Draining Landscapes and Gardens – Part II

I know, I know. Drainage concerns are about as fascinating as watching paint dry, just less so. In my frantic efforts in this blog to allow you all to peer over the shoulder of what a landscape designer/installer faces however, I would certainly be remiss in not giving this “take”. In any thorough look at landscaping, omitting this issue of how we face and what we do with the accumulated water from rainfall (and other sources) on the strips of land as large as we deal with would be pretty uncivilized, frankly. The fact is, it is the first thing we ever look at. Bar none. So bear with a shovel-wielding, backhoe-driving contractor for yet another teeth-grinding trip through the uber-fascinating world of drain water. Zzzzzzzzzzzzz.

The creek bed drain below is taken from the same example project I featured in Part I. As mentioned, these items posed a pretty splendid solution to the larger issues of how to deal with rainfall on the landscape. Generally sloped to receive runoff, these channels allow water to leave the project, en route to safer and less destructive places.

Other projects also have in-built reasons for drains and, frankly, most of them we won’t see. The issue is to either make a drain system organic with the design or to hide them. Since drainage is a strictly functional problem, and landscaping designs are such cosmetic enterprises, it is often better not seen nor heard.

The point with all this is to appreciate the respect one needs to maintain towards rain, snow and all the potential problems they can present. Water trapped under a home can bleed it’s humid evaporation upwards, causing mildews and molds which are unhealthy and foul-smelling. And, unfortunately, not all homes are constructed with adequate drain systems surrounding their foundations, another vulnerable point in water issues. What I have found is that we landscapers have become one of the rectifiers of these problems – and, as time has gone on, perhaps the only possible ones outside of calling the home builder back to reshape the entire property.

So it became something I consider almost foremost when I analyze the possibilities and challenges of any project. Generally, of course, we slope all patio and walkway surfaces appropriately, usually at a 1-2% slope. This takes the water outwards away from problems. But what then? Taking the water away from a home is important as it can be, but what about when water is directed away from a structure towards another structure, such as a free-standing wall?

The amount of pipe under this entire edifice shown above and below, from the two waterfall systems to dealing with both walls, measures in the hundreds of feet. The hidden drains and their sources measure in the smallest percentiles of slope but are enough for water to find and then get conducted away. We managed to hide the collection points for runoff possibilities in this project well enough. After all, rocks can hide a multitude of things. But there is another entire problem facing the catchments –  its final emergence. Where does it go, if not the street? What we found on this project was that we had to disperse the runoff enough to keep from eroding the hillside to the rear. That required yet another measure of construction all on its own.

Some drains are as straightforward as they can be. We will often just simply run a water test and see where it tends to go. Who woulda thought???  😉  On the creek bed below, we found an easy solution that looks good and actually adds something to the landscape, generated from the driveway behind it and its collection point. Simply put and very obviously, this one just runs off onto the street.

Other factors requiring drainage thought: water features. Nearly all of my water features have an in-built automatic fill system. Requiring a homeowner to get his hose out and go fill up the daggone pond is sometimes done – if they ask for it. But I have found the auto-fill to be simple and effective and – generally – pain free. But, things happen. If an “auto-fill” is run off the irrigation clock for example, the possibilities for mistakes are fairly numerous. Someone could forget the difference between AM and PM, for example. (Are you listening Mark? :-)). This meant 12 good solid hours of a 3/4″ pipe’s worth of water streaming into his pond and overflowing. Or, a guy could have the TV set to some compelling ball game and simply forget about that hose he set in the pond to fill it up. So we drain them as well. This is call an “overflow” drain and should be essential in any water feature, form the smallest to the very largest. These can come in straightforward and simple methods, combined with offering surface draining as well:

This one above, taken in early Spring, shows just how effective it was judging by the discoloration of the dried mud on the creek rocks. Below, we have a successfully-hidden drainage point, well-planted with swampy sorts of grasses which offer a congruency with the pond itself. It drains forward – when necessary – and onto a constructed cement drainage ‘swale’ that courses down the backs of all these properties nearby:

That about wraps up my drainage spiel. I have some fresh paint on our fence out back I need to get back to watching dry. God, this is a great day! Where’s my beer?  Roovveerrrrr!!  Darn that dog.

Incidentally, here are some shots of the more severe-looking landscape above. The first is from its onset:

The next gives a picture from the neighbor’s perspective and shows in better detail not only the killer view these guys have of Reno, Nevada but also the slope which we built on top of and which we had to somehow protect:

And here’s a few of those pipes I talked about, during construction:

14 thoughts on “Draining Landscapes and Gardens – Part II

  1. I really enjoy reading your posts 🙂 There is mostly mud in your area? Then I understand the focus on effective draining! It must be difficult to plant perennials and flowering bushes which mostly requier good draining.

    Thanks for your very nice comments reagarding my blog! Oh yes, we have snow. Lots of the white stuff. Yesterday I removed 10 cm, today the same amount. And the snow keep falling. 🙁 I really, reeeally long for spring! February is the hardest winter month in Norway. The good news is that the days are significant lighter/longer. Now the day is 2 hours and 20 minutes longer than when the sun turned 21 desember. March (not long now…) can bring mild days when I can smell that spring is just around teh corner. But it can also be cold with much snow, though not so cold as February. The temperature in January and February is normally between -2 and -15 Celcius. In colder areas, some miles north, mideast and in the northern part of Norway, the temperature is much lower. We live about one hour south of Oslo, by the coast.

