How To Make Soil Drain Better (5 Tricks You Should Learn About!)


Well draining soil is recommended for most plants, since wet soil caused root rot and other diseases. However, well draining soil can be elusive, especially if you live in an area with clay soil that gets lots of rainfall.

So, how do you make your soil drain better?  You can make your soil drain better by adding organic material such as compost or well-aged manure. You can also make soil drain better with hilling (elevation), using containers, or planting in raised beds. Adding a drainage system is another way to make your soil drain better.

Of course, there are other ways to make soil drain better. You might be able to use one of more of these methods to fix soggy soil.

In this article, we’ll talk about why you need well-draining soil and how to tell if your soil drains well. Then we’ll talk about how to improve soil drainage and how to fix soggy soil.

Let’s begin.

(You can also watch the video on this topic on YouTube if you prefer – you can also find the video below.)

What Is Well-Drained Soil (Why Do You Need It?)

Well-drained soil is soil that drains fast enough, but not too fast. In other words, well-drained soil holds enough water for plant growth, but not too much water.

soil
Well-drained soil retains enough moisture for plants to survive, but it does not stay wet for too long.

Well-drained soil is important to maintain the correct moisture levels for the plants in your garden. Soil that is either too dry or too wet will cause a problem.

Soil that drains too fast (such as sandy soil) will lead to dry soil. You can learn more about how to treat dry soil in my article here.

sandy soil
Sandy soil is fast draining soil, which often leads to a lack of water for your plants.

On the other hand, poorly-drained soil (such as heavy clay soil) will lead to wet soil. Wet soil has too much water in the empty space between soil particles.

According to the Alabama State University Extension, air and water are about evenly matched in healthy soil. That is, about 50% of the space between soil particles is filled with air, and the other 50% is filled with water.

soil
A good soil mix drains well, with the space between soil particles split evenly between water and air.

Wet soil causes an imbalance where there is too much water in the space between soil particles. This leads to a lack of oxygen, which plant roots need to survive.

Without well-drained soil, your garden will stay wet for too long after watering or rain.  This leads to root rot, which eventually kills plants by preventing them from absorbing water.

root rot
Soil that stays too wet for too long leads to root rot, which causes roots to turn brown and mushy.

Poorly drained soil also leads to runoff, where you lose topsoil and nutrients when they are washed away by rain or irrigation. According to the University of Missouri Extension, well-drained soil prevents runoff so that you don’t need to fertilize so often.

For more information, check out my article on over watering your plants.

To make well drained soil, you will need to amend heavy clay soil with organic material (more on this later).

What Type Of Soil Drains Well?

Sandy soil is light with large particles. Sandy soil drains well and does not hold water for a long time.

Unfortunately, this also means that it does not hold nutrients well.

sandy soil
Sandy soil drains well – perhaps too well, since it loses nutrients easily due to runoff.

Clay soil is heavy with small particles. Usually, clay soil is not well drained soil, since it holds water for a long time.

As mentioned earlier, too much water in soil leaves no space for oxygen, which will hurt plants.

clay soil
Clay soil drains slowly and may stay too wet, which can lead to root rot and other problems for plants.

Loam soil contains a more balanced mixture of sand and clay. It falls somewhere in between sandy and clay soil in terms of how well it drains water.

If you know what type of soil you have, you can take a guess as to how well it drains. If you aren’t sure what type of soil you have, there is an easy way to tell how well it drains.

How To Tell If Your Soil Drains Well

There is a simple test, suggested by the University of Maryland Extension, that you can use to tell if your soil drains well: a hole dug in well drained soil will empty quickly when filled with water.

First, dig a circular hole in your soil that is 1 foot wide (diameter) and 1 foot deep.

shovel
To test soil drainage, dig a circular hole about 1 foot wide and deep. Then, fill the hole with water. Fill it again the next day. Then, test the drainage speed by measuring the water depth at intervals.

Next, fill the hole with water and wait a day.

Then, fill the hole with water again.

Now, measure the starting depth of the water in the hole. Measure the depth every hour to see how much has drained.

  • if the water drains more than 4 inches per hour, the soil is well-draining (most likely, it is very sandy)
  • if the water drains between 1 and 4 inches per hour, the soil is fairly well-draining (most likely a balanced mix of sand, clay, and loam)
  • if the water drains at less than 1 inch per hour, the soil is poorly-draining (most likely, it has a very high clay content)

The following table summarizes the soil drainage test results:

Drainage
Per Hour
(inches)
Soil
Drainage
Less than 1Poor
(clay)
1 to 4Fair
(mix)
More than 4Fast
(sand)
This table summarizes the results
of a basic soil drainage test.

If you garden is in an area prone to flooding or heavy rain in spring or summer, then you will need to take some steps to make the soil drain better.

How To Make Soil Drain Better (Methods to Improve Soil Drainage)

If you’re reading this far, then you have determined that you have some drainage problems with your soil.  As promised, here are five different methods to make soil drain better.

Soil Drainage Method #1: Elevate Your Soil

When I use the word “elevate”, I don’t mean it in some mystical, woo-woo, law-of-attraction way.  Elevating your soil means raising it above the surrounding ground so it won’t stay too wet after rain or watering.

pallet raised bed
A raised bed is one way to elevate soil and help it to drain better. Just make sure that there is no bottom, or drill holes in the bottom of the bed.

The more you raise the soil above the surrounding ground, the faster the soil will drain.

There are two basic methods for elevating your soil above the surrounding ground:

  • Hilling
  • Containers or raised beds

Let’s start with hilling.

Elevating Soil With Hilling

One way to elevate your soil is called hilling. With hilling, you pile up soil to create a hill (also called a mound or berm).

