How To Make Soil Drain Better (fixing and improving poor garden drainage)

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After a heavy rain or storm, you might be horrified to see your garden become the latest Great Lake, taking days to return to normal. Meanwhile, your precious veggies are drowned by the slowly receding water, potentially causing unnecessary challenges to your crops. I’ve had this problem before and learned a thing or two on how to make soil drain better and prevent these drainage mishaps. In this article, I’m happy to share my discoveries from my mistakes so you, too, can have a prosperous garden even in heavy rains when Mother Nature doesn’t cooperate.

There are several easy things any grower can do to improve their garden soil and improve drainage, including:

  • Add earthworms, nature’s organic soldiers
  • Incorporate compost or aged manure into your soil
  • Elevate your soil by growing your veggies in raised beds, containers, or fabric grow bags
  • Install gutters, or fix substandard ones
  • Consider drainage pipes that channel water underground and away from your garden
  • Be observant and practice regular garden maintenance while amending any trouble issues, like pooling water, immediately 
gardener holding small plant in dirt in both hands in sunlight

If you’re tired of dealing with waterlogged soil and want to see your plants flourish, you’re in the right place. In this article, we will explore practical and friendly techniques to improve soil drainage, so your plants can enjoy the perfect balance of moisture, oxygen, and nutrients.

Understanding soil types, incorporating organic matter, building raised beds, installing drainage systems, and selecting the right plants can all drastically improve your soil while enhancing foliage growth. 

Humble Highlights

  • Discover these 3 primary soil additives and how they create a balanced and hospitable garden environment so you can boost drainage and energize your crops for larger harvests!  
  •  Save time by discovering how to determine the drainage capabilities of your backyard garden so you can effectively test to see which soil type you have. 
  •  Save money by discovering the 4 best ways to instantly elevate your soil to improve drainage so you can keep your plants hydrated – PLUS one secret weapon that will help aerate your soil and do all the hard work for you!  

Make Soil Drain Better: Consequences Of Poorly Drained Garden Soil

Poorly-draining soil can have significant and long-lasting consequences for plant growth and overall garden productivity. The following are some of its damaging effects:

  • Waterlogged conditions: Standing water can suffocate plant roots by hindering their development and nutrient uptake. If not addressed promptly, pooling water may cause stunted growth, fungal issues, and plant death. 1
  • Root Rot: Waterlogged conditions restrict oxygen availability to the rooting systems of your budding plants, leading to oxygen deprivation or suffocation. If not corrected, roots become weak and vulnerable to fungal pathogens.
  • Compacted Soil: Pooling water blocks drainage and creates an unfavorable environment for beneficial soil organisms. Because water is heavy, the soil sinks as it drains, effectively squeezing out necessary oxygen and other vital nutrients. 
  • Increases Root Disease: Undrained water creates a ripe environment for mold and the growth of fungi and pathogens, which can quickly spread throughout your foliage.
  • Soil Erosion: As pooling water drains, it washes away vital nutrients your plants could otherwise use. Because plants have difficulty maturing without fertile soil, erosion may lead to underperforming plants and lower crop yields if not corrected.
poor drainage soil

Of course, these are just some common ailments that may affect your plants. Remember, there are many ways to improve soil fertility in your garden. Now that you understand some of the most severe consequences of not having well-drained soil, we can start to take steps to fix this challenge while improving drainage as needed. 2

Humble Tip:
Remember, the soil is the most critical aspect of a healthy garden. It’s like the engine that runs your entire growing operation, no matter how small it may be. Sure, you need light, water, and healthy plants or seeds to succeed, but you must have nutrient-rich soil to feed your hungry foliage. 

If you are beginning your gardening journey, I suggest focusing on the soil rather than your plants. It may not be the most appealing thing, but I assure you that amending your soil into a structured and fertile ground will pay off in spades come harvest season after season. 

