The Sensible Gardener

The Right Plant in the Right Place with the Right Conditions

Lawn Drainage Problems

Poor lawn drainage

Poor Lawn Drainage

Does water sit on your yard for hours, if not days, after a rainfall? Poor lawn drainage is a problem that can be fixed.

Problems Often Associated With Poor Lawn Drainage

  • A common landscaping problem associated with poor lawn drainage is that most plants are not adapted to water clogged soils.
    • Turf grass suffers from root rot, if sitting in water too long. Moss, on the other hand, never gets too much water. So poor lawn drainage tends to tip the balance in favor of moss over grass. For information on low-growing plants well adapted to wet soils, see Wet groundcovers.
    • Most trees and shrubs are also not adapted to growing in water saturated soils. They also suffer from root rot and lack of oxygen. Some trees, such as bald cypresses and red maples, are better adapted to such conditions. For more information on plants that do better in locations with poor lawn drainage, see either Wet sun plants or Wet shade plants.
  • Another big annoyance that comes with bad lawn drainage is that you can’t enjoy your yard, let alone walk on it, until the water has completely dried out, which can take days. Walking on a wet lawn can cause soil compaction, which is also bad for your plants.
  • Sitting water close to your house’s foundations can be a big problem, since it may slowly sip into walls, possibly cause cracks, mold, and other problems.
  • Mosquitos may also be an issue. If the water stays on your lawn for two days or more, that is long enough for mosquito eggs to hatch.

Identifying the Source of Your Lawn Drainage Problem

The first step to fixing your problem is to understand it. Start by observing how water gets on your yard, and how it flows or sits. Then, you need to think about what you want to do with your landscaping and to consider possible options.

Let’s start at the beginning:

  • Drainage is never instantaneous. In other words, rain water is never completely absorbed immediately by the soil. On lawns especially, roots can create a thick barrier that can greatly reduce soil permeability. Soil compaction may also be an issue. For more information on soil compaction and lawn aeration, visit our page on Lawn aerators.
  • Water always follows gravity and therefore ends up in the lowest point. When water falls on the ground, if it can’t penetrate the soil, it runs down to wherever gravity may pull it. And then it may get trapped if the place to which it runs happens to drain poorly.

So the two most important issues pertaining to lawn drainage are soil permeability and yard topography. Consider where the water is coming from and how it travels on your yard.

  • If a fair percentage of the water actually trickles down from elsewhere (your roof, your driveway, for instance) and ends up on your yard, then you need to find a way to divert the excess water, possibly using drains.
  • If the rain falls directly on your yard and just sits there, then there are a few options.
    • You could work on the nature of your soil and the topography of your yard, as explained below.
    • You could also consider installing drains.
    • If the problem is not too major, you could simply get wet plants or create a rain garden.

All these solutions are explained in more detail below.

Soil Permeability 101

Soil permeability must always be considered when dealing with a lawn drainage problem. Roots, be they grass roots, tree or shrub roots, can form a thick carpet that reduces water penetration. Add compaction, in locations where there is more traffic, and the soil becomes almost impenetrable. These factors not only create a lawn drainage problem, they also cut the flow of the air needed to sustain the living soil below.

You can test for roots and soil compaction simply by driving a spade into the soil. If it is really hard, then chances are that your soil is quite compacted. Also have a look at the layer of roots that may be blocking the water.  Aerating your lawn will let both water and air get below the surface.

Working on the Nature of Your Soil

Another frequent lawn drainage problem comes from the soil itself. The presence of organic matter and sand in soil promotes lawn drainage. The presence of clay, on the other hand, makes soil much less permeable. To know the composition of your soil, you need to have it tested. Many nurseries offer this service. Call in advance and ask what they need to run the test. The test should basically tell you how much clay there is in your soil, but it may also tell you if your soil is lacking specific nutrients.

If in fact, you do have a lot of clay in your soil, then you have two options.

  • You can grow plants that like soils rich in clay. These plants will eventually change the nature of your soil, but this is a long term process.
  • You can add things that will change the nature of your soil, and make it richer and more permeable. There are two ways to do this:
    • The chemical method: Gypsum and limestone are known to break up clay. Neither of these products are really efficient if you merely spread them over the soil. You need to mix them up with the soil. A layer of soil of a least six inches is usually recommended. And don’t expect results in the same month. It can take years for results to be really apparent.
    • The natural approach. Organic matter mixed in with the soil will not only break up the clay, but it will make the soil richer and more alive, as well as help plants grow. It will also attract worms that will make the soil even more permeable to water and air. You can use a mix of compost, dead leaves, wood chips and tree bark. Adding roughly 15% horticultural sand will make the mix lighter and more permeable. Six inches of organic matter mixed in with your own soil should go a long way toward fixing your problem. Add a few landscaping trees or shrubs and you may be on your way to a perfect lawn. Using green fertilizers may also help change the composition of your soil.

