll go through more in-depth berm-building instructions.
Keep reading to learn more!
5. What’s the difference between an island bed and a berm?
Island beds and berms are highly similar.
Some people even consider them to be the same thing.
Island beds float alone in landscaping whereas a berm becomes a natural part of the landscape.
Island beds are created for aesthetic reasons while berms serve a more functional purpose (drainage, raised elements, etc.).
Island beds are often any shape (round, square, etc.) while berms tend to be curved.
Although there are no special rules for berm building, landscape contour and property owner preference will determine berm design in many cases.
6. What supplies do you need to build a berm?
If you’re trying to build a berm, here are the supplies you’ll need:
Flexible garden hose
Flour or landscaping spray paint
Steel bow rake
Fill (rubble or gravel) – optional
Clayey soil – optional
Mulch or shredded bark
Edging material – optional
Boulders – optional
7. What are the basic berm-building guidelines?
As noted above, there are no strict berm-building rules.
However, there are some guidelines that are helpful to beginners.
Here’s what you should know.
Make the slope of your berm gradual
This will make your berm look more natural and help to prevent erosion.
Don’t try for a height much greater than two feet.
Don’t go for a very steep slope.
Expand the base about five feet out in width for every foot the berm rises up.
This is a 5:1 ratio, and it’s just an average for what people use when they build a berm.
It helps to use this guideline as it creates greater visual interest.
You can also give the berm more than one peak and avoid putting the highest peak in the center of the berm.
Shape your berm intentionally
Berms are more interesting when they are curved.
They should be shaped like kidney beans or crescent moons.
This is preferable to them being circular.
Be mindful of potential drainage issues
Erecting a structure in your yard can have a drastic effect on the way your rainwater is channeled.
This is why it’s better for a beginner to build a berm that is of relatively small size and to build just one berm.
Otherwise, you may need to install a drainage system as well.
Pay attention to how you layer your berm
If you pile up dirt randomly to build a berm, then it may erode when it rains.
So, learn how to layer your berm properly.
To save money, you can do this by using top soil as a top layer; this is ideal to grow your plants in.
Then you should use clayey soil (not gravel or rubble) as a second layer.
Clay is a type of soil that is more impervious to water than is fill, so your top soil won’t percolate through it.
Underneath the clay layer, use fill to build up the bulk of the base.
8. I’m still a little lost. Can you walk through berm building step-by-step?
If you need a little bit more help, here are all the steps to help you build a berm if you’ve never done it before.
Call the “Dig Safe” phone number in your area so that you know where the underground utility lines, etc. exist on your property.
You’ll want to mark these before you choose the location for your berm.
Choose your berm’s location:
The location for your berm will ultimately depend on its function.
If you’re planning to use it as a planting bed for a flower border, then you’ll likely choose a location from the street.
The following steps will assume you’ve selected an area that is currently lawn.
Layout your berm’s area:
Use a flexible garden hose to mark your berm’s border.
Then, step back and evaluate the design you just laid out.
You can adjust it until you are satisfied.
Then, pour flour along the course marked by the hose and remove the hose.
You’ve now outlined your berm.
Remove the existing sod:
Follow the flour guideline and plunge a spade into the ground along the outline.
Work inside the outline, removing all of the sod using the spade.
Then, remove all top soil left in the area after digging out the sod.
Build the base:
With a wheelbarrow, dump the fill to begin building the base.
Spend time building the shape and slope just right.
The next two layers of your berm will follow the shape of this layer.
If you don’t like the shape, this is the time to make adjustments!
Begin adding your layers:
Keep the fill a foot or so away from the border as this is where you’ll want your top soil.
Minimize the depth of the fill where it’s closest to the edge and gradually increase its depth as you work toward the middle.
Apply the layer of clayey soil and rake it out evenly.
Tamp it down.
Then apply the layer of top soil and rake it out evenly.
Tamp it down.
Spray it with water to remove air pockets.
How thick this layer needs to be varies depending on plant size.
However, the more there is the better.
Even some small plants need at least 6 to 12 inches of good soil to root in.
Install plants in the berm:
You can now add plants to your berm using landscape design principles.
Apply mulch after you’ve done planting.
9. What are berm-building tips?
Both edging material and boulders are optional supplies when you build a berm.
However, they can be useful.
Here’s how we recommend using them.
Erosion is a concern when it comes to building a berm.
If you ring your berm with edging, it gives you something of an insurance policy.
The edging will help to trap any soil that washes down the sides of the slope.
Stone makes for a simple edging.
Boulders embedded in a berm add to the aesthetic of the design but also take up space.
This means there’s less filler to worry about.
Use the boulders “iceberg style” with a portion sticking out of the top but most of the boulder down under.
10. What plants should I add to my berm?
Once your berm is built, you’ll need to add plants to it.
Yet, that begs the question, what plants are suitable for a berm?
We generally recommend mostly evergreen and drought-tolerant plants.
Evergreens provide year-round greenery, so you’ll still have growth in the winter.
Drought-tolerant plants are also nice for slopes (and forgetful gardeners).
This is a great low-maintenance option.
When planting, make sure you add your bigger plants and trees first.
These should be planted on the top of the berm and then add smaller plants around your big plants and rocks.
If you group smaller plants together, they’ll have a bigger impact
Then you should add rocks or mulch.
Even if your berm doesn’t look that big, you’d be surprised how much your berm will need to be fully landscaped.
Here’s a list of plants you may want to check out for your berm depending on your planting zone.
Weeping Blue Atlas Cedar (Zones 6-9)
Forsythia (Zones 3-9)
Dwarf Mugo Pine (Zones 2-8)
Candytuft (Zones 3-9)
Cherry Tart Stonecrop (Zones 4-9)
Elijah Blue Fescue (Zones 4-11)
Sedum Tile (Zones 3-9)
11. How much does it cost to build a berm?
Building a berm isn’t an inexpensive task.
Most homeowners pay between $1,500 and $5,500 to install landscaping features like berms.
In the end, building a berm comes down to your specific preferences as a landowner.
There are no hard and fast rules on how to build a berm.
Be creative and unique, and you’ll love the new element you’ve added to your yard!
Have a project you would like to share?
Let us know in the comments!
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