Drainage Before Planting: Test Soil Drainage And Soil Type Drainage Properties

To prevent over-watering your garden, you first need to test its drainage capacity by following these easy steps:

  1. Dig a hole about 12 inches wide and 18 inches deep. 
  2. Fill it with water and observe if the water level drops every 2 to 3 hours. Well-draining soil usually settles water an inch every hour. 
  3. If water levels stay the same, start amending your soil structure and assess if you have sandy, loamy, or clay soil.  
poor draining soil

The following are the most likely soil properties you may have in your garden. 3

Sandy Soil

Sandy soils are famous for their superior drainage. Because sandy soils have larger particles and space between these particles, oxygen, water, and nutrients easily pass through, allowing excellent absorption by the rooting systems of your plants. Sandy soils are typically found in various locations, including arid or semi-arid regions, tropical climates, coastal regions, and even higher elevations. 4

Clay Soil

Clay soil is dense and slimy while being notorious for poor drainage. Unlike sandy soils mentioned above, clay soils have finer particles tightly packed together, leaving little room for water, nutrients, and air to pass through. Although clay soil can be found nearly everywhere, it is most commonly located around water, such as river beds, lakes, or ponds. 5

Humble Tip:
If you’ve selected the perfect location for your backyard garden, don’t let clay soil spoil your ambitions. You’ll simply need to undertake a few extra steps to make things work.  

First, conduct a soil test by investing a few dollars in a rapid home kit or contact your local gardening extension or community college to send a sample for evaluation. Knowing your soil type and the nutrients it has or doesn’t have before you plant gives you a reference point. 

Second, rent a tiller and till your native soil at least 6 to 8 inches deep. Next, amend your soil by spreading several inches of nutrient-dense compost, organic matter, and aged manure. You’ll want to incorporate these amendments into your native soil with your tiller and then fill in your garden beds by laying premium topsoil.  

Finally, layer your grow bed with another 2 to 4 inches of compost several weeks before your first planting in the spring. You’ll need to monitor your soil continually, but this process provides an excellent start for plants.

Loamy Soil

Loamy soils are desired by growers everywhere for their balanced mixture of sand, silt, and clay particles. Because of this balance, loamy soils have the dual benefit of allowing the soil to retain moisture yet have excellent drainage capabilities, creating an inviting habitat for consistent plant growth. 6

Soil Additives To Improve Drainage: Potting Mix And Other Soil Mix

There are several soil additives you can add to your garden to help improve drainage, including:

  • Perlite
  • Vermiculite
  • Organic Matter 
how to improve waterlogged soil

Potting Mix Additives

Two common potting mix additives are perlite and vermiculite, commonly used in container gardening.

When perlite, a lightweight material made from volcanic glass, is mixed into potting soil, it creates more gaps within the soil, offering your plants a better-structured environment as they mature. These spaces allow water to channel and flow through the dirt, lessening the chances of pooling water, soil compaction, and the diseases that may follow. 

On the other hand, vermiculite is a natural mineral that retains soil moisture yet still allows for it to be well-draining. This flaky mineral helps regulate the quantity of water in the ground while avoiding saturated conditions, making it an excellent addition to your soil. 

how to make your garden soil drain better

Adding Organic Matter

Adding organic matter to your garden drastically helps improve drainage while providing nutrients to the soil and your plants. When these natural materials are added, they help create spaces and channels in the dirt that allow water to flow more freely. 7

Here are some simple ways how you can add organic matter to your garden.

  • Choose organic materials that you prefer to use. (compost, leaf litter, or aged manure). Consider starting a homemade compost pile to always have fresh, organic matter on hand. 
  • Prepare the area by removing any weeds, rocks, or debris hindering the mixing process.
  • Evenly spread the organic matter over the soil surface, aiming for a thickness of about 2 to 4 inches.
  • Properly mix the organic matter into the soil using a garden fork, shovel, or tiller to efficiently incorporate the organic matter into the top 6-8 inches of soil. Break up any clumps and ensure even distribution throughout the area.
  • Water the soil to help it settle and to promote decomposition. Repeat if necessary.

Elevate Your Soil To Improve Soil Drainage

There are several ways to elevate your soil to improve drainage, including:

  • Raised Garden Beds
  • Mounds Or Berms
  • Fabric Grow Bags
  • Clay Or Plastic Pots
how to improve drainage in garden

Raised Beds

The elevated position of the soil allows excess water to drain away more efficiently, improving drainage and aeration. Through raised bed gardening, water flows downhill instead of pooling around your plants’ roots, creating a healthier habitat for your crops and providing more control over soil quality. 8

Mounds Or Berms

Creating mounds or berms involves piling soil to form raised areas. This technique is beneficial in areas where the soil doesn’t drain appropriately. Elevating the ground with mounds or berms promotes proper water movement, prevents water from pooling around plants, and reduces the risk of root rot.

