Very Large Landscape Design & Drainage Issues

ricksample(6)May 16, 2014

Hi Everyone,
I've been planning this now since fall 2013 & I'm just waiting for the ground to dry so I can get trucks across my field. My field is roughly 200' wide x 500' deep. It has a drainage problem... so I'm trying to kill 2 birds with 1 stone. Right now the land is flat... after heavy rains you can expect a very squishy clay soil for about a week. If you dig a hole, fill with water, it will not drain which is why I need soil brought in.

I'm trying to transform this section into a large garden... with the gazebo being the center piece. From the Gazebo, I shouldn't see any houses (once my trees grow large enough). Between my garden pathways I plan to have 14' wide grassy pathways.

My plan:
All the tan areas are raised garden beds (aprox 6" above native soil.) I will bring in 300 tons of soil for this. All the colored icons you see are mostly spruces, pines, maples, along with a few oaks.

Next I'll dig a ditch on the right that spans 150' long x 10' wide x 2' deep. Line the ditch with rocks on the sides, grass on the bottom. Make a bridge that crosses over this ditch in to a little area (roughly 50' x 50') with my gazebo.

For drainage, I plan to create multiple french drains leading to this ditch which you can see by the dark green or white lines. My goal is to keep this ditch dry, not full of water because of algae. My main problem is pumping this water up a hill (roughly 200' away) with a 15' incline to exit in front of my house. I might just try a gas powered water pump... but it would have to be a manual thing. Meaning if the river fills up when I'm at work, just come home and start the gas pump to empty it.

My goal is to have the water run off the raised mounds, hit the french drains, go into the ditch, where I can manually send the water 200' away to the street. I'm doing all the work myself by renting equipment just because people around here want $2-4K a day to do anything.

What do you guys think? Will this look good and solve my drainage issue? Eventually later on when I get the funds I would like to have a sump pump or something installed in the ditch so I can be fully automated, but right now gas pump is $200 VS about $2,000 for a sump pump install.

This is kind of what I had in mind for the ditch:

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I'm trying to transform this section into a large garden... with the gazebo being the center piece....

What do you guys think? Will this look good and solve my drainage issue?

A large garden you will have, but based on the plan, I don't think of the gazebo as a "centerpiece," since it seems more or less tucked away at the garden's edge. Obviously, you've expended a lot of effort in coming up with a plan. And building it will require vastly more effort and expense (even if it's to "pay" for your own labor.) But to me, the plan seems surprisingly devoid of artistic quality. The meandering path is laid out like a path in a miniature golf course ... functionally making sure that one has access to all the features (in this case plants.) On a per-square-foot basis, theoretically, it can cost as much to develop and implement a plan with no artistic merit as it would a plan that is has a great and grand theme. As one example, I question why a water collection basin must be shaped like a US-Army-Corps-of-Engineers-designed drainage ditch. Why can't it be in a suble, pretty shape when all it needs to do is hold water for a little while? It's likely that a shallow, grass lined basin could take care of the water and be much easier on the eyes and easier to maintain.

Sorry to have a negative opinion of the plan, but it seems like it would be much better to re-brainstorm the basic concept and make sure than an artistic statement is its basis. In the end, it should strive to be something the next owner would wish to preserve.

    Bookmark   May 16, 2014 at 3:10PM
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Yardvaark - I understand... that's why I'm coming here for suggestions on what others think before I get started. The tree icons you see in the photochop are the anchor trees, the beds will have a lot more in them than just a few trees per bed like I have it pictured. I'm not adding other plants or mulching these mounds until these trees get to be at least 5-6' wide. When they get this wide, I'll add other trees, flowers, bushes, companion plants, then top it off with mulch. By the end of this year, I want to have all my mounds created, the ditch dug, the drainage stuff in place, and all my anchor trees planted. Then I don't plan to do anything for another 5-6 years until my small trees have a larger footprint.

The water problem is severe, which is why the water basin is so large. A shallow trench in the ground may hold some water, but once I hook the pump up to it, I may not have enough water to shoot it 200' with a 2" hose.

I think this is my 15th revision since last fall lol... one that I actually like the most which is why I'm now posting it for review. I actually have rope placed out on the ground so I can physically see where the beds are and I kind of like the way it looks.

As the plants get larger, the pathways will become smaller. Some of them will probably be eliminated completely in time. But I am limited because of my drainage issue. Where I place a bed, I need to place dirt. If I do larger beds, It'll require a lot more dirt. Most of the beds pictured are 70'x70'. Most of the beds have straight edges and are rather simple which is what I honestly would prefer.

