Lawn drainage on the cheap?

galiana(5a NH)March 17, 2013

My husband and I bought a house in November, and have recently realized that our front yard has a severe drainage problem. I would be very grateful for any advice that you can give us on how to fix it. Here are the details:

While our house is on the side of a very steep hill, our front yard is almost continually wet. The soil is heavy clay and turns to mud with rain or snowmelt, and gets hard as concrete and cracks in the very few times it does dry out.

One of the main problems (or symptoms) is that the yard is full of lumps and depressions. Though it's obvious that it once drained towards the street, it's eroded in an odd pattern due to runoff from the city-maintained lane that surrounds the property. Now water is getting caught in the depressions and not evaporating properly.

Is there a way that we can regrade the lawn and improve our drainage situation without spending a lot of money? My husband and I can do the labor as it's a very small yard, but as we're newlyweds with a new home, money is fairly tight. We were thinking of pulling up the sod, spreading some topsoil and compost to make the lawn evenly slope towards the street, and then either putting the sod back on or reseeding. Would that work?

We're in New Hampshire, zone 5a.

The attached picture is the Google Maps version of our house, looking slightly uphill towards the neighbor's house. The lawn slopes two ways actually -- one from north to south towards the street, and one from east to west downhill. Please let me know if I can provide any other information that might help.

This post was edited by galiana on Sun, Mar 17, 13 at 23:49

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From the looks of your yard you have about 1000 sqft. more or less. I would think this is a rake and shovel operation.

I think the easiest way to take care of the low spots is to buy several bags of topsoil at Lowes or... and start filling those spots. If you do it over time months not days, you should be able to keep the grass and fill the depressions.

For those that are deeper, lift the sod and put the topsoil into the hole and lay the sod back on top. If you feather it in you should be able to do it and in weeks never know the depression exited.

If you had several 1000 sqft the advice would be different.

Do you know where the water is coming from? If there is an obvious source you may be able to divert it. If it is seeping through the ground and coming out of the hill in your yard that may be impossible to fix.

This post was edited by knuttle on Wed, Mar 20, 13 at 15:39

    Bookmark   March 20, 2013 at 3:35PM
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galiana(5a NH)

Thank you for your advice, knuttle. The yard is indeed very small. The frontage you see measures 31 feet from the stone by the driveway along the sidewalk to the lane on the far side. If you subtract the hardscaped portion we have about 750 square feet in grass.

We will go about doing it as you suggested, putting the topsoil over the grass in the shallow depressions and letting the grass grow through. For that part, I think we should wait until the lawn starts greening up in late April or early May, correct?

For the deeper depressions, does it matter what time of year or what the soil conditions are for us lifting up the sod to put topsoil underneath?

Thanks again for your advice.

    Bookmark   March 21, 2013 at 11:52AM
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I have done it when I decided that it needed to be done. Obviously not when it is under snow, but I would do it any time the grass is growing. I would not do it in a prolonged dry spell.

When you lift the sod, make sure you water it when it needs it. However because the fill is lose don't fill the lose soil with water and over water it.

We had a depression in the front yard of a house we bought. I careful cut the sod out of the depression filled it until it was level and replaced the sod. In weeks you could not tell where it was.

I have also used the technique, to create swales to improve drainage.

    Bookmark   March 21, 2013 at 1:07PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

One way or another you need to get rid of the standing water.

As for softening your hard soil, there has been a lot of success with using shampoo. Apply at a rate of 3 ounces of shampoo per 1,000 square feet. Follow that up with a deep watering of about 1 inch (as measured with a tuna or cat food can). Then repeat in 2 weeks. This has worked for everyone who tried it. Your soil will be soft when wet and hard when dry. That is normal.

    Bookmark   March 22, 2013 at 4:54PM
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DO NOT use shampoo on your lawn. Too much and you will kill it. The idea behind the shampoo is it acts like an anionic surfactant. The best way to explain this is it makes "water wetter" and allows the water to move through the profile. This will not help "loosen" your soil. Coring and backfilling with sand/organic matter may help improve drainage over time depending how bad it is, but this costs $$$$ Building a wall around the edge may help divert street water but you will need to run the water in your yard somewhere as well

    Bookmark   March 27, 2013 at 5:39PM
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How does too much wetter water kill a lawn?

    Bookmark   March 27, 2013 at 10:35PM
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Some people use soap off label to kill undesirable species. There is a reason the soap bottle doesn't say, for use on lawns.