Fabric Grow Bags

Fabric grow bags are porous containers allowing excellent air and water movement. Using fabric grow bags can help excess water to escape through the material, preventing waterlogging. Additionally, the fabric also promotes air circulation, which benefits root health. 9

Clay Or Plastic Pots

When using containers for plants, ensure each pot has drainage holes. These pots allow excess water to drain freely, preventing water accumulation and promoting healthy root growth for more abundant harvests.

Help Soil Drain Better By Installing Drainage Systems

To ensure proper plant growth, consider installing a drainage system before sowing. When water drains from the soil too slowly or not at all, plants become deprived of essential oxygen and cannot absorb nutrients properly. Gutters and plastic pipes are excellent ways to collect and direct water away from your crops while allowing them to drain more effectively.  

signs of poor drainage soil

Gutters

Gutters are channels attached to the edges of roofs that collect rainwater and efficiently direct it away from the building. By adequately channeling water, gutters help prevent excessive water accumulation around the foundation and ultimately seeping into your garden soil.

Plastic Pipes

Plastic pipes are like secret tunnels that help water escape from the ground and are typically used to improve drainage. These pipes are buried underground, with tiny holes allowing water to enter. These tubes are then placed in trenches or within areas where water pools. Once the water enters the pipes, they act like invisible channels, carrying the excess moisture away from your garden. 10

Humble Tip:
Whether you or a certified professional installs these plastic pipes, you’ll want to ensure they are constructed with a slight inclination so water channels away from your garden, not towards it. If they are positioned in the wrong direction, you risk pooling water seeping through to the surface, ruining your garden, foundation, and lawn.

Aerate Soil With Shovel Or Garden Fork To Increase Drainage

Aerating means creating spaces or holes in the soil to improve its structure and allow better air and water circulation. You can manually aerate your soil using a shovel or garden fork to break up compacted soil effectively. Additionally, you can naturally aerate your garden beds by adding earthworms. As they move through it, these critters are nature’s experts in making tunnels within the soil.

how to fix poor draining soil

This short video below explains many of the excellent benefits the humble earthworm can offer your garden. Adding these workers into your green space and providing the right environment for them to stick around helps your soil become lighter and fluffier, allowing air, water, and plant roots to move more freely. 11

Choosing The Right Plants For Poorly Draining Soil

When choosing plants for poorly-draining soil, selecting ones that can handle wet conditions is essential. Some plants can tolerate and even thrive in saturated soil.  

how to improve soil drainage in garden

Water-Loving Plants

Although well-draining soil should be every grower’s long-term goal, some plants can tolerate intermittent periods of soggy soil. These plants are superheroes for your garden because they can handle the extra water without drowning their roots. They have particular adaptations that help them survive in wetter soil, such as developing deeper rooting systems or having the ability to store excess water as they grow. 12

Some excellent examples include winter spinach, winter mint, arugula, celery, asparagus, water lilies, water hyacinth, begonia, lotus, and philodendrons.

Maintenance Used To Improve Drainage

Regular maintenance should be a top priority to help your garden become a well-functioning and draining space. Generally speaking, a well-draining garden marks a healthy one. Three of the best practices you can routinely perform to amend draining challenges include:

  • Regular Watering And Adding Organic Matter 
  • Monitoring Soil Compaction
  • Preventing Erosion 
how to add drainage to soil

Let’s look at each of these applications to help get your garden back into working order. 

Regular Watering And Adding Organic Matter 

It is crucial to provide your plants with the correct quantity of water and nutrients to maintain well-drained soil. Regularly watering your plants ensures they receive adequate moisture without over-saturating the ground and losing vital nutrients.

Fertilization by adding organic matter, like compost, helps nourish your plants and promotes healthy root growth, which perfectly contributes to better soil structure and drainage. Compost encourages optimal drainage in your garden by allowing your space to retain moisture and slowly releasing moisture and nutrients over time. 

Humble Tip:
Surprisingly, earthworms help create organic fertilizers and make excellent additions to any size garden. They consume organic matter such as fallen leaves, dead plant material, and decaying roots. As they digest, they excrete nutrient-rich castings, a natural fertilizer you can use throughout your garden.

