Soil drainage is imperative to your lawn’s health because many plants require well-drained soil to grow and flourish. Although plants need sufficient moisture to survive, excess water is detrimental.

Soil is a porous substance. When water isn’t able to drain through the pores, it displaces vital nutrients and oxygen molecules. Without oxygen, root systems drown, leading to wilting and plant death. 

Your soil might have poor drainage if you’ve noticed droopy garden plants or standing water in your yard. Luckily, you can test your yard’s permeability and amend the soil to help plants thrive. 

This article will show you:

  • How to test your lawn’s soil drainage
  • How to improve your yard’s drainage
  • Common causes of yard drainage problems 

How To Test Soil Drainage

A percolation or “perc” test is a simple and effective way to test your yard’s drainage. 

All you need for a perc test is:

  • A shovel or garden spade
  • A watering hose or bucket of water
  • A 12-inch ruler

Washington State University provides instructions for testing your lawn’s soil drainage in five easy steps:

  1. Dig a hole that’s 1 foot deep and 1 foot in diameter.
  2. Fill the hole with water and allow it to drain thoroughly. 
  3. Once the hole has drained, refill it with water and immediately measure the water’s depth with a ruler. 
  4. In 15 minutes, measure the water again to determine how much has drained out. 
  5. Multiply the number of inches by four to determine the hourly drainage rate.

Depending on the drainage speed, you can determine your yard’s soil texture and percolation rate.

Soil should ideally drain at a rate of 2 inches per hour. A rate of 1 to 3 inches will typically suffice for most plants with average drainage needs.

If the percolation rate is less than an inch per hour, your soil probably needs some amendments.

Soils that drain at more than 4 inches per hour are often called “droughty” and empty too quickly.

Common Causes of Yard Drainage Issues

Several factors affect your soil’s permeability and water retention capabilities. Luckily, you can amend the soil to improve your lawn’s overall quality. 

We’ve listed a few common causes of yard drainage issues to help you determine the root of your yard’s problem:

  • Clay content – Clay is a dense, clumpy soil particle that is excellent at retaining moisture and nutrients. However, its density sometimes leads to poor air and water circulation. 
  • Organic matter – Organic matter made of decomposing animals, plants, and microorganisms improves soil drainage by adding structure, nutrients, and biological activity. Without adequate structure, the soil is dryer and has fewer pores for water to flow through.
  • High water table – The water table is a space of fully saturated soil. Water fills all the pores between sediment, rocks, and particles in these areas. A high water table receives more water than it can drain.
  • Buried debris – Underground obstructions can cause poor soil drainage. If you notice certain areas of your yard are frequently dead or discolored, check for buried wood, rocks, or debris.
  • Compaction and hardpans – Compaction is a leading cause of poor yard drainage. Heavy machinery and foot traffic push down the dirt, creating fewer pore spaces for water and air to move through. Extreme compaction can lead to hardpans, or “compacted soil layers impervious to water, air, and nutrients.” 
  • Slope – Low spots at the bottom of hills are more likely to have poorly drained soils because stormwater runoff inundates these areas.
  • Gutter downspout – The downspout is the vertical section of a gutter that channels water down to the ground. If the downspout is too short, it might dump water into the soil faster than it can drain. This issue can lead to puddles of muddy water in your yard.
  • Walkways – Walkways around your house can cause poor landscape drainage by inhibiting runoff from reaching a storm drain. The standing water will pool in the soil, potentially causing damage to plants and turf. 

How To Improve Yard Drainage

Whether your yard’s insufficient drainage results from compaction or high clay content, you can improve the soil with simple resolutions. You have various professional and DIY soil amendment options to choose from, so enhancing your lawn’s drainage is a breeze. 

Lawn Aeration

Aeration is crucial to lawn health because it reduces compaction and improves turf circulation. 

Core Aeration

Core aeration is the process of pulling cylindrical plugs out of your lawn with a mechanical tool. This method is the best way to aerate your lawn because the plugs removed will eventually decompose and add nutrients back into the soil.

You can rent a core aerator from your local home improvement store or hire a professional to do the work.

Before renting an aerator, try spike aeration or liquid aeration.

Spike aeration involves manually driving thin spikes into the soil to loosen it up. You can spike aerate with a machine or do it by hand with a hoe or rake.

Lastly, you can aerate your lawn with a solution of ammonium lauryl sulfate. This chemical breaks down compacted organic matter, loosening the soil and creating better porosity.


Thatch is a buildup of dead grass and decomposing matter that inhibits nutrients and water from permeating the soil. Thatch is crucial to lawn health but can cause problems if dense buildup occurs.

Dethatching your lawn is another way to improve drainage. Dethatching is the process of removing the thick layer of debris that’s inhibiting oxygen and water from moving through the ground.

Most lawn care companies offer dethatching services, or you can do it yourself.

Many lawn care professionals recommend core aerating your lawn annually, but dethatching isn’t needed as frequently – every five years should do the trick.

Use a manual rake, power rake, or tow-behind tool to dethatch your lawn. 

  • Manual rake – Manual raking is the most cost-effective yet labor-intensive method of dethatching. Use the rake with heavy downward force to pull out clumps of thatch. Remember to dispose of the thatch once you’re done.
  • Power rake – A power rake is a lawnmower-like device that you can purchase or rent. Set the power rake to your specific grass type and maneuver it across your yard like a lawnmower. Select a power rake with a collection bin to avoid tedious cleanup.
  • Tow-behind dethatcher – Tow-behind dethatchers, or “vertical mowers,” attach to the back of your riding lawnmower. Simply ride around your lawn, and the tow-behind mower will do the dethatching. Once you’re done, clean up the debris with a leaf rake. 