It's probably just a personal thing, but I actually enjoy walking through the grassy pathways to look at each plant individually. Keep in mind that most are rare grafted spruce and pines so I enjoy seeing them up close as well as the identification tag... I have stuff like this already in my collection. I really enjoy walking up to look at the needles. I'm not going to plant a lot of generic spruce or pines, each one will be unique. But I am open to any and all suggestions. I'll take your ditch suggestions as well... I might play around with it this weekend and add a few natural curves to the side of it.

Here are some of the rare beauties I have in my collection already...

    Bookmark   May 16, 2014 at 4:32PM
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"which is why I'm now posting it [the plan] for review." That you are prepared to accept constructive criticism of the plan makes me feel not quite so harsh.

It is not at all that there are a lot of paths allowing a person close up and personal access to the plants, nor is it that only some of the trees are shown on this plan. It is that the arrangement of the walk/path vs. the shape of the beds doesn't seem to be making an artistic statement. It seems more like a polished up strictly "functional," and somewhat haphazard solution. Isn't the major point of a landscape that it can being a functional piece of ART? While it must function, can't the path system be worked into a configuration that looks awesome in its own right? (I'm only speaking of path vs. planting beds; I'm sure the plants themselves will be fantastic.) I'm only saying that there is a lot of room for improvement in this regard, should one be willing to search for it.

The path layout is reminding me of a nearby, small town botanical garden which I have visited on a few occasions. The recollection is making me think that the functional aspect of the proposed path system is neither fully worked out. Each time I visit the mentioned garden and walk it's paths, I'm annoyed that in order see the complete garden, I must walk some paths twice. As well, being unable to grasp the overall space from any vantage point, a person can barely be sure that they've covered the entire garden. It usually requires going down some paths again and discovering, "Oh, I've already been here." To my thinking, these are design flaws.

    Bookmark   May 16, 2014 at 5:56PM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

I love that first tree! But I agree with Yardvaark - the proposed design is lacking the drama that could/should be there to enhance the setting for your special plants. One way to look at it is - if you took out all the plants and just looked at the shape of the beds and paths, does it have a good WOW quotient? :-) Think of how often classic, beautiful gardens use formal geometry, long vistas, etc. A strong structure/layout has an impact on its own when it has a well planned shaping of the 'negative' space (i.e. the space that is NOT garden beds). Plus the structure/layout enhances one's experience of the plants in the garden through the contrast between the clear structure of the space and the looser form of the plants. It also offers more opportunities to highlight star plant performers through placements at focal points in the layout. It's not often that one has the opportunity to make a garden in such a large blank slate space. Making something fabulous isn't going to take much - if any - more work than making something more commonplace. Give your plant treasures a beautiful home!

    Bookmark   May 16, 2014 at 8:46PM
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davidrt28 (zone 7)

My head is literally spinning trying to figure out why you need the pump. I mean, I feel like I've entered a parallel universe with different laws of physics. Your 2+ acre garden exists at a certain average elevation with respect to mean sea level. Which cannot be sea level unless you are in Death Valley, the Jordan Rift Valley or somesuch similar area, and I doubt you are. Or are you in New Orleans? In that case I thought the Army Corps of Engineers was responsible for pumping you out. The water *must* currently flow somewhere, unless you bought land at the bottom of a lake and intend to build dikes to recover it! So, just enhance whatever flow is already there, instead of essentially building a lagoon and planning to pump it out. Which would cost a fortune over the lifetime of the property.

This post was edited by davidrt28 on Tue, Jul 8, 14 at 11:54

    Bookmark   May 17, 2014 at 4:40AM
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Davidrt28 - The property is mostly clay... it's completely flat. The water has no place to go. Well that dry creek bed in my picture is slightly lower than the rest of the property, but not enough to collect water. Plus I really like the idea of crossing a bridge over this dry creek to my Gazebo. I think it really adds structure to my design instead of just a bunch of beds. If I build this creek, without a pump It'll just be a misquote infested algae puddle of water if I can call it that lol. I had a dry river bed (a small one) aprox 20' long in my back yard years ago... it never drained because of the clay. If it was a rainy season nothing but algae would build on the surface and it would really smell at times.

I guess I just don't understand your question, just because we're all above sea level, it doesn't mean water problems don't exist. People put french drains in their yards all the time to deal with standing water issues. The only difference is this field is my low spot... I can't run the french drains to the street which is up hill. The only way to get rid of the water is to run the french drains into a ditch and then pumped out of the yard.