Yard Topography

The general shape of your yard should drive water away from your house and yard naturally. A lawn must have a small slope going from the house to the street. This way, rain water naturally flows away from the house and into the street. If it is apparent that the shape of your yard plays an important role in your lawn drainage problem, then some reshaping may be in order. The slope can be small, but the shape needs to be regular. If there is a depression somewhere, water may accumulate there.

Diverting Excess Water

Any yard can have a hard time absorbing excessive quantities of water. In cities and suburbs, most of the space is covered by buildings and materials that are not permeable to water, so rain trickles down to wherever it can.

If your lawn is surrounded by large roofs and driveways that all spill their rain water in the same direction, and if all that water ends up on your yard, it’s no wonder that lawn drainage is an issue. Diverting excess water away from your yard may fix most, if not all of your problem.

There are many ways to divert rain water. Here are a few things to consider:

  • Roof gutters can divert water very efficiently. Just make sure that the water doesn’t end up where it will create new problems for you or your neighbors. If the problem comes from your neighbors, getting them to fix the problem may be a big problem in itself.
  • If you also have problems with water seeping into your foundations and damaging your house, you should probably install a French drain around the house. French drains are very efficient if well installed and connected to the sewer system. Most of the water falling from your roof would simply be evacuated by the drain.
  • For asphalt covered driveways, a sump connected to the sewer system is the most efficient solution. Gutters and draining pipes driving the water away can also be efficient. Stone covered driveways are more permeable and can therefore also be a solution.

French Drains and Yard Drains

French drains swallow up the water accumulating around the foundations of your house, while yard drains can drain water from anywhere on your yard.

  • In a setup where you have a French drain and yard drains, the yard drains may be connected to the French drain and the whole thing connected to the sewer system.
  • If you only have yard drains, then they may be connected to a dry well. Granted that this is possible, you could also let the water escape to a stream.

In both cases, a good layer of gravel on top of the drains will help the water reach the tubes. And do ensure that the tubes are sloped so as to let the water flow towards the escape route, and not the other way around.

Installing drains is a big job that will in most cases require that you dig out many plants while the work is being done. Ensure that you leave enough roots on your plants, that you then protect both the plants and their roots from the sun and from overheating or freezing, and that you don’t let the roots dry out. A good natural fertilizer will help your plants grow roots faster when you put them back in the ground. Note that spring and fall are the best seasons for such undertakings. Doing this when the weather is likely to reach extremes is not a good idea, as many plants may simply not make it through.

Finally, be sure to check what local regulations say on drains and excavation works.

For videos explaining how to install lawn draining equipment, you may visit Youtube.

Getting Wet Plants

One way to help with lawn drainage is simply to use plants that thrive in water and that drink up a lot of it. If your yard is sunny, go for wet sun plants, if its shady, go for wet shade plants.

The pros:

  • This is the most natural solution. No chemicals are needed.
  • This is an easy solution. You won’t have to turn your whole yard upside down.
  • With time, these plants will actually improve the quality of your soil and make it more permeable.

The cons:

  • This is not a fast solution. Things will only get better as the plants grow.
  • If you like a grass lawn, planting bushes everywhere may not be for you.

Adding a Rain Garden to Your Landscaping

A rain garden may be the solution to your problem. Note that if your whole yard is made up of clay soil, a simple rain garden is not the answer to your problems.

For more information on how to fix problems, see our page on Lawn problems.


  1. I am looking for the proper method to put down sand, then top soil, in an area of my lawn that holds water all the time. I was told just to pour sand in those areas, put top soil over that, then just mix it up a bit. Is that really all there is to it???? Need reply immediately please.
    Thank you

    • I’m sorry, but I disagree. You need to provide an escape route for this water. If you just add sand under your top soil, the water will simply sit there, in the sand. With the top soil over it, it won’t evaporate. See my page for other ideas on how to cope with excess lawn water.

  2. Hi-My daughter and her fiancé just bought a house that has a 1/2 acre yard. The backyard has a large low area in the middle of it, the previous owners said it is typical in early spring after snow melt and during rainy periods. They are less than a mile from a lake and the area is low to begin with. The neighbors yard is obviously more level and in full sun, he has no problem (except for parched grass!) My daughters yard has nice, healthy looking grass, and it would not be much of an issue otherwise, but the mosquitos are particularly awful. It seems to me a solution (though not an easy one) would be to remove the grass in that area, in strips as in sod, fortify the soil and lay the “sod” back down. If so, is where limestone and/or gypsum come in? Have you any thoughts on rectifying this problem without ripping the whole area up? Thanks in advance!