    Bookmark   March 28, 2013 at 4:29PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

turfboy, you haven't really given a good reason for not using shampoo. Do you have something showing a problem by using too much soap? Because I can lead you to a guy who has used nearly 1/2 gallon per 1,000 square feet of it, in a single application, and only had success. There's a whole forum of happy surfactant users on another lawn forum.

What are the undesirable species killed by soap?

Here are a couple surfactants that are made for lawns.
Cascade Plus
There many more.

One reason shampoo bottles don't mention lawns is that they would not have room to mention all the additional uses of shampoo. Just like vinegar does not mention cleaning drains, removing stains, dissolving calcium, and hundreds of other uses. Same with salt, sugar, and baking soda. What happens is the various manufactures will repackage one ingredient under many different labels and price them all differently. And one man's soup is another man's poison. Coumadin is a medicine for humans and a poison for rats. It depends on the dose. So you're saying if you overdose with clear shampoo it could kill the grass. What is an overdose? Apparently 50 ounces per 1,000 square feet is not an overdose, so what is? And 50 ounces is a fairly impractical amount to use. That's practically pouring it on straight.

    Bookmark   March 31, 2013 at 7:28PM
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Shampoo really helps soften hard soil? My yard is having drainage issues, and we believe our hard soil is the cause. I never would have guessed that applying shampoo can help. It seems counter-intuitive to pour chemicals on your lawn, but I do not doubt your wisdom.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2015 at 11:39AM
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ken_adrian Adrian MI cold Z5


you bought a house.. in very late fall ... perhaps weeks before ground freeze ... and have come to conclusions about your soil ...

i am sorry ... i think you MIGHT be making presumptions ...

and on some level.. i am wondering about all this advice from southern folks who may have never dealt with frozen soil .....

fill holes ... a little at a time ... letting the grass extend thru it ... dont bury it too deep ... perhaps an inch.. once a month ...

and just take next summer.. to really find out.. how it all works .... skipping spring grass growing time ... and avoiding summer.. which is not a great time for working grass for many but the professionals ... the next great grass season is early next fall ... around sept of so ...

if you find out.. its all screwed up ... you can rent a sod cutter.. remove and bundle it all ... regrade ... and lay the grass back down afterwords ... or perhaps by then.. and being such a small area.. buy new sod ...

there is nothing inherently bad about clay .... other than the drainage issue ... when properly tended.. it is one of the better soils ... as compared to my glacial sand lets say ... my grass browns out for most of the hot part of summer ...

anyway ... since your lawn slopes away from the house ... i am not sure you have a drainage problem ... as most of us.. talk about such ... which only leaves you the holes to fill in ... [when one discusses this.. water is draining back towards the foundation .. and getting into the basement .. we arent usually talking about some puddles out in the grass ]

dont make this a bigger job than it is.. based on no real understanding.. of how it might work in what amounts to winter ... gather your facts ... and go from there ...

i think the soap idea/discussion is lightyears ahead of your knowledge base.. at this time ... we arent yet at that point .... and you may never be ...

also.. you probably havent really met your neighbors... odds are ... they know all about you native soil ... and if you introduce yourself to the grass warrior with the best lawn on the block.... he can teach you or the hubster.. all you need to know.. about how it all works on your street ...

some better pix will get you much better suggestions.. unless you are the only young newlyweds.. with no technology .... crikey.. that would be a throwback ... lol

good luck ... marriage and grass ....


Here is a link that might be useful: close enough. ... lol

    Bookmark   February 6, 2015 at 11:58AM
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>>Shampoo really helps soften hard soil? My yard is having drainage issues, and we believe our hard soil is the cause. I never would have guessed that applying shampoo can help.

Yep, it helps. It's not a magic cure-all, but it does help.

2 oz per thousand square feet, diluted in any amount of water that's convenient (I use around 2 tsp / gallon so I don't have to run) will slowly start changing your soil profile. You can do that monthly until the soil attains the characteristics you want, then step back to twice a year or so.

It works best if combined with an organic program that also encourages the natural bacteria, fungi, and critters to aerate and loosen your soil.

    Bookmark   February 6, 2015 at 5:29PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

I'm not sure why ken_adrian would caution you against using shampoo. It's really a no brainer. You put some clear (not cloudy) shampoo in a hose end spray and start spraying. You cannot overdo it, so charge on. I sprayed mine back in 2012 and the soil still softens every time it rains or I water.

    Bookmark   February 16, 2015 at 12:57PM
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