    Bookmark   May 17, 2014 at 8:43AM
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woodyoak - That tree is callled: Pinus contorta 'Taylor's Sunburst'. You should pick one up, every yard should have one... it's my favorite!

Woodyoak & Yardvaark - I've honestly tried, this is my 15th revision to this design. Would anyone be interested in coping my photo into paint and drawing a few lines where you think the beds/creek would look best? Multiple minds think better than one... I've exhausted all of my options. But maybe someone here could bring a new perspective on my design.

Just remember that I can't have the beds to large, just because I'm limited to 300 tons of dirt which is a lot, but that's all that's in my budget. The dirt is free, I just have to pay for trucking. I would really like to keep the creek on the right side of the property (it's about 1" lower than the rest so water generally gathers right where the creek is) But the 1" indent in the property isn't enough to run french drains to and collect water so I have to dig it deeper & wider.

    Bookmark   May 17, 2014 at 8:54AM
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davidrt28 (zone 7)

" just because we're all above sea level, it doesn't mean water problems don't exist."

LMAO. Yes, and MILLIONS of drainage problems have been solved, AROUND THE GLOBE, without using pumps! (the Dutch started all of this living below sea level nonsense with their could always build one of those!) I don't see why the mathematics or topology are so hard to understand...the water must be currently flowing somewhere, unless it is a lake or a wetland. If you bought a swamp with the intention of building a shouldn't have done that but even that can be fixed, government regulations permitting. Big time shopping market/office building etc. developers do it all the time.

Seriously. OK, let's get this figured out once and for all. The water you pump is going to HAVE TO GO SOMEWHERE. Unless you have some pump that send it into another dimension like Doctor Who's Tardis. You're spending big money to bring in A LOT of dirt. So, here's the solution. Take the heavy equipment you will need to build that ditch, and build that ditch flowing into a small pond. Whatever can build ditches that big can easily build a little 1/3 acre, 10 ft. deep pond. (I've seen on the pond boss forum where some guy built a small pond with a mid-sized Kubota! Just using the FEL!) Even if your land is flat as a board, and I doubt it is, you still don't need pumps. Just put this pond wherever the pump output was going to flow to. (or more likely, your land does have a put it at the lowest elevation point) Then, take the fill from digging the pond and apply it to the rest of your two acres. My quick calculation of volume shows me that amt. of dirt will give you about a foot of free top soil. Then, bring in other top soil to give you a couple more feet and install your french drains at this point. Presto, you will have drained planting areas and some place for the water to go.

All this being said, you'd probably be better off bringing in a civil engineering firm that has successfully done something similar before. Yes, it will cost more but probably save you a lot of hassle down the road. I don't think there's a version of flood insurance that covers building a house in the bottom of a swale that is guaranteed to flood. That's not an act of God, it's an act of stupidity.

    Bookmark   May 17, 2014 at 9:18AM
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davidrt28 (zone 7)

And one more thing, as for squishiness, you should have the soil tested for cations. (It would be much more helpful if you tell us where you are in the country...didn't I ask you this before? Somewhere in the midwest maybe? Would have to be to be so flat.) If your clay is low in calcium, and that's a big if because some western soils are way too high in calcium, adding large amounts in the form of either gypsum or calcitic (ONLY!) limestone to it can cause the clay to aggregate in a different way that will improve drainage. I have seen it myself: there was a part of my yard where my Kubota would literally start sinking. After several years of heavy liming that doesn't happen anymore although it's still somewhat mushy. It also dries faster. BUT my whole yard slopes. On a totally flat field improving the clay clump size that just means the water is going to move down a few inches...not fixing the problem in the long term.

This post was edited by davidrt28 on Sat, May 17, 14 at 9:27

    Bookmark   May 17, 2014 at 9:24AM
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davidrt28 (zone 7)

Oh btw one MORE thing.
A reminder that 1 inch of rain over 1 acre is almost *30000* gallons of water. Almost anywhere in the US is subject to much more rain than that at times. (your system might be more feasible in a place like SE England, that seldom has heavy downpours and gets most of their rain from drizzle) I think you will find you've underestimated the cost of keeping your lagoon dry during rainy spells. Pumps that big and fast would have to be in the thousands of dollars. Otherwise your water table is going to rise and kill your plants. What if the power goes out? American utility companies seem increasingly unwilling to maintain their semi-rural ROWs sufficiently to prevent outages. My local neighbors tell me 2004-2014 has had many more outages than the previous 10 years. So, throw in the cost of a 10K backup generator, too, since, you know, the power has a pesky way of going out when there are heavy rains!