    • Why not add water loving plants in the center of that spot? Depending on the conditions there, you can choose wet sun plants or wet shade plants. Or you could create a rain garden there. Choose plants that absorb a lot of water, so the soil doesn’t stay damp as long, and the mosquito eggs don’t have time to hatch (they take about two days to hatch).
      Choose tall growing plants, as opposed to shrubs that stay close to the ground. Leaves close to the ground can trap moisture and attract adult mosquitos.
      Good luck 🙂

  3. Hello,

    We have a drainage problem in our basement. It is a walkout basement. By the door that goes outside, there is a 3 inch drain, that runs underground to the front of our home to divert water away. There are a few other pipes (from our downspout) that also do the same (running to the front of the home and dispersing in the front yard). The issue we have is currently this main drain outside the basement door (during heavy rains) gets debris clogged causes the water to drain slow. This causes the water to pool, and enter the basement since the door is right there. We have considered having a larger drain there (12 inch box drain) but my concern is the same problem, debris build up. Instead, I am considering simply putting a channel drain right near the basement door, sloping towards the downspout, and connecting it with a T fitting to the down spout piping, the pipe that is underground draining the downspout. My major question is this. Will the downspout (which currently drains to its own pipe, no other pipes running into it) back up to the channel drain, if i have the channel drain connect to that downspout fitting with a T fitting. This way, if the 3 inch drain gets debris to cause it to drain slowly, and it does pool, the water will have an escape route, the channel drain. I am concerned though, during heavy rain, the downspout could have so much water to drain, that it backs up the channel drain, causing more flooding int he basement.
    Any thoughts? Is the channel drain run to a T fitting (with downspout coming into it) and then both draining the front an appropriate solution?


    • Hi Dan,
      Debris is often a problem with drains. One simple thing you could do is use what they call an atrium grate. If you have a flat grate, it may get completely covered up by debris in no time, but it takes an awful lot of debris to completely cover up an atrium grate. Maybe you could try this first and see if it helps before you start to get involved with more serious work.
      By the way, if you have a flat roof, it may be a good idea to check your roof drain too, once in a while. Although you may not see it, there may be a lot of water pooling up there too.
      Hope it helps,
      The Sensible Gardener

  4. Your post gives detailed explanation on lawn drainage system and gives useful tips to identify causes and how to resolve the drainage problem. Thanks for sharing useful information.

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    Regards and thanks you for sharing. . . . . .

  6. Hi,

    I live in a city located at sea-level and with significant rainfall all year round (this time of year is particularly bad–so dreary!). My yard slopes toward a drain in the middle, but every time it rains the ground (covered with some grass and a lot of moss) becomes very spongy with water that drains very slowly. I’ve ignored it for a couple of years, but now that I have a dog that I need to take out regularly it’s become an issue. How can I get the water to go into the drain? I’ve thought about tearing up the grass (it’s in terrible shape anyway) and using some combination of gravel and sand underneath the topsoil to increase the drainage. If I decided to do this and replant all the grass, what time of year would be best?(I’m also in a strata complex, so I’d somehow need to get the strata mowers and leaf-blowers to stay out… no idea how I’d do that!) What do you think? I honestly don’t have the patience for something that will take over a year to work. I would really appreciate your input.

    • Our motto is ‘The right plant in the right place with the right conditions’. If grass is not well adapted to your conditions, replacing it with plants that are right for your yard is the best solution.
      Your idea of using sand and gravel a few inches below your lawn could get no notable results, but it could also make things worse. If you are not opposed to the idea of removing the lawn and bringing in new plants, than that could possibly be the simplest and safest solution. We have many pages on water, sun and shade loving plants. See our Gardening Tips page first.
      Also make sure, before you do anything, that you have the right to go ahead with your plan (see Landscaping your Front Yard).

  7. My front yard is muddy after a rain storm. The mud is thick and is killing the grass and worms appear on the sidewalk in front and back garage area. the worms sometimes appear during normal watering days from the sprinklers. This begin during the Texas rainstorms in May.

