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Some Creative Solutions to Soil Drainage Problems

Areas of poorly draining soil, particularly in our gardens and around driveways and pathways, can mar the appearance of the landscape and create other problems as well. We tend to avoid these areas, both because they’re unattractive and because they’re difficult to move through – especially after a storm. But there are some creative solutions that not only address soil drainage problems but also transform the places in which they exist into appealing features of the landscape.

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The first step is to observe the journey that water makes around your yard. Put on some mucking boots and a raincoat and meander around outside the next time it rains. Observe where all that water goes. Where does it channel out freely? Where does it collect? Watch also for signs of erosion in different places. Some telltale indications that water may be draining poorly in ways that you can’t see include bare spots on your lawn, or patches of plants that don’t stand upright. Areas like these might be profitably turned into bog gardens for water-loving plants. Sometimes it makes more sense to take our cues from nature rather than trying to bend her to our wishes.

Surface flowing water, however, can be easier to manage. With a little creativity and effort, we can assist its drainage in ways that make for appealing landscape features in their own right. Dry creeks, for example, can facilitate water flow during and immediately after a storm, and also add visual interest to a garden area on sunny days. Dry creeks are particularly useful in regions that see regular, heavy rainfall. To make one, begin by shoveling out a canal about two feet wide and a foot deep. You’ll want to gradually increase the depth at the bottom as you go, so that your groove moves as a 3% slope. Once you’ve dug a ditch, line it with landscape fabric. Then add gravel, leaving three or four inches at the top to fill with more decorative stones. The fabric will hinder the soil from working upwards into the stones. Placing larger rocks in random places along the edges will make this man-made feature appear more natural. Once you’ve completed your run, test it by hosing it with water at the starting place and watching to see if it flows evenly to the end.

Combine Landscape Approaches

As part of your landscaping design, a similar artificial streambed, also referred to as a drainage swale, can be created using sod to line the ditch. In this case, make your ditch wide and shallow enough for a mower, if you want to keep the grass cut. Grass seed usually doesn’t work in such drainage swales because it gets swept away before it has a chance to set its roots. Another option is to combine both approaches: line your streambed with rocks and a mixture of grasses and plants that thrive on abundant moisture. Such a construction has two advantages. The stones slow down water flow, thus deterring erosion, and the plants absorb some of the water as it passes through. You’ll want to utilize plants that have deep, fibrous root systems that can really clutch the soil, such as Purple moor grass, English Ivy, and Daylilies.


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Finally, the principles behind the building of drainage swales can be applied to pathways in your yard, where brick headers can be used to slow the flow of water and gravel can be used to help absorb it.

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