    So these days I comfort my self with Nacisses and similar plants inside and the seeds that I germinate in my plantroom 🙂

    Have a nice weekend!

  2. Hi Steve, I was engrossed in your drainage explanations, really. We have a huge problem here and at my daughter’s home with slopes coming down toward the houses. We don’t think about it during the drought, but when it rains hard and long, like it has this winter, it is hard to ignore standing water and hill erosion. Underground pipes are all over at my place taking the water to the street where the storm sewers handle it. At my daughter’s, a newer house, newer garden and no professional with heavy equipment, we are having a harder time. Your work is superb, wish you were here!

  3. One wouldn’t think that water could be so damaging, but I have seen a home completely destroyed by water that wicked from a crawl space into walls creating mold and mildew. Even here in the flattest part of Ohio, every farmer tiles his fields–but unfortunately not every contractor or landscaper knows to see that water is drained properly away from a home. Heavy rainfall–especially in the spring before the ground thaws–is a nightmare. I appreciate your blog for showing how to rectify these problems with proper landscaping, and I, too, wish you were local!

  4. Thanks, all for your comments. What we realize in the end is that we need to prepare for the worst. I mean, that’s the bottom line. JulenaJo, I have also seen exactly what you refer to – often, in fact. It’s a shame the way it works – people prepare for certain climate “truisms” and forget how severe the weather can actually get. It’s also one reason people need to check the bona fides of anyone taking on such an important issue on your land. Sometimes a bit of research on a topic so unappealing as “How much gravel will you put under the new driveway?” or “How will you drain my property?”….can wake someone supplying an estimate up enough to take another look.

  5. Frances, sometimes the cure is not as hard as it may seem. A little spade work, some rocks, some cloth under a creek bed could serve to take your daughter’s water away and actually be interesting looking.

    Water follows certain predictable rules – so working with it can be easier rather than hard. Yes, it’s a shame no one considered it from the first, but it does not have to stay a disaster. To my mind, it just needs to jump up on the list of “important things to consider”. We’re always reinventing ourselves, lol…….why not our gardens?

  6. Nice pair of posts on drainage, Steve!

    When we redid the house a couple years back we put in a drain for the backyard. Before that, heavy rains would get the water level within half an inch of coming in the back doors. While there was a pond in the yard, this was more of a water feature than we were signed up for. I can see how landscapers could end up having to undo drainage problems ignored (or caused) by construction. Digging trenches is way less fun than putting plants in the ground, but pretty essential.

  7. James, it is so often overlooked is why I mention it here. Seriously, drainage issues have done more damage than the aphid, lol. Or any other aphid, for that matter!

    I tried to show simple and complex projects both so the picture is filled out that while solutions to drainage problems are major they assuredly do not have to be some bizarre eyesore, detracting from the garden itself.

  8. What is your office address Steve?
    We tried to get you by phone for days. You are not in the Vancouver phone book nor is your business.
    ‘We’ is myself and a lady friend. You may be interested
    in her comments as well.We met you years ago in Vancouver.
    You made at that time (in the 70s) a comment regards
    that if there ever would be a not all-white person becoming president,premier or whatever, it would be coming from the USA.You were right.
    You also made another comment. Again you were right with what you predicted there.
    However, we would like to tell you that over the phone
    or in an email.
    Have you had any books printed on gardening?
    How about on psychology?

  9. David, I’m sending mail. I just wanted to make sure everyone saw what a brilliant politician I am – or was. Obviously, the other comment intrigues me! Thanks for stopping by.

  10. Steve, your posts on drainage (and pretty much everything else!) are excellent and should be required reading for many of our colleagues as well as our clientele. Since I only design (no build), my posts wind up being much more theoretical than practical… thanks for detailing what you do and how you do it.

  11. John, I can’t tell you how nice it is to hear that from a professional such as yourself. I always thought a look from the installer’s perspective would be interesting, at worst. The fact is, I once toyed with the idea of writing a book about this sleuth who was primarily a landscaper, lol. Heck, I may still do that some day.

    Naturally, I find it interesting. I also see that people gain a bit from hearing from my perspective a more grounded association with the work itself. There’s definitely more to landscaping than pushing dirt around. Although, that;s the most fun. 😉

    Incidentally. John has a very promising blog forming here: http://www.averdantlife.com/

    His humility and his obvious cooperative sense should make him a great visit for anyone.

  12. Hi Steve,

    Excellent article on drainage here.

    I know it’s a boring topic, but I agree that people don’t pay enough attention to the issue. It becomes readily apparent when drainage has been ignored, though.

    I live in Florida and we’re known for our summer rainstorms. It can change from a nice, clear, blue sky to a nasty storm in an instant. It can also go from bone dry on the ground to standing water in a matter of half an hour or so.

    No drainage system can deal with the onslaught of rain that we get here, but it becomes painfully obvious where the drainage problems are by where the water is still standing hours after the storm. And you’re right, that standing water can ruin houses and landscaping alike.

    Thanks for sharing. I hope you finish the weekend off strong and have a great week!


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