If you’re burning to add a backyard fire feature but your landscape lacks level terrain, this design offers a cool solution. By terracing the space, you can enjoy a convenient retreat just outside your door – a camping experience without the travel or the hassle of packing. Seating is included; tent and outhouse are unnecessary.
HANDY’s assistant art director, Tracy Walsh, and her husband, Ryan, are avid campers who wanted a campfire ambience at home. They worked with landscape designer Scott Reynolds of Minnetonka, Minnesota, to create an attractive fire pit on their sloping suburban lot. We documented the process so we could share Scott’s plan and expertise with other Club members who live where the world is not flat.
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Tracy and Ryan’s finished site is 20 ft. dia. Because all sites have unique sizes, shapes and obstacles, you’ll need to adapt the design to your yard. Before you settle on a plan, check local code requirements, which may affect the scale and spacing of your fire pit. (Most recreational fires, for example, can be no more than 36 in. dia.) Then follow these steps:
Know your dirt. Your soil type will affect the design and scale of your project -- and the time and energy needed to complete it. The Walshs’ dry clay called for heavy equipment, whereas sandy soil would be much easier to sculpt.
Choose a site. If you like the terraced design but do not have a slope, you can create a two-tiered area by “plowing” some dirt to one side of the ring. Find a clear, open space that has no overhanging branches, and follow your municipality’s requirements for minimum clearances from any structures. Consider the direction of prevailing winds to predict where smoke is likely to travel (preferably away from houses). As always, call 8-1-1 to have utilities marked before you dig.
Order supplies. Using the materials list and the layout plan (adjusted to fit your site), shop ahead of time so the gravel, rock and boulders will be delivered before you begin construction. You can use a galvanized-steel fire ring as we did (available from a farm store or culvert supplier) or a steel fire ring from a landscape retailer. To help mask the inevitable charring, we sprayed heat-resistant flat-black paint on the interior surface of the ring before installation.
Drive a stake. Determine the center of the space (which in this design is not the center of the fire pit). Measure a 10-ft. radius and mark it with landscape paint. The stake remains the key reference point until the end of the project; be sure to drive it deep so it doesn’t loosen or shift. Use a transit (or a string and line level) to establish a target height for the “plateau” and to measure grade differences.
Frame it in. Using a sod kicker, remove grass and an inch or two of topsoil, creating a clear area within the 20-ft. circle. Further define the border by digging a 4- to 6-in.-deep wedge along the perimeter of the circle. With the marking paint or a sharp tool -- and using the center stake for reference -- mark a 7-ft.-radius inner ring. To begin the excavation phase, use the illustration as a guide.
The upper wall
If your project site consists of compacted clay soil like ours, you may need to rent heavy excavation equipment (and/or a strong crew) for this phase. Along the high side of the circle, carve out the soil to within about 18 in. of the edge of the sod. Dig deep enough to allow the boulders to rest about 6 in. lower than the intended finished level of the fire ring. (Use a transit to verify your target grade).
These jumbo boulders could be maneuvered only by heavy machinery (available from a rental center). If you plan to get by with brute strength, order smaller boulders (and don’t work alone; find at least one strong friend). To modify the plan, you would stack about three courses of 12- to 16-in. rocks to build a retaining wall.
The top of the wall should follow the grade of the ground behind it but at a slightly higher level. Periodically check the distances from the center stake to the front faces of the rocks (7 ft.) and adjust as needed to ensure that the wall follows an even curve (photo TadB06). Our project also included a boulder along the end of the curve to help differentiate the planting area from the entrance side.
Use landscape fabric and smaller boulders behind the wall to prevent dirt from washing out; then backfill using the excavated dirt. If additional dirt is needed, you’ll dig it up when you form the fire pit.
Grade the center of the project area. Set the 36-in. metal liner next to the reference stake and centered between the ends of the boulder wall. Trace around the ring with marking paint, remove the ring and scoop dirt out within the marked area. (Use the soil to backfill the wall if needed). Dig until the ring fits in the hole with a 4-in. reveal above the graded soil. Check that the top of the ring is level; then backfill and tamp the soil around the outside of the ring.
To allow for drainage, remove about 5 in. of soil from the middle 2 ft. of the pit; then scoop out a narrower, 1-ft.-deep hole from the center of that area. (See the illustration for shape and dimensions.) If you have fast-draining (sandy) soil, you won’t need to dig quite as deep as we did. Rocks can be added now or later.
The lower wall
A second, lower wall of boulders supports the outer edge of the fire ring area. Note that it’s designed to be farther from the pit to allow room to add seating. Scoop out a 2-ft.-wide trough, following the curve of the project’s perimeter, but 3 ft. inside the edge of the sod. Dig 15 to 18 in. below the target grade and set in the boulders, checking that the outside edges are 7 ft. from the reference stake. Lay landscape fabric behind the boulders and backfill with soil, tamping as you go.
Mark the locations of the three entrance steps, and starting at the lowest end, grade and tamp the soil for the first slab. Set the slab in place, checking and adjusting so it is level in all directions. Backfill with compactable gravel to the next step location, tamping in layers. To form a solid surface, use a power compactor for all of the gravel installation. As you add the next two slabs, be sure to keep the step risers within 3/8 in. in height from one to the next.
Before finishing the pit’s surround, we filled the hole with river rock up to about 10 in. from the rim. For the outer perimeter we used heavy steel edging, which Scott recommends because it’s not visible, it lasts, and it stays in place better than plastic. To install it, dig out a wedge shape with a spade and set the edging, starting at one end. If needed, pound the edging down flush with the grade using a metal mallet.
Next, spread about 2 in. of compactable gravel (such as crushed granite) across the plateau surface and compact it. At this point, we added an optional flagstone border around the ring, primarily for embellishment. Once the pieces were cut, positioned and level, we filled between and around them with a second layer of compactable gravel and power packed it, adding material as needed to create a level surface across the entire 7-ft.-dia. plateau.
The band of ground outside of the boulder walls and gravel provides a gardening area. Choose plants that suit your climate and soil, and include landscape fabric and mulch for lower maintenance. (This is supposed to be a recreational fire pit, after all). Add a few chairs and a bench or a log, and you’ll have a local destination point for family, friends and a few marshmallows.
36-in. galvanized-steel fire pit liner (13 in. depth)
70 ft. of steel edging
Gravel (river rock, for drainage)
Crushed granite or limestone (Class III or 3/4-minus)
Boulders and three Chiltern limestone slabs (6 x 18 x 36 in.)
Flagstone for optional border
Landscape fabric and marking paint
Black heat-resistant paint
Mulch and plants
Marshmallows, graham crackers and chocolate bars