This post was edited by davidrt28 on Sat, May 17, 14 at 9:38

    Bookmark   May 17, 2014 at 9:33AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

How does this space relate to the house? The house appears to be in one corner - where is the main viewing point from the house? From the drawing I get the feeling of the field/garden as an incidental space, not one with a strong link to the living space to draw one's eyes - and feet! - out to explore/enjoy the garden..... Making a strong link to the house would probably be where I'd start.

    Bookmark   May 17, 2014 at 11:05AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

off-topic a bit.... :-) I thought the tree in that picture I liked above looked familiar! I'm pretty sure it's the same one in this picture from a visit to Whistling Gardens in 2011 They had some really interesting plants - but I resisted temptation because I didn't have a place for them. I think we'll go back again this year and see how the garden (and garden center) has progressed.... So, thank you for posting that picture as it has prompted plans for a nice garden expedition here! :-)

Here is a link that might be useful: Whistling Gardens

    Bookmark   May 17, 2014 at 1:21PM
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"Would anyone be interested in coping my photo into paint and drawing a few lines where you think the beds/creek would look best?"

It is not merely back to the drawing board that I'm asking you to go, but back to the conceptual thinking stage. Keep in mind that no one here has any idea of the site itself. Therefore, no one could propose logical solutions. Woody brings up the relationship of the house to the site, which is a good point. Is it pertinent here? Is there a house? (I'm not sure what building is shown in the drawing.) Why is the gazebo (supposedly the main feature) off to the side? Presently, it looks obscured as though one might wander the site and not find it. What are the surroundings like? Where will the water go? If you wish to get input on design of the site, you might be better off starting a new thread just about that ... to establish a clean slate. (Since this one is about drainage.)

    Bookmark   May 17, 2014 at 7:26PM
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Sophie Wheeler

Is this a wetlands area? There are lots of federal regulations that regulate how property like that can be touched. If it's that wet, you have a good chance of it being considered so, and not being able to do anything on it.

Even if it's not actuallyy designated wetlands, then it's still behaving as such. And you really need a topograhpical survey before you do any planning whatsoever. Then, consult a civil engineer. Your scope of work is not at all homeowner DIY friendly to create or to keep maintained. It has more in common with a muicipal parks department in personnel and budgetary needs than it does a home where one hopes to age in place and reduce maintenance as you age rather than increase it.

    Bookmark   May 17, 2014 at 7:42PM
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Woodyoak - That little box thing on the left in the photo is actually my shed. My house sits 200' south from this shed directly in the middle.

David - Perhaps your correct about the ditch... per my calculations that ditch could hold a couple thousand gallons of water, if my gas pump pumps water at 150 GPH, it could take forever to it to empty it especially if it'll continue to fill with water from surrounding land. Let's delete it.

The land does slope A LITTLE. The area you see shaded blue, always has standing water during heavy rains. It was raining yesterday and I noticed a very small stream of water coming from the higher elevation. Now this "wet area" is only a couple inches lower than rest of the field. It's not enough of a slope which is why I still have the drainage problem. I was going to dig a small pond 1/10th of an acre, they wanted upwards of 10K+ so I decided to take that off the table.

I'm from Ohio... I have a couple yards of dirt I piled in the field over the years (an area roughly 10' diameter x 4" deep) and this area stays dry, not squishy, even after heavy rains. Perhaps when I raise all of my beds 6-7", more water will runoff the beds, find their way into the grass and maybe more will run into the wet area. I could even dig a few miniature swales to help channel the water. Just an inch deep or something.

Yardvaark - I was actually hoping this thread would be more so for my design... it just spiraled into my drainage issue for some reason. The gazebo I would prefer to be off to the side, instead of in the center of the property. Just a little cozy nested area where I can enjoy a fire that isn't to open. I refer to it as my centerpiece, just because that's where I would spend most of my time. But I would prefer it to be tucked away.

Here's another little sketch I drew up (I didn't have time to create the beds, so I just air brushed them in). It's a little more simple... less pathways and a larger green area. I nested the gazebo away in the largest bed. I've also included a few sizes as well as some other text to give everyone a better idea

    Bookmark   May 17, 2014 at 9:36PM
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"I was actually hoping this thread would be more so for my design... it just spiraled into my drainage issue for some reason."

