lawn drainage soggy lawn problem please help

NJhomeownerJanuary 28, 2012

Hey everyone, me and my wife purchased our first home in late August. We love everything about the house, except the backyard. A few weeks into living there I noticed the backyard was very soggy, even when it hadn't rained all week. As the rains came, i noticed the problems in more depth. Yesterday we got a 10 min downpour so I went out and took some pictures. We really want a healthy DRY lawn.

I have been reading online and am thinking the following; I believe we have clay soil. You can see in the pics, the water just doesn't drain, it just sits on the surface. When its dry, its hard and brittle is some places.

How do I tackle this problem. Do I need to regrade so the water runs in one direction and not still? Will regrading fix this in lieu of installing french drains? Do I need french drains? Do I need to scalp and retill the entire lawn adding compost and soil to get a proper soil for nice lawn and soil that can actually drain? Do I need a combo of both solutions (regrade + retill) or (french drains + retill).

I dont think i can do this myself and will probably be hiring a professional. But I dont want to keep throwing money at the problem. I'd like the best solution. So I ask all the pros out there. What do you think I should do? And who do I call? Landscape company? Drainage company? How do I know I am not hiring a fool who doesn't know what he's doing and is just looking for a pay check? All help and advice would be appreciated, as me and my wife would really like to enjoy our backyard this summer. All the standing water has made the mosquitos unbearable. Please help. Thanks in advance.

See link to album with comprehensive pics and descriptions.

Photobucket Album pics with descriptions

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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

If you look at the entire lot, and possibly the neighboring lots on all sides, where should the water be flowing based on gravity? Can you tell where the high ground is and where the lower ground is or is it all too flat to tell?

I'm afraid fixing this completely might involve regrading the entire neighborhood, or at least your little area. At the worst you might have to work with your immediate neighbors to resolve the issue. Do you know if they are having same problems? If not then the low ground might be your house. Nowadays when they build new neighborhoods, every home is responsible for drainage out to the street and NEVER onto someone else's yard. Back when your home was built, and maybe still in some areas, they don't much care about overall drainage and just stick the homeowner with what he gets. Let the buyer beware.

Water must, first and foremost, drain away from buildings, not toward them. This is necessary to protect the foundation and the building. Again, nowadays, this means the might have to bring in fill dirt when the neighborhood is first constructed. The fill dirt goes in the center of each lot so that water drains out to the edges. If there is a pile of dirt in the middle of each lot, then there will be a little valley, called a swale, at the edges of each lot and between each lot. That is exactly what you see in newer construction. More modern construction makes the swales less and less subtle to the point where you might even call it a serious drainage ditch between the houses. Here is a picture of a home in a California neighborhood about 5 years old.

The house on the right has a swale at the edge of the property preventing their irrigation and rainfall from flowing downhill to the neighbor. The house on the left has a swale to direct water away from the house out into the street. Note also there is a hole in the curb where a drain from the back yard directs water to the gutter. That drain might come from the neighbor or the house. Can't tell, but that is another option for you. It is not exactly a French drain. It is a real drain.

How do you hire the right person? Call all of them out to discuss your issues and let them tell you what the issues are when they see them. Take notes and come back here to share what you learn. It is sometimes very easy to sort out the losers from the winners.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2012 at 6:59PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Another problem I saw in your photos is with your trees. Your tree trunks should flare out at the bottom of the tree where the roots go out. Yours look more like a telephone pole. The trees are buried too deep. The fix for that is to dig the soil away from the trunk until you see the roots flare out. When trees are buried too deep they bark on the side of the trunk of the tree will rot out and kill the tree. Root bark will not rot like trunk bark will. That is something to consider when solving your drainage problems.

    Bookmark   January 28, 2012 at 7:04PM
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dchall, thanks for the reply. If you look in this pic. The natural grade is right to left. You can see the water running from the right of my backyard to the back of the backyard, to the rocks between the fences to that huge puddle of water where the drains are located in my rear diagonal neighbors yard.

In this pic here, you can see a sudden drop off to a low spot in my rear left corner.

The place where I need to dump the water, I am thinking is here. This is a direct over the fence shot of the left rear corner of my yard seen in the above shot.