    • Don’t worry about the worms. Worms get lots of energy when the soil is wet, because they can breathe and move easier. So they get on the move and end up on sidewalks and in drains. They don’t do this because they’re drowning, they do it to look for mates.
      By the way, worms are very good for irrigation. First, because they bore holes in the soil, but also because they change the nature of the soil and make it more permeable to water and air. Two things roots need to make plants thrive.
      Regards 😉

  8. I have drain tile that was put in years ago. 4Inch perforated pipe that is now submerged under water and is not draining fast enough. A week to drain off most areas. They pour out into a pond and I can’t lower the level of the pond anymore, any ideas on how to allow those lines to drain quicker?

    • Hi,
      That’s a hard one. Water follows gravity, so if your pipe is submerged under water, of course it won’t drain your yard water. With so little information, I can’t make suggestions. Have your neighbours found ways to fix this problem? Water loving plants thrive in wet areas and they can drink up a lot of water. Maybe the drain and the plants working together to absorb the excess water can do the job. Have you seen our pages on wet sun plants and wet shade plants? Good luck.

  9. My husband and I have been having a lot of issues with our lawn flooding. We always come out to a lake in our backyard after a storm and it sometimes gets into our basement. We are looking into a drainage system that will help the water drain when it needs to and so that we can keep our home safe. I think the French drain that you mentioned would work the best for us, thanks for sharing!

  10. Hi. Very useful article, thanks! The street we live on was poorly constructed, meaning all the yards and storm water drains are lower than the council drains they are supposed to empty into. We can’t change that unfortunately. There is a holding ‘tank’ in the ground at the point where our rain water exits our property and that takes care of most of the water in light rain. However, in heavy or sustained rain, that tank will fill beyond the exit drain level, leading to water ponding in our front lawn which takes some time to drain away. We are planning to dig up the front lawn to lay some french drains but unsure of where to locate them and how deep is best. Can you help with some guidance? Thanks for any advice you can offer.

    • French drains are typically laid out around house foundations so they can protect the house from excessive water and humidity. But gravity is the number one player here. Water will always accumulate in the lowest point and if it gets stuck there, it won’t move unless a sump pump is installed to force it away. I would call in a couple of professionals and ask for detailed quotes. They will give you precious information and it will help you decide what the course of action should be. Remember that quotes are typically free of charge and involve no specific obligation on your part. You may choose any of the firms involved or none at all.

  11. My wife and I are looking into buying our first home. The one we have seen which we like the most, both neighbors backyards had pools of water in them, however the house we saw was very damp but no pools. There is however a willow in the backyard, I’m guessing this is helping. I’m concerned about the dampness as there are other trees blocking the sun in spots, there is a grat deck and pool, and i would hate for the large yard to be ruined with a damp and mosquito filled environment . Any suggestions

    Thank you!

    • Sorry for the delay. Somehow, I never saw your comment. Maybe you have already bought your new home. At any rate, my advice would be to ask around as much as possible before buying. Ask the people selling, preferably with an estate agent present. Ask neighbors. Some may be reluctant to answer, but some will probably tell you honestly what they know. A yard is an important part of a property. Make sure you know what you are buying. There are ways to deal with lawn drainage problems, but a soggy lawn will never be a perfectly well-drained lawn. You have to work with nature to find ways to mitigate these problems. A rain garden is an option. I wish you good luck.

  12. I just bought a new home, and noticed grass and driveway always being wet. Water accumulates where the driveway and sidewalk meets. I moved in over a month ago, and it’s always wet. I thought it was a leak, and called the warranty dept, and the plumber came to check the leak and found no leak. After reading your article, I’m thinking it may be a drainage issue. It looks like water is trapped and accumulating because the side walk and driveway is thick concrete. Is the builder supposed to have a drain installed underneath the sidewalk? What would be my options here because neighbor is built by another builder and my builder is just blaming neighbor. Thanks.

    • Sorry for the delay. Somehow, I never saw your comment. Not knowing very much about your exact situation, it’s hard for me to give you a detailed advice. A lawn drain could perhaps be the solution. Simply adding water loving plants could also fix your problem.
      Contractors and builders often try blaming someone else for problems their clients have. For many of them, it’s just an easy and cheap way to get rid of problems. If you bought the property through an estate agent, consider asking them about this. You could also ask your insurance agent.

  13. Our back yard slopes down from the patio to the back fence. The yard is not deep, and over the past few years we have noticed that there is more and more standing water along the fence after rains that often takes several days to dry out-often the water will disappear, but the soil will remain very wet. We have noticed that our neighbor that lives on the other side of our back yard fence puts all of their grass clippings in the corner of their back yard and along their back fence (this is wooden privacy fence that we share), which we believe it causing the drainage problem in our yard. We spoke to them about the problem but they continue to pile the clippings along their side of the fence line. We have planted a bald cypress tree as well as Louisiana Iris to try and soak up the excess water, but it is still a big problem. Is there another relatively easy way we can get rid of this standing water? Thanks so much for the help!

