Do you need to improve your soil drainage?
Are you not sure what you’re supposed to do with your land or garden after rain?
Are you worried that you won’t ever be able to use your land the way you want to because of drainage issues?
You’re not alone!
Knowing how to improve your soil drainage can alleviate stress and help you to get more out of your land.
Here are the top 10 things you should know.
1. How do you tell if your soil is draining well?
On nearly all plant tags and seed packets, instructions say to plant in “well-drained soil.”
Yet, if you’ve never seen well-drained soil, then you’re unlikely to know what this means.
This blog is all about improving soil drainage, but how do you know if your soil drainage is even a problem in the first place?
Here’s a simple test you can use to check the soil drainage.
If you’re getting ready to start a garden, then you’ll want to test different parts of your landscape to see where plants thrive best.
Step 1: Dig a hole
For this test, you’ll want to dig a hole about 12 inches wide and at least 12 to 18 inches deep.
It doesn’t have to be measured precisely for the test to work, but create a hole roughly this size.
Step 2: Fill the hole with water
Next, fill the hole with water and let it drain completely.
Step 3: Repeat
Then, you’ll repeat step 2 and fill the hole again.
Measure the depth of water that is left in the hole.
Step 4: Measure the depth every 2-3 hours
Measure the depth of water every hour for 2-3 hours.
The water level of well-draining soil will drop at least an inch per hour.
If it’s not, then you’re not working with well-draining soil.
This is valuable information to have, especially if you want to plant on the land.
It means you should either work with the soil to improve the drainage or try to find a different area that has better drainage.
2. What are indicators of healthy soil?
Are you still wondering if your soil is healthy?
Here’s how you’ll know if your soil is doing well or if you need to improve your soil drainage:
Your plants are thriving
Your soil is loose and deep enough to allow good root growth
Your topsoil is medium to dark brown in color
Your earthworms, beetles, ants, and other soil animals can easily be seen in the top six inches of soil
Your soil is crumby when moist, and your soil aggregates (small clumps or crumbs) maintain their shape after a heavy rain
You can dig a hole 2 to 3 feet deep without much difficulty
You do not see water standing on top of the ground for hours after it rains and soil particles do not move off-site during heavy rainfall
3. Why is it important that you improve your soil drainage?
If your soil is often saturated with water, you’ve probably noticed that your plants are wilted or dead.
Because plant roots need air to survive.
If your soil isn’t draining well, then the space between the soil particles that would normally be filled with air is filled with water.
This causes the roots to rot, which is bad for your plant.
You can look for evidence of root rot by lifting the plant out of the ground and examining the roots.
Rotting roots are dark-colored and slimy rather than firm and white.
Ideally, healthy and well-drained soil will have an abundance of earthworms and microorganisms because it’s nutrient-rich and surrounded by organic matter.
Working to improve your soil’s drainage will keep your plants thriving in their home.
4. What does it mean to have well-drained soil?
Well-drained soil is soil that allows water to drain at a moderate rate without water pooling and puddling.
This soil does not drain too quickly or too slowly.
Rather, it allows the plants to absorb the water.
If water drains too quickly, the plant will be dehydrated and die.
If the water drains too slowly, then the plants are left in water and are unable to get oxygen from the soil.
As a result, the plants will also die.
Plants that have insufficient water are more susceptible to disease and insect damage.
Ensuring your plants are in well-drained soil is essential to their health.
In particular, compacted and clay soil can both drain poorly.
If you have either of these soil types, then it’s important to amend them to make them more porous.
You can also choose plants that tolerate wet areas.
Sandy soil can also be problematic as it drains water away from plant roots too quickly.
If you’re attempting to plant in an area with sandy soil, you’ll either need to amend the soil or choose plants that have the ability to tolerate dry and drought-like conditions.
5. How can you improve your soil drainage?
Above, we discuss “amending” the soil if it doesn’t quite fit the criteria of what your plant needs.
Prior to planting anything in your garden, go through the process of testing the soil drainage discussed above.
Understanding the initial drainage capabilities will allow you to maximize and create well-draining soil where your plants can thrive.
For areas that have poor drainage, you’ll want to incorporate organic materials like peat moss, compost, shredded bark, or manure.
There’s no perfect recipe for what or how much you should mix in because it will depend on the current state of your soil.
That said, you’ll want to thoroughly mix in these materials to create nutrient-rich and properly drained soil that can sustain healthy plants.
When you water your plants, the water should drain at a moderate rate with no pooling or puddling.
6. Why does adding organic matter help well-draining soil?
Working in organic matter (compost, leaf mold, moss, shredded bark, manure) helps to improve soil drainage because it improves the soil structure.
It also helps to attract earthworms, and these earthworms process the organic matter and make nutrients readily available to plants.
By adding organic matter, you help to resolve common problems like clay soil or compaction from heavy foot traffic or construction equipment.
7. What are the four key practices of improving soil drainage?
Improving your soil drainage comes down to making sure your soil is healthy.
Perhaps your drainage is okay, but you want to continue to improve it.
You can do this by following four key practices that fall under the following broad categories: feeding soil microbes and protecting soil aggregates.
Feeding soil microbes
It all comes back to increasing the organic matter content in your soil.