Notice the drain. There is also another drain that runs perpendicular to the potted tree that is just out of view in the shot (to the bottom left corner of photo)

My neighbor to my left told me a few years ago, they complained to the township and got them to install the drain as their is an easement that runs directly underneath that dumps the street water into the pond in the background of this pic

I also added a pick of my survey, so you can get an overall feel

Appreciate any and all feedback. Thanks in advance.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2012 at 2:17PM
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CHeck the album again for more pics. I added some more. Thanks.

    Bookmark   January 29, 2012 at 3:53PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Dang! Compared to your back left diagonal neighbor, you don't have any problems.

If I understand correctly, the water from your neighbor to the right (looking from the street in front of your house) flows under your fence on the right and it all flows out between your PVC fence and the wooden stockade fence where the rocks are. Is that correct? The rocks were an attempt to keep the water from puddling and growing mosquitoes. It might even be a French drain that is no longer draining...or is draining into the back left diagonal yard. And the runoff in your front drains to the rear, correct?

Theoretically you should not allow your water to drain onto someone else's property, but it seems you're way beyond that already. Again, in theory, there should be a swale on your fence line to the right to drain your neighbor's runoff back to the fence line and then probably to the left between the fences but a lot farther away than that neighbor. It could be that the back diagonal neighbor's house should not be there considering the pond surrounding him. Or perhaps his slab should be six inches higher.

You could bring in soil or sand to recreate the swale effect. According to FHA rules, you are supposed to have 4 inches of clearance from the bottom of the sill plate to the top of the soil against your house. That is to keep your sill plate from rotting. If you have more than 4 inches clearance, you may bring in more soil to drain the water away. If you don't have 4 inches clearance then you should consider digging down away from the house to move the water away. Digging soil away is a tougher job. Either way you want to create a good slope away from the house. It does not seem like that is your immediate issue. I'm thinking you could bring in more soil. Starting in the center, create a crown that keeps water away from the house but directs water out to the fences. That would result in a more pronounced swale at your fenceline and give you much drier soil in the middle. All your runoff is already going out under your rear fence so this will not change anything there. If you can't bring in any more soil against the house, then sloping the yard toward the rear will do what you want. You can still bring in or move soil to the sides to accentuate the swale effect.

Does this help any?

    Bookmark   January 30, 2012 at 12:43AM
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Your first paragraph was correct. It was a torrential downpour when I took those pics, so those pics of the flow of the water is probably at its worst. One of my front spouts (on the right side) feeds via Pvc pipe to the rear. The other feeds to the front (away from house foundation. My front yard doesn't have this problem as the lawn is crowned towards the street. That being said everything you said is correct about the flow of the water (from right neighbor to back of my yard to rocks between fence to that drain in neighbors diagonal.

I am not having problems with water puddling near the house/foundation. It doesn't puddle like this near the house anywhere, nor does it puddle in the recessed patio. I just want to be able to enjoy my backyard without the lawn squish squashing every time someone takes a step on it. I have a dream of walking on it barefoot like those commercials on tv. Also want to relieve any mosquito situation.

I am thinking perhaps I need to rectify the soil situation? Its compact, hard and brittle when its dry. Maybe i can alleviate the surface water accumulation? Any thoughts?

    Bookmark   January 30, 2012 at 8:24AM
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Billl(z7 nc)

Improving the soil will make growing grass easier, but it isn't going to do anything about the water situation. You need someplace for the water to go. That could be a french drain, or a drywell or water garden or some big rain barrels for the house, or some combination thereof.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2012 at 8:58AM
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From your pictures it looks like there is very little change in the elevation in the whole neighborhood. If so we had as similar situation in our last house. When it rained extremely hard we had water standing over most of our yard. However after a day, the water would disappear; and then in a couple of days of normal weather things dried out. The rest of the time things were normal.

After living here for about 10 years, it slowly dawned on me that on top of some very hard clay, there was about 3 feet of looser soil. After a very heavy rain with ponding in the yard, the water would drain down to the clay and run on top of the clay in to a small lake several hundred feet from the house.

It did not look good after a rain but we never had a problem with moisture. From that apparent age of the houses in your neighborhood they apparently do not either

    Bookmark   January 30, 2012 at 9:15AM
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billl, do you then suggest regrading the backyard?

    Bookmark   January 30, 2012 at 9:16AM
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I agree, this is not a moisture/foundation problem to the house. I just want my lawn to look good. Its my first house, Im in the honeymoon phase. I am confused in that i am not sure if this is a soil problem (hard clay which prohibits proper draining) or if this is a grading problem. What I am trying to avoid is throwing money at one solution, it not working, and then having to throw more money at another solution.