Monitoring Soil Compaction 

Behind every productive garden is an observant grower. Therefore, you’ll want to inspect the soil for signs of compaction regularly. Tell-tale signs your soil is becoming compacted are when you see pooling water on the surface, crusting and cracking, reduced and stunted plant growth, increased water runoff, and erosion.

how to make soil drain faster

Take measures to immediately alleviate these severe issues, such as loosening the soil with a garden fork or avoiding excessive foot traffic in the garden.

Preventing Erosion 

To avoid soil erosion and nutrient loss, use mulch, plant cover crops, or grow groundcovers to cover the soil. These actions help prevent garden soil from washing away, keeping it well-structured and intact while reducing nutrient runoff by protecting soil aggregates and organic matter. 13

Summary To Achieving Well-Drained Soil

Here’s a five-step process summarizing how you can achieve well-draining soil in your garden. 

  • Test your soil. Perform an at-home test or ship a sample to a local laboratory to help understand its drainage characteristics and nutrient density.
  • Identify problem areas. Be observant and take note of the causes that create poor drainage in your growing area. Look for compacted dirt, standing water, unusual runoff, and slower-than-usual developing plants as potential signs. 
how to make your soil drain better

  • Act accordingly. Apply suitable techniques like adding organic matter, adjusting pH, or aerating your soil by adding earthworms or a garden fork. 
  • Elevate your soil. Use raised beds, container gardening, and drainage systems to facilitate and channel water away from your plants. 14
  • Maintain your garden. It’s important to regularly maintain soil moisture, monitor compaction, avoid excessive irrigation, and prevent erosion throughout your green space. 15

Conclusion

Improving soil drainage is crucial for promoting healthy plants and preventing issues caused by saturated soil, including root rot, compacted soil, erosion, and disease. Proper drainage also helps plants receive adequate oxygen, nutrients, and water, leading to healthier growth and reducing the risk of root diseases. 

To understand your garden soil composition, test your soil to determine a baseline of your soil type and nutrient availability. Fortunately, amendments such as perlite and vermiculite are easy to come by and apply. Likewise, adding compost to your garden soil is an excellent way to help provide adequate drainage, help your soil retain water, and offer slow-releasing nutrients to your plants.  

To further improve garden drainage, consider planting your foliage in raised garden beds, containers, or fabric grow bags. Moreover, deploying gutters and plastic pipes make excellent options to help channel excess water away from your garden, while adding earthworms to your green space will help oxygenate your soil. 

With improved soil drainage, we can wave goodbye to the risk of root diseases and welcome a vibrant garden bursting with life instead. So let’s roll up our sleeves, dig in, and watch our gardens flourish like never before! 

Have you had challenges with drainage in your garden? What did you do to alleviate this issue? Take a moment and drop us a line in the comment section below and let us know your success story!  

SOURCES

  1. The National Gardening Association – Improving Soggy Soil
  2. Royal Horticultural Society – Waterlogging And Flooding
  3. Iowa State University, Extension And Outreach – Testing And Improving Soil Drainage
  4. Utah State University, Yard And Garden Extension – Gardening In Sandy Soils
  5. Wikipedia – Clay
  6. Purdue University, Purdue Consumer Horticulture – What Is Loam?
  7. University Of Nebraska-Lincoln, Institute Of Agriculture And Natural Resources – Manage Soils To Improve Drainage And Prevent Compaction
  8. University Of Maryland, Extension – Soil Health, Drainage, And Improving Soil
  9. University Of Illinois Urbana-Champaign, College Of Agricultural, Consumer & Environmental Sciences – Improving Soil Drainage
  10. North Carolina State University, Cooperative Extension – Environmental Factors And A Healthy Landscape: Soil And Drainage
  11. Wikipedia – Earthworm
  12. National Library Of Medicine, National Center For Biotechnology Information – Mechanisms Of Waterlogging Tolerance In Plants: Research Progress And Prospects
  13. ResearchGate – Soil-Erosion And Runoff Prevention By Plant Covers: A Review
  14. University Of Minnesota, Extension – Raised Bed Gardens
  15. University Of Kentucky, College Of Agriculture, Food And Environment Cooperative Extension Service – Soil Percolation: A Key To Survival Of Landscape Plants

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