Detecting sinkhole hazards in your yard (a firsthand account)

As any homeowner knows, there’s always some appliance, system or thing in need of repair, replacement, maintenance or beautification. Many of these we’re well aware of in advance but often choose to ignore until some unlucky day when the proverbial $*!t hits the fan. Some of these known things that come to mind would be an aging water heater or worn out crevices in the bath and kitchen needing some fresh caulk. I recently experienced one of the things that wasn’t anywhere near the radar, but upon further research it’s something we all should be proactive to prevent disaster…especially those with kids and/or pets playing in the yard.

What I’m referring to are sinkholes, and while they can occur in nature, they are often the result of buried construction debrIMG_1997 (1)is and rotting stumps left from cutting down trees. Over time, the debris decays creating an empty space under the surface. In my case, rotting stumps is the culprit, and I literally stumbled upon the problem.

To be clear, using the term sinkhole is a bit of an exaggeration and should be limited to discussion of very large areas posing a significant threat. Upon consultation with a certified arborist, I learned that residential landscape sinkholes typically span about 8-10 feet in diameter and most frequently result in nothing more than tripping or a sprained ankle. While certainly not life-threatening, an unstable yard is still cause for concern.

While being proactive is great, often times you won’t know the condition exists until you stumble upon it yourself. Here are some facts and corrective measures to take upon discovery:

  • Sinkholes rarely strike without giving off some warning. Some signs that may indicate a problem include: trees or fence posts that tilt, slanting foundation, cracks in the ground, and dips and depressions in the yard
  • The hazard posed by most sinkholes is limited to tripping or spraining an ankle. In more serious instances, sinkholes have led to death and the collapse of entire buildings.IMG_1998
  • Upon discovery, avoid walking on the unstable area, then from a stable edge use a stick or shovel to dig through the surface layer. If you continue to hit earth the problem is likely due to normal settling rather than a sinkhole
  • If you can dig through, inspect the inside with a flashlight and look for rotting tree stumps or old construction debris. If you see standing water or a pipe, stop and contact your local water department or a plumber.
  • Remove any debris and rotting wood using a shovel. In my case, an ax was also needed to cut through large roots which were extending many feet in a few directions.
  • Once the debris is gone, shovel away the outer edges of the hole until the ground beneath the sod is solid. This step of making the hole larger informs you of the true size of the void beneath the earth.
  • Fill the hole with soil, using an iron bar or a sledgehammer to firmly pack the dirt into the hole. Once filled, watering the filled-in hole helps the soil settle and informs you whether you need more dirt to completely fill in the hole
  • Check the hole every few days, as needed. If the soil has settled, fill it in with more soil and pack it down.

Alternatively, smaller sinkholes do not necessarily need to be dug up and repaired. If you know the problem is a buried stump/debris and not resulting from other more serious issues (i.e. water), you could monitor it and continuously fill in the gap with soil as the ground settles. This is a less laborious approach and serves as a stopgap for a complete repair.

In my case, I dug up the old stump…mostly out of curiosity. It was hard work, but enjoyable with the help of an equally curious thirty-something pound three year old at my side!

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