If I knew that by starting from scratch and killing the existing lawn, using roundup, scalping the existing turf out, rototilling in compost, and reseeding would work I would do that. However, I would hate to spend the money on that, and still have the same problem. Then I do a french drain and destroy the work i initially did. See what I am saying?

I also am not sure a French drain would work. From my understanding, French drain, with slots facing down into pea gravel, the water from inside the soil rises up into the corrugated pipe and then flows away. How exactly does that help me with my stading water problem if it is taking forever for the water to seep into the soil to begin with. See my dilemma? I am just not sure what to do first. I dont want to call in a landscaper who automatically says, oh yeah french drain will work, simply to score a nice job for his crew and doesnt solve the problem.

I am going to do the soil test with the jar today. When it settles out I will post a pic. Perhaps that will help on giving me the first course of action.


    Bookmark   January 30, 2012 at 10:08AM
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Billl(z7 nc)

At least from the pictures, it already looks like the yard was graded away from the house, but there just isn't anywhere for the water to go except into your neighbors yard. I wouldn't regrade to make that happen. Your best bet looks to be to run a french drain over toward that existing drain so you move the water away from your property without dumping it on someone else.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2012 at 11:23AM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

The more you talk the more you reveal. Before you do anything, you might want to read this forum a little longer.

If you can't stop the drainage from your front and from the neighbor, then you have to face the fact that you are going to have a lot of water going somewhere. About all you can do is redirect it quickly. You seem to have a crown in the back that keeps the water out of the house, so that is great. Now it is a matter of getting the water off of that more quickly and diverted to the back fence (so it can flood your downhill diagonal neighbor. It is going to be the same amount of water to him regardless.

Your pictures show your crown drops off several feet from the fence lines. If you want to make the water drain off faster you could remove some of that crown and pile it toward the fence. That would be a job for a contractor with a tractor and box blade. He could do that in 30 minutes if he knew what he was doing.

I'm not sure where you got the idea that a rototiller was a good idea for lawn preparation but it is not. Even the ancient books on lawn care do not suggest rototilling. And rototilling in compost is an even worse idea for several reasons. First of all rototilling leaves your soil subsurface, the part that did not get rototilled, uneven. When you level out the fluffy soil on top, then you have a layer of fluffy soil that is uneven below the surface. When it settles it will settle to match the uneven layer below. But if you added compost to that, compost is an organic material that will completely disappear in a few years. When that happens it accentuates the unevenness as the varying amounts of compost disappear at different times. Furthermore, compost is almost always not completely composted. That means there will be woody pieces of material that rob nitrogen from the soil until the soil is depleted of nitrogen. If you add nitrogen to the soil it will be "sucked" right into the microbes that are trying to decompose the compost. You could have a dead zone, or at least nitrogen depleted, for a year or more. Rototilling is a bad idea. Rototilling compost is a worse idea. If you want to apply compost, do it after your grass is up and growing.

If your soil is hard when dry and soft when moist, then you are in perfect shape. That's what good soil does. When your soil is hard when wet or dry, then you have issues.

Another thought is you could build a drain at the fence between your front and back leading to the back fence. Then the tractor driver can bury the drain pipe when it pushes your soil around.

    Bookmark   January 30, 2012 at 9:37PM
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Thanks for the input DC....

Can you explain this excerpt little bit more??

"Your pictures show your crown drops off several feet from the fence lines. If you want to make the water drain off faster you could remove some of that crown and pile it toward the fence. That would be a job for a contractor with a tractor and box blade. He could do that in 30 minutes if he knew what he was doing."

    Bookmark   January 31, 2012 at 8:07AM
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DC, i did a soil in a jar test... This pic is about 30 hours sitting, thoughts???

    Bookmark   January 31, 2012 at 5:09PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

A picture is worth 1,000 words.

This is only a little exaggerated. Your soil is flat on top but you have a drop off near the fence. If you can give the flat part a little slope the water will drain off. I suggest putting the extra soil out toward the fence but not up against it. That give you more of a swale/ditch effect out at the fence.

As for your jar test, did you measure the amount of soil you put in? And then measure the stuff at the bottom of the jar at 2 minutes, 2 hours and 2 days? The 2-minute mark will give you a sand percentage. The 2-hour mark will give you loam on top of the sand. And after 2 days you might not see much else settling. In your case you have a little bit of red clay clouding up the water. Clay doesn't settle very fast. Organic matter floats but the organic matter that matters is invisible, so you can't see it anyway.

