Clay Soil Drainage Systems: How to Fix Waterlogged Soil

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Does your yard or garden turn into a pond after a heavy rain? Do you have heavy clay soil? These clay soil drainage systems and ideas will help you fix your waterlogged soil. Use these tips to improve the drainage in your yard and encourage a healthy lawn and garden.

a young boy pretending to fish in a large puddle

Poor drainage can cause excess water to pond up in low spots in your yard. Although your kids might love those big puddles (and try to catch fish in them), too much surface water is not good for your lawn or garden and will cause root rot and damage plant roots. Too much water next to your house can cause foundation damage or basement flooding.

Drainage in Clay Soil

The types of soil on your property will determine their ability to drain water. Soil type can be classified into these three basic types: clay, silt, and sand. Clay soils or heavy soils have the smallest soil particles of any of the different soil types. Sandy soil has the largest particles, and silt particles are smaller than sand but larger than clay. A loamy soil is a mix of the three soil types.

Because heavy clay soils have small particles, they can become tightly packed together. Compacted clay soil is almost impossible for water to penetrate. High clay content soils are often very slow to drain water.

Determining your soil profile can help in choosing the proper soil drainage system for your property. If you have topsoil over granite, your drainage system will look different that someone with deep clay soils. Contact your local county extension service for help in understanding the soils in your area.

Standing water on top of the soil surface is detrimental to plant growth. It is hard to get grass and many other desirable plants to grow in waterlogged areas with high water tables.

Our Clay Soil Drainage System Story

The soil on our property is all very dense clay. When we moved to our current location more than 10 years ago, we frequently had large areas of standing water in the front yard, basement flooding, and very wet, soggy soil in the spring and after heavy rainfall.

One spring we dug an area to pour a concrete foundation for an outbuilding only to have it fill up with water! We had to install a drain pipe under the gravel before we poured the concrete!

a square trench filled with water in clay soil

Over the years, we have installed three french drain systems to divert water away from the house and outbuildings during wet weather and dry out the wet soil. We have also taken steps to improve the soil structure in our vegetable garden and yard. The water penetration and drainage are so much better now.

French Drain Designs for Heavy Clay

The best way to divert excess water is to use a french drain system or tile drainage system. These subsurface drainage systems divert water to an area where you want the water to go. There are several variations on the french drain idea and each one will work in different situations.

On our property, we have found that the fabric-wrapped french drain is the best option. You can talk to a local drainage contractor to understand best practices and unique challenges in your area. Most french drain systems require the use of heavy machinery.

french drain near a building with fabric

Deep Trench French Drain

A deep trench french drain or channel drain works well in clay soil. This method is commonly used around basement foundation walls to divert water away from the house.

A deep trench is dug down to the basement floor level all the way around the house and diverted away down a hill. A perforated pipe is set in the bottom of the trench to facilitate water flow. The trench is backfilled with gravel up to the ground level.

Pros and Cons of Deep Trench French Drain

Deep trench french drains work very well to divert water away from a house. The problem is that you must have some slope on your property for this method to work. If you live on a flat property, you won’t have the elevation drop you need for the drain outlet.

Wide Gravel French Drain

A wide gravel french drain isn’t as deep as a deep trench french drain, but it is wider. A wider area allows more water to be collected and be redirected. One or several perforated pipes are set in the bottom of a wide trench and the trench is backfilled with gravel.

Pros and Cons of Wide Gravel French Drain

A wide gravel french drain is very effective at redirecting excess water and doesn’t require as deep of a trench. This type of french drain does take more area than the other types, so if you have a small space, you may not have room for this type of drainage system. Because this trench isn’t as deep, it requires a smaller elevation change for the drain outlet.

a french drain being installed with landscape fabric

Fabric-Wrapped French Drain

Because clay soil particles are so small, they can clog clay soil drainage systems and pipes. A fabric-wrapped french drain uses a non-woven geotextile fabric wrapped around the pipe and the gravel to prevent later problems. The fabric prevents the clay soil from clogging the drainage pipe but allows water to pass through.

We have used fabric-wrapped french drain systems exclusively on our property with the best results. If you want to reduce maintenance needs in the future, I highly recommend using fabric in your french drains. Even with the added expense, it is still a good idea.

Other Ways to Improve Clay Soil Drainage

While installing a french drain is the fastest way to improve water drainage in clay soil, these four ideas will also help with the water management on your property.

Create a Decorative Dry River Bed Drain

Digging a shallow trench, and back-filling with river rock can be an aesthetically pleasing and functional rain garden. This will drain the water and add character to your property. This area drain can work well near sidewalks or patios to divert water to a desired location. You can plant water-loving plants near dry riverbeds to create a rain or bog garden. Turn your waterlogged lawn into something beautiful!

River Rock

Aerate Your Lawn

Aerating your soil will create air spaces and pockets. This improves drainage, breaks up compacted soil, and improves soil structure. You can rent a core aerator at most home improvement or equipment rental stores. This gas-powered machine pulls small soil plugs out of the ground. A half-day rental will cover most residential lawns.

Collect Rainwater

Collecting rainwater is a great way to prevent excessive water and surface runoff from pouring onto your yard or garden. During heavy rains and wet conditions, you can collect water for later use. Place a water barrel near a shed or roof downspout to collect the runoff. If you have a large property, consider digging a pond or catch basin to collect the water. You can use the collected water to water your plants or lawn later in the growing season when things dry out.

a water collection barrel in a beautiful garden

Add Organic Matter

If you have a fairly small, waterlogged area, adding a thin layer of compost or organic material on the surface may help. The compost will draw out excess water in the soil and improve structure for small areas. Compost will also attract beneficial microbes and earthworms. These organisms help loosen the soil particles and improve drainage in wet areas. A waterlogged garden can greatly benefit from added compost and organic matter.

Other Tips to Improve Soil

Check out these other posts about improving clay soil!

How to get grass seed to grow on hard packed dirt

How to fix heavy clay in your garden: Easy Tips

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