Perhaps it is because the title includes the words "...& Drainage Issues". And there is no introduction to "help me design..." As it is, you're just asking us to like the design you've presented and help you deal with water. I suggested starting a new thread because It would seem awkward to scroll deep into the thread to get to a new beginning. So far, there is only the suggestion that you might be open to getting help with the design, but no introduction to the actual site, and no statements of objectives, parameters or constraints. Your introductory statement is primarily about water issues and how you propose to solve them.

If you want help with design, I think it would be better to create a new thread that goes something like:

"I have this property on which I want to create an awesome, large garden. I want it to have a gazebo that seems secretly tucked away, but provides a view of ______ (... or whatever.) There is an existing shed and the property is separate from the home. Here are some pictures of the site. It's relatively flat and I need to improve or create drainage. Here's where water can run (or be pumped to.) Two sides of the property are private because of existing vegetation. There is a neighbor bordering the property on the west side which I want (don't want) to screen completely. i'm trying to achieve ________ and _______. Etc. Etc. Etc."

I'm pulling these things out of the air. It's not a thought-through list. But they're the kind of things you would be sharing with us if you wanted help with design. Then a discussion of things like "where to put gazebo, and why" and "how one might make a sensible pathway system" would ensue.

    Bookmark   May 18, 2014 at 11:14AM
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woodyoak zone 5 Canada(5b)

To Yard's list, I'd add: an image of the property survey would be useful to get a better idea of the placement and relationship of the house to the proposed garden area - or expand your mock-up to include the house..... And what is your objective re how you want to view the garden from the house?

From your comment to date, I probably won't have much useful to contribute re design because my approach would likely not appeal to you very much! :-)

    Bookmark   May 18, 2014 at 11:54AM
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Until you have a workable plan for the drainage, your project is doomed to failure. Right now I don't think you have a clue on how to design the drainage.

French drains are not the answer. Unless you want to spend $10k to $20k in electric/maintenance cost per year, pumps aren't the answer. Ditches of any kind are probably not going to be helpful.

To start the design process you need to identify the lowest grade or discharge elevation along your property boundary. Then you work to grade all areas to slope to this low point on the boundary.

Take some of davidrt28's advice or suffer the consequence.

    Bookmark   May 19, 2014 at 9:20AM
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This thread spiraled more into a drainage thread instead of landscape, which is alright with me. I really like the my latest design (listed below).. yeah it has pathways and may not be for everyone... but I like it. I have a few other completed beds with the same pathways and I really like the look.

pls8 - The land all kind of slopes towards this "wet area" I have listed below. It rained 3" last week. Today just 3 days later and all the water has soaked in. The ground is still squishy in spots, but no standing water. I mowed yesterday... in the "Wet Area" I had marked below, the mower made a mess. In the other areas it didn't. You can stand in this wet area and see the land slightly slope towards it. After I mowed, you could actually see where this wet area was because of the mud streaks.

I spent a few hours after I mowed yesterday studying the land and where everything sloped. I cut it short just so I can see exactly where this land slopes and now it looks more clear. Below is an image of what I found. You can see the two wet areas. The one at the top of the image is an empty field that always has standing water.

Here are my thoughts after I evaluated it:

1. The bed I have that's almost flat on the left. After I raise & slope this entire bed, it'll not only prevent the neighbors runoff onto my land, but give them some of my run off.

2. When I raise the other beds, It'll just allow the runoff to accumulate faster in the two wet areas. Preferably that brush/field behind my lot that always has standing water and is more like a swamp.

3. I only have a few pathways in this design that water may accumulate, which I don't think it will. If for some reason it does, I don't see why I couldn't just create a few small swales like I mentioned above. Just a small indent maybe an inch deep x a foot wide or something to carry the water away into the wet/wooded area.

After I get the 300 yards of dirt out here, I plan on getting prices to have it spread... perhaps I could also get a price on regrading. Just by looking at my current yard, I don't think regrading will solve the problem. It's to large and you would essentially need to create a pond or deep hole at one end to get enough slope. That would equal $$,$$$. By just adding soil and sloping it, I'm just recreating what's already in parts of my yard. My front yard, side yard, and half of my back yard is built up... you can see it slightly arch in the center and slope off to lower points where it gets a little soggy. My field is "Flat", it does slope some, but it doesn't have that arch if you know what I'm talking about. I do have a few places in my field that slightly arch and it's as dry as can be. I think building my beds higher than the surrounding soil, slope them away from my property, will solve my problem without the need to regrade.

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    Bookmark   May 20, 2014 at 10:48AM
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