Good drainage is crucial to plants, both containerized or in the ground, to avoid things like root rot, fungus gnats and, well, drowning.
So, how do you know if you have a drainage problem?
If you see pooling, puddling, or muddy spots, you may have a drainage problem. Water will either be held in the soil or it will go someplace else. Now, soil is pretty amazing. Picture the spaces between grains of sand. Water passes through those spaces easily. Loamy soil has medium-sized spaces that slow water movement a bit. Clay soil is made of really tiny bits that create lots and lots of tiny pockets for water to hang out in. We have mostly clay soil here in the Bay Area, so not enough drainage can be a real threat to plant health.
How can you correct a drainage problem?
Adding organic material to your soil is the best way to improve drainage. Period. It doesn’t matter what type of soil you have. Adding compost improves soil structure, increases the level and variety of nutrients available to plant roots and, hey, it reduces the amount of stuff in landfills! As long as it isn’t diseased, you can compost just about any plant material and use it to improve your soil’s health and drainage. By adding compost to sandy soil, you provide smaller bits of stuff that help hold water and nutrients in place. Loamy soil is already rock star material, but adding compost just makes it even better. When you add compost to clay soil, you create bigger pockets that allow air and water to move more freely, keeping the soil and your plants healthier.
Really big drainage problems can be resolved with swales, ditches, or French drains. Quite simply, you dig a trench that gets progressively deeper as you move away from the problem area. Gravity and surface tension pull the water away and deposit it in areas better able to handle that much water. Rain gardens are another option.
One thing to keep in mind when considering drainage is what is in the water that is draining away. When water drains out of or away from your yard or garden, it’s not going out alone. Every drop of that water contains precious nutrients and microbes. When people use fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides or fungicides, those chemicals are also leached away. This nutrient soup is usually dumped into nearby creeks, rivers, lakes or oceans, disrupting the natural cycles of growth that take eons to evolve (and repair). Just sayin’…
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!