    • Hi,
      You probably have no way of forcing your neighbor to get rid of the grass clippings, which may indeed trap humidity in the soil (although I can’t say for sure—the problem may come from somewhere else). You could perhaps install a yard drain and drive the water to your house drain, but that would be an important undertaking and it would probably not get rid of all the dampness. Replacing your lawn in that spot with a rain garden may help, so it’s an option you should consider.

  14. We had our house built last year and have noticed a problem in the back yard with standing water. Our neighbors back yard has a slight hill were the water drains right into our back yard. It seems like the water is suppose to run between both property lines but during a heavy rain it just sit on the side yard. In the back yard the water sits there right near our fence. Every time it rains heavy we have a small pool on the side of the backyard and side side front yard. Should we plante wet plants in the section of the backyard or install drains?

  15. Any advice to cope with a lawn on sandy soil that dries out in summer and is a bog in winter?

  16. Hi
    I have water drain from the yard behind my house . Which is higher on the hill. It has ruin my make yard and now it is going into my retaining wall and destroying it. I have a drain but it is full of dirt from their yard. Everytime I clean it fills back up with dirt and .my yard nfloods. How can this be fixed

    • Hi,
      Your situation seems to be a complicated one. If you already have a lawn drain, you should probably try to find ways to help your drain deal with all the water and dirt. A dome drain strainer won’t get clogged down as much as a regular drain strainer. You could also install a chain link fence around the drain, so as to stop the dirt from accumulating over the strainer.
      Good luck to you.

  17. Hello,
    My backyard shows similar issues as found in your article. There is an area where rain will sit for a few days and can become 1 – 2 inches of ice if it is cold enough outside. The yard slopes towards this area, our soil is mostly clay, it is a high traffic area since it’s near the only entrance/exit from the front yard to the backyard, and to top it off our neighbor has a swamp maple nearby whose roots make the area uneven and make water unable to flow out of the backyard. We planted a rain garden along to take care of some of the water before it reached the area, but I don’t think planting another in the middle of the yard is the answer. I am also iffy of the usage of drains/pipe because of the presence of the tree roots? What would you suggest? I have pictures that I could email.

    • Hi,
      Clay soils typically tend to prevent water from draining away, but adding clay soil plants may have two major advantages: first, the plants will drink up some of the water present in the clay, second, the plants’ roots will eventually make the soil more permeable and help some of the water drain away. Have a look at our Clay soil plants page. Be aware that this will not happen overnight though.
      Good luck 🙂

  18. i have an interesting problem that i don’t want to get in trouble while solving. i have a yard that is on a lake with neighbors above me on the hill. their yard runs off into mine and causes a lot of bogginess and mosquitoes. can a french drain run towards the lake? or some kind of curtain drain around the yard?

    • An interesting problem, indeed. And probably one that will not be easy to solve. I don’t think a French drain can be installed around a lake. One thing is for certain. You will have to work with gravity. Your solution will need to take into consideration the fact that water travels through the soil to the lowest point. If you can’t guide the water to the lake, maybe you can find ways to store it below the ground, so you won’t see it and so the mosquitoes won’t be able to lay their eggs in it. A rain garden could be the solution you need.

  19. We live in a area with no sewers, no sidewalks just streets. We also happen to be the last house on the street across from a man made lake. Because of the constant 100 year rains, when we get heavy, long, steady or quick rain, our street floods and we end up with water half way up a 50ft uphill driveway. I had my lawn filled in twice and am getting to sell my home and have to have this issue taken care of before putting it on the market. When we purchased the home, there was a sump installed in the front lawn, but when the gully fills, the sump was only pushing the water back onto the street, and back onto the lawn. The village is not going to assist with my issue so I am looking for suggestions for creating swails or hills to stop the water from pooling on the lawn. We have lost 2 large old willows from the excessive water along with 2 maples and 1 birch tree. I can forward pictures is that would help. I am open to suggestions. I also have to be aware of pooling the water onto the neighbors property. I am also on a corner so I get the water from two sides. And my inside sump runs constantly but again is just pushing the water back onto the lawn.

    • Water somehow always finds its way to the lowest point, so if you create a hill, it will probably find its way around it or through it. So locating the spot where the water will cause the least damage, away from your house, and concentrating the water there, so it can sit and slowly sip into the ground, would probably be an interesting solution. Adding vegetation well adapted to swampy areas would also help. Have a look at our rain garden page for more information on this.

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