How to Reduce Water in Clay Soil: Help It Drain


If you’re into gardening at any capacity, you know that clay soil is the soil you have to learn to love; it’s quite a challenge to drain. Packed full of nutrients but easily compacted, clay soil can prevent growth and, worse yet, allow rain and water to puddle and stay, turning your backyard into a mud pit. How can you reduce water in clay soil and help it drain?

To increase clay soil drainage, one must prevent compaction of the soil. If compacting is inevitable, the next best thing is to amend the soil with compost, gypsum, wood chunks, and mulch. This creates aeration in the soil, allowing fluids to travel throughout and not settle all in one place.

While amending the soil is a surefire way of getting your clay soil draining correctly, many people seek other methods for getting water drained and away from their home. What are some alternative solutions that may also work for your clay soil? Read on for how to reduce water in clay soil to help it drain.

Solutions for Yard Drainage Problems

There are some fairly easy fixes to make your clay soil drain better, so you don’t have to have a swampy yard every time it rains, along with the other challenges of clay soil. Before one chooses a method for their drainage solutions, one must consider the following questions:

  1. What do I use my backyard for?
  2. Do I garden or plan to do any gardening?
  3. What is my climate like?

The reason to ask oneself these questions is to help you determine what you want to do with the water you are trying to extract away from your clay soil. For those that use their backyard for entertaining alone, dispelling the water entirely may be best. Gardeners, on the other hand, may want to retain the water for future use.

Construction Based Drainage Solutions

For those who don’t garden at all or do garden and live in areas where rain is fast-hitting and infrequent, a construction-based drainage solution may be best to increase the drainage of your soil. These systems are built into your ground, allowing water to pass through them and away from your land, preventing pooling.

Where does the water go? This is all up to you. If you are just interested in getting the water away from your clay soil and elsewhere, you can have it drain away from your property. However, if you are interested in trying to retain that water or have it distribute into the soil without muddying everything, you can create a soakaway pit to collect water.

A soakaway is a six-foot deep pit that can collect and retain or distribute water for the soil. The reason one may want to retain rainwater is during hotter months. If your region is not known for frequent rainfall, having this extra stockpile can really help your lawn and garden survive harsh summers!

The top construction based systems are:

  • Herringbone drainage
  • French drain
  • Underground drain pipe

Herringbone Drainage

This system is constructed by creating smaller parallel trenches in your yard that run to a larger trench that carries water away to a soakaway. The smaller trenches are filled with gravel, and the large trench has a drainage pipe that allows it to move the water without hitting your soil. Your soakaway can be just dug into the soil for dispersion or lined with concrete for retention.

French Drain

A cousin of the herringbone drainage, the french drain is a little less complicated to construct. Instead of multiple trenches, you need only one, with gravel and along drainage pipe. This system is a little more complicated as you need specific ratios and angles for it to work at its best. It can shoot water to a soakaway or just away from home.

I have a full in depth article on How To Install A French Drain here in case that’s the route you want to take.

Underground Drain Pipe

The simplest system of them all, an underground drainage pipe is just what it sounds like: a pipe designed and installed to allows water to pour down it and away. These take water from the lowest point of your yard and disperse it accordingly.

When Using a Constructed Solution

This is an important note for anyone considering a constructed drainage solution. If you are considering one of these systems and do not plan to use a soakaway, it is imperative that you review your local city codes to ensure that you can have the water disperse anywhere else, including the street or storm drains.

Here’s a helpful informative video talking about drainage solutions:

Amending Your Soil

While a little more time-intensive, amending your soil is extremely beneficial! Not only will it aerate the soil and allow water to drain more easily, but it allows your soil to break up and be more suitable for growing. To gardeners, this is music to their ears as more soil means more spaces to put new plants!

What if you are not into gardening? Amending clay soil is still a great idea. Instead of planting a garden, you can look forward to a greener spring as your lawn starts to come in. Because you broke up the soil and allowed it to drain better, your lawn won’t have to struggle to take root as much.

Just walking into a landscaping store, there are a ton of methods to add nutrients and break up the soil. Remember that you need to find one that will work for clay soil specifically and work for you. Depending on how you plan to use the soil will depend on what you will be able to pick up.

Some of the top choices for amending clay soil are:

  • Gypsum
  • Wood Materials such as mulch or wood chips
  • Organic Materials such as compost
  • Cover Crop planting

Does Sand Improve Clay Soil Drainage?

For certain types of gardens, particularly with containers, many will suggest amending soil with sand to increase aeration and allow water to move through more easily. A particular example of this is the avocado plant and another zone 8 through 11 plants, which prefer hotter climates. If this is the case, one would think adding sand to clay soil would help in the aeration as well.

This is just not the case. It is not a matter of the size of the sand in particular, either. Clay soil is very tacky and compact, making it hard to till and aerate as it is. When you add sand to this soil, instead of having the intended effect, the sand’s surface allows the clay to easily overtake the particles by adhering to it and clumping together once more.

This means instead of the intended drainage effect. You are, in fact, allowing your clay soil to clump or even strengthen as now it has more to hold on to. Later, when you go to try again, the sand can make it difficult for you to break up t

Amend Your Soil for Better Drainage and Gardening

While a constructed drainage system is always a good start for a backyard, amending the soil can have many more benefits than just relying on a system to carry water away. By taking the time to repair the soil itself, you increase its usability and allow for those locked away clay soil nutrients to feed your plants.

Whether you are a gardener or not, clay soil doesn’t have to be one big mud pit that you have to put up with. Knowing the right steps to take to get your clay soil draining can allow you to use the space once again for entertaining, growing crops, or even landscaping ideas. Take back your backyard and get the green landscape you want today, minus all the puddles.

Robert Sampson

I'm Robert Sampson and I live in Colorado where I spend a lot of time in the backyard with my family either grilling, playing games and sports, or working on a project to make our backyard a better place to be.

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