Add Organic Matter

Organic matter is crucial to soil health. Lawns lacking in this mixture of decomposing organisms will most likely face poor water drainage and texture issues.

Organic matter breaks down and gives the soil better structure, allowing it to drain water more efficiently. Better soil structure also creates an environment conducive to healthy root growth for plants and grass.

According to the University of Maryland Extension, lawns and landscape plants grow best in soil made of 2% organic matter. Vegetable gardens and flower beds require between 5% and 10% organic matter to thrive.

For the best results, buy a compost high in nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus, or make your own mixture out of dead leaves, kitchen scraps, and plant clippings.

Improve your yard’s drainage by applying about an inch of compost each year. If you’re amending the soil before planting new grass, work 1 to 2 inches of compost into the top several inches of your lawn.

The key to effectively topdressing your turf with organic matter is to apply the compost to your lawn without smothering it. Do this by spreading the compost over the yard with a shovel, then evenly dispersing it into the soil with a rake.

Improve the drainage of flower beds by loosening the ground with a rake, then mixing in 1 to 2 inches of organic matter.

Install a Drainage System

If adding organic mulch and aerating your lawn isn’t improving your yard’s drainage, it might be time to pick up a shovel and start digging.

Installing a drainage system in your yard is a commitment, but it can improve your drainage problems in the long run.

French drains and dry wells are systems installed below the topsoil to improve the underground flow of water.

Drain typeDescription
French drainA ditch containing a perforated pipe and gravel bedding that helps water flow through the ground.
Dry wellUnderground drainage system that disperses stormwater runoff to prevent erosion and flooding.

Construct a dry creek bed or swale for an above-ground drainage solution.

Drain typeDescription
SwaleA low-lying channel that allows water to flower from hard surfaces to permeable ground.
Dry creek bedA trench lined with landscape fabric and rocks that channels rainwater to another area.

Check for underground utility lines in your yard before starting any DIY excavation project. Call your area’s 811 phone number or visit its website to determine if it’s safe to dig.

Other Yard Drainage Solutions

If poor drainage is an ongoing problem in your yard, try adapting your lawn and garden to your soil’s characteristics.

We’ll show you how to work around a yard prone to water retention.

Plant in Raised Beds

Consider planting in raised beds if your flowers are wilting from the water pooling around their roots. 

According to the University of New Hampshire Extension, “raised beds are often more productive than beds in the ground because the soil is less compacted, has better drainage, and warms earlier in the spring.” 

Raised beds are also less prone to weed infestation, making them perfect for homeowners who don’t want to get down in the dirt.

Build your own raised flower bed by researching DIY ideas or purchasing a kit from a local garden center.

Fill your raised beds with a potting mix of 10% to 20% organic compost for the best soil drainage and nutrient content.

Build a Rain Garden 

A rain garden is an area constructed to sit lower than the rest of a landscape, catching runoff and allowing it to soak into the ground.

Rain gardens are similar to other drainage solutions that channel water away from areas prone to pooling. However, rain gardens are often used for aesthetic purposes in addition to their functionality. 

Rain gardens typically include a variety of native plants that are well suited to wet areas. Plants help reduce runoff while also soaking up excess groundwater. 

Before establishing a rain garden, consider the soil conditions of your site and how you might need to amend the area for the best results. You’ll also need to select native plants suited for the level of water your rain garden will collect. 

The James River Association suggests planting wetland rushes and swamp plants in the bottom half of your rain garden and upland plants with drought tolerance at the top. By planting water-loving plants at the base of your rain garden, you’re further improving the area’s drainage by loosening the soil and stimulating microbial activity in the ground. 

Here are some water-loving plants to include in your rain garden:

Lily of the valley
Climbing hydrangea
Trumpet honeysuckle
Jackson vine
Sweet flag
Elephants ear
Spider lily

Find out how to build a rain garden in our comprehensive guide.

Final Thoughts 

Now that you know how to improve soil drainage, you’re well on your way to creating a healthier, greener yard. 

Once you’ve tested your yard’s drainage level with a perc test, you’ll know whether the soil is draining too quickly – or not quickly enough. Slow draining soil can be detrimental to turf and landscape plants, so improving your lawn’s permeability is a must. 

Solve your yard’s drainage problems by amending the soil with organic compost, core aeration, or dethatching. These methods require time and energy but are likely to resolve the water pooling in your yard.

Consider hiring a professional lawn care company to avoid doing the dirty work yourself.

No matter how you improve your lawn’s drainage, you’ll be glad that wilting plants and puddles no longer plague your property.

Editorial Contributors
Elisabeth Beauchamp

Elisabeth Beauchamp

Senior Staff Writer

Elisabeth Beauchamp is a content producer for Today’s Homeowner’s Lawn and Windows categories. She graduated from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill with degrees in Journalism and Linguistics. When Elisabeth isn’t writing about flowers, foliage, and fertilizer, she’s researching landscaping trends and current events in the agricultural space. Elisabeth aims to educate and equip readers with the tools they need to create a home they love.

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Lora Novak

Senior Editor

Lora Novak meticulously proofreads and edits all commercial content for Today’s Homeowner to guarantee that it contains the most up-to-date information. Lora brings over 12 years of writing, editing, and digital marketing expertise. She’s worked on thousands of articles related to heating, air conditioning, ventilation, roofing, plumbing, lawn/garden, pest control, insurance, and other general homeownership topics.

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