    Bookmark   January 31, 2012 at 9:24PM
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dc thank you for the drawing, i see it now.

So you think a French Drain would not be effective here, and a simple regrade is all that is necessary??

    Bookmark   February 1, 2012 at 1:40PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

French drains are a lot more work than above the ground drains.

    Bookmark   February 1, 2012 at 9:17PM
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does anyone have an idea of how much labor is involved to regrade this as per dc's suggestion? DC you mention 30 minutes with a tractor and box blade. How about grading out the ditch in the back corner where it puddles up? I know i cant ask for a cost, as labor in NY/NJ is much more expensive than in other parts of the US. But if i could get a handle on how much time this should take i should be able to gage how much this should cost me. Thanks in advance folks.

    Bookmark   March 13, 2012 at 1:01PM
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How did things turn out for you last season? I'm in a similar position as you were with a wet back yard...curious how it turned out.

    Bookmark   January 26, 2013 at 8:15PM
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We bought the house in oct 2013. The bank held up the closing because the inspector reported of all the water near our foundation, finally it was determined that the town drainage ditch by the street needed to be cleaned out. But I dont think that was the cause of the drainage problem. In my back yard there is a large pool of water,it is draininging from our neighbors yard and flowing directly into our yard across the property lines. Shouldnt my neighbor be draining this water straight down his property line. We know that standing water will cause mosquito problems, damage to our foundation and prevent us from having a garden andplanting a lawn in the spring. See what happened the house was being built in 2008, the builder went bankrupt and the plumbing contractor did not get paid for their services, so the court awarded the plumber the house, but the house was unoccupied for 6 years .It appears the neighbors built this ditch through our property.My husband wants to build a small bridge over pool of water, but that wont solve any thing. What should we do? Thank s

    Bookmark   February 8, 2014 at 2:53PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

Sit down because I'm jumping right into some science. This is for your husband to help understand why the bridge idea is not going to help you.

Normal soil has an open pore structure that allows air and water to pass through it. Inside this structure lives 10s of thousands of species of beneficial microbes which thrive on the open pore structure. These microbes are Mother Nature's invention. As it turns out the species of microbes living in swampy land are different from those living in dryish land (lawns). When you allow standing water to stand for several days, that cuts off the air flow to the beneficial microbes and their populations begin to decrease. If this happens enough, normal grass will thin out and stop growing. They will be replaced by swamp grasses like nutgrass and some others. So it is important to keep the water from pooling on your lawn.

Back to the issue...
If your community has an ordinance that says homeowners must drain all water from their own property and not allow it to cross over onto a neighbor's land, then all you should have to do is call your city code compliance officers and make them deal with it. If you live in the savage west, then you might have to do it yourself. Talk to your neighbors and ask them to berm up their land at the fence to keep the water on their side. Since they already dug the ditch, they are unlikely to bend to your wishes. So when that doesn't work, berm up your side of the fence and push their water back onto their property (see how they like having standing pools of water!!). Six inches of berm would normally be plenty.

Planting a lawn in the spring is not the best idea, but if you really have to you have to. If you can afford sod, then that should be better, but if you were planning to seed, I would not spend a lot on seed for a spring installation. What will happen is all that new grass will find itself competing with crabgrass which also sprouts in the spring. Your grass seed will be less hardy than the crabgrass and will thin out in the summer heat. It is not uncommon to have a full crabgrass lawn by July. It is much better to seed new grass in the fall because crabgrass seed is not sprouting then. It also gives the new grass all winter and spring to develop heat tolerant roots.

Now a word on forum etiquette. This is not your thread. The original poster had a problem with soil structure. Your problem is neighborhood drainage. You should have opened a new topic so people who want to help you don't have to read through someone else's problem from last year - which is really not your problem. I also suspect you will need some advice on planting your lawn (spring? or fall - either one). Now is the time to ask, so post a new topic! When you ask about planting a new lawn, please mention specifically where you live. The zone system is not good for helping with lawns, so give a town or zip code. And if you want more help on the neighborhood drainage issue, I would still post a new topic with your new questions. This forum seems to have a lot of opinions about neighbors '-)

    Bookmark   February 11, 2014 at 8:33PM
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