While you can add organic matter (moss, manure, compost, shredded bark) back to the soil to help improve drainage, you can also do this in many other ways by feeding soil microbes.
Here are two other key practices that you can follow that help support the place where plant roots grow (the rhizosphere).
1. To increase the diversity of the microbial populations below ground, you should increase the diversity of the plants above ground.
This will result in a more complex and resilient soil ecosystem overall.
2. Keep growing things even during the winter.
Soil microbes require living plant roots during warm and cool seasons.
This includes the roots of perennials, grasses, and cover crops.
Protecting soil aggregates
This section is fairly self-explanatory.
To ensure that your soil remains healthy, you don’t want to disturb it.
Protect it as much as possible!
Here are two best practices that fall under this category.
1. Allow the soil food web to work and avoid disturbing earthworm burrows, pore spaces, and soil aggregates.
For example, frequent tilling can degrade soil structure.
2. Cover the soil to prevent erosion and nutrient run-off and protect soil aggregates and organic matter.
You may consider using mulches, cover crops, and ground covers.
8. What five simple ingredients can you add to fix poor soil health?
Throughout this article, we’ve suggested a few different ingredients (i.e. organic matter) that you can add to your garden to help improve the soil drainage.
In this section, we’ll list out five distinct ingredients that you can add to your soil that will increase drainage and fix poor soil health.
Perlite: A lightweight volcanic rock that is puffed like popcorn, perlite takes up a lot of space.
As a result, it helps to loosen soil and prevents it from clumping.
It can also hold onto water, which can help soil from baking and cracking.
Sand: If you’re on a budget and you need something to break up your soil, sand is the way to go.
It’s one of the cheapest ingredients and the small particle size will get between the soil clods and break them up, which helps to increase drainage and aerate the soil.
Compost: As mentioned above, compost can help to fix the soil.
Often, what’s lacking in heavy, hard, and compacted soil is organic matter.
When organic matter is found in soil, it acts like a sponge.
From there, it breaks up the clumps and prevents compaction by providing nutrients to the soil and your plants.
You can never add too much compost to your soil — it will only ever help!
Mulch: If you’re patient, mulch may be the way to go.
Mulch holds onto water, breaks down, and decomposes slowly.
Thus, it can protect the soil from baking and getting hard in the first place.
It also allows worms and other garden insects to feed on the material that is slowly being broken down.
Between 2-4 years later, you should have perfectly loose soil.
While it isn’t a quick method, it is an effective method for fixing poor soil health!
Vermiculite: This is another volcanic rock like perlite that looks glassy when flat.
It’s extremely absorbent.
When used with any combination of compost, perlite, or all three, it will break up even the hardest soil and transform it into something usable.
9. What are strategies to improve soil drainage for water-logged soil?
If you’re attempting to cope with excessive water in your garden, here are some strategies you can use to get rid of water-logged soil.
Plant cover crops
When you plant cover crops, you use excess water, which is good for soil health.
They essentially keep your garden from turning into a giant mud puddle.
To use this method, plant a winter cover crop throughout your garden next fall or in places you’re not immediately trying to plant in the spring.
The cover crop will use excess water as the plants grow and eventually add organic material to the soil, which helps with drainage.
This is a longer-term strategy that helps improve soil structure because it no longer is compacted by equipment.
This allows plants, insects, and fungi to create air spaces in the soil.
Add organic material
As noted above, you can never go wrong when adding organic material!
It improves fertility and increases drainage.
By mixing and bonding soil particulars, you allow more space for air and drainage.
Organic material can also help dry soil hold moisture.
Subsoil lifts the soil without mixing it or turning it over.
This helps to leave the soil structure intact and creates drainage soils in the soil, which helps to improve drainage.
Large farms often do this with a tractor and chisel plow or subsoiler.
In a smaller garden, you can do it with a broad fork.
Build raised beds
Building raised beds is a quick solution that can help you create areas of good drainage.
That said, the one disadvantage to most raised beds is that they tend to dry out later in the summer and will require more water.
Just keep that in mind!
If you have dense clay soils, then you may consider sand as a cheap solution to give your garden some much-needed drainage.
However, we recommend that you add organic material instead.
To get proper drainage with sand, you’ll end up needing to add tons of sand if your soil has a lot of clay.
If you don’t add enough, then your clay and sand will end up bonding together and forming a brick-like substance rather than fluffy garden soil.
Not worth it!
10. What are the solutions for very soggy gardens?
If the soil in your yard is particularly soggy, then you may have to get creative with what you do with the space.
Here are three solutions that you may want to consider.
Build a rain garden: This is a hardworking landscape feature that collects and filters runoff water.
The garden includes water-loving plants and will collect water to allow it to slowly percolate into the landscape.
Create a bog garden or pond: This is a more elaborate solution if you have a poorly drained spot in your hard.
If you choose to go this route, you’ll probably require professional help as the land will need to be specifically sculpted in order to hold water in the area.
Install drain tile: This is another labor-intense solution where you excavate the soil and install underground drainage tile.
You may also require a rain garden or bog garden near the drain tile outlet.
Involving a landscape professional will ensure that this project looks aesthetically pleasing at the end.
You now have the tools to improve soil drainage.
Yard drainage shouldn’t ruin your lawn or garden.
You’ve got this!
Have any questions?
Let us know in the comments.
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