Hilling is often used around potato plants to prevent the tubers from turning green and toxic in the sunlight. However, hilling also helps to improve drainage for any plants growing on raised ground.

rows of potatoes
Hilling is often used for potatoes, but it can be used to improve drainage for any plant you want to grow.

Hilling only requires a shovel or rake to move soil around and put it in a pile.  After you make a hill, you can mix in any fertilizer you need, plant your seeds or seedlings on top of the hill, and water as usual.

The idea behind hilling is that some water will soak into the mound to water your plants. The rest of the water will run down the sides of the hill or drain through the center into the ground below.

potato plants
Hilling helps to avoid over watering in your garden.

Hilling will prevent the flooding, runoff, soggy soil, and root rot mentioned earlier.

If you wish, you can create small individual hills – one for each plant. You also have the option of building a wide hill along an entire row, which will raise several plants at once.

Elevating Soil With Containers Or Raised Beds

Another method to elevate your soil and plants is with containers. A standard clay or plastic pot will work, as will 5-gallon buckets or even larger containers.

clay pots
Clay pots are harder to drill through to make drainage holes, so buy ones that already have holes in the bottom.

You will need to fit the size of the container to the size of the full-grown plant. Remember to account for root space below the surface!

To allow for proper drainage, you will need holes in the bottom of the pots. Either buy pots with holes in them, or drill holes in the bottom (this is easy for plastic pots, but clay pots may break when drilled).

potted plant
It is easy to make holes in the bottom of plastic pots if you need better drainage.

If you are having trouble deciding which type of pot to use, check out my article on plastic pots vs. clay pots.

If you don’t want to use pots, raised beds are another option. A raised bed is basically a larger container for plants.

supported raised bed
A raised bed like this one provides good drainage for soil. If it’s tall enough, it may also prevent rabbits and other pests from getting to your plants!

The difference is that there is no bottom to a raised bed (unless you install a liner, which I suggest doing). This allows water to drain right out of the soil in the raised bed and into the ground below.

A raised bed will cost you a little more in terms of time and money, since you will have to either build one or buy one.

The idea of a raised bed is that you build a rectangular box, like a sandbox.  However, instead of filling it with sand, you fill it with soil (hopefully well drained soil!) and then grow plants in the soil.

wooden raised garden beds
Raised beds can be made from wood, metal, or plastic. Often, cedar is used for long-lasting raised beds, since cedar resists rot.

If you want to build your own raised garden bed, there are tons of plans for raised garden beds online.  One big benefit of building a custom raised bed is that you can make it any size you wish.

If you want to elevate your plants even higher, you can use hilling within a raised bed. Check out my article here for more ideas on improving drainage in raised beds.

If you are having trouble deciding between pots and raised beds, my article can help you to make the decision.

Soil Drainage Method #2: Install A Drainage System

Another way to improve soil drainage is to install a drainage system. A drainage system can be as simple as a single pipe on a slope, or it can be much more involved.

The idea is to move excess water away from your garden by directing it with drains, pipes, and other channels, either above or below ground.

drainage pipes
You can install pipes to direct water away from your garden and improve drainage.

It may take some digging, but a good first step is to create a slight incline away from your garden so that excess water flows away from it on all sides.

If you want to take more direct control of the water (such as from gutters or driveways), you can dig a channel.  Then, either fill it with a pipe (such as a PVC pipe) or with gravel (as in a traditional French drain).

PVC Pipe

You can use PVC pipes to build a drainage system to help your soil avoid getting too wet.
PVC Pipe Courtesy of user UsKhalid at Wikimedia Commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:The_PVC_pipe.jpg

Don’t install a drainage pipe without at least a slight incline. Otherwise, the water will just sit inside the pipe, and it may even flow back into your garden!

Also, be courteous to your neighbors. Talk to them first to discuss any drainage problems, and don’t send water into their yards.

Soil Drainage Method #3: Loosen and Aerate the Soil

This next method is something you might do to your garden anyway when adding material to your garden (more on this later).  If you dig up the soil with a pitchfork, shovel, or rototiller, it will loosen and aerate the soil.

pitchfork
Using a pitchfork and shovel to turn your soil over will loosen and aerate it.

According to the University of Minnesota Extension, compacted soil leaves less space between soil particles for air and water. When soil is compacted, it prevents water from flowing freely through the soil, resulting in poor drainage.

By digging and moving the soil around, you prevent compaction and aerate the soil at the same time. When you aerate your soil, you create more space between soil particles, so that water can move through more easily.

Rototilling is one way to loosen up soil, but it is best suited for hard, compacted soil or ground that has never been worked before. You can learn more about rototilling if you check out my article on the cost of rototilling.

front tine tiller
A rototiller can break up hard, compacted soil, but it will disturb worms.

If you don’t want to use a rototiller, another option is to use spike or plug aerators to aerate your soil.

A spike aerator is just what it sounds like: it uses spikes to put holes in the soil, which creates an opportunity for air (and water) to permeate the soil.  Unfortunately, this can compact the soil further, which is one thing you want to avoid to improve drainage.

A plug aerator takes plugs (pieces of soil) out of the ground to create holes. With this method, holes are formed by removing soil, instead of compacting it and pushing it out of the way.

For more information, check out this article from sfgate.com on spike and plug aerators.

One more note about loosening your soil: if you want to attract worms to your soil, use a pitchfork instead of a shovel or rototiller.  Otherwise, you may injure or disturb any worms that are present.

Soil Drainage Method #4: Add Worms to Your Garden

Adding worms to your garden is a great way to improve soil quality.

earthworm
Earthworms in your garden is a sign of healthy soil.

According to the Penn State University Extension, earthworms have the following benefits for soil:

  • improved water infiltration – worms dig holes (called burrows) in the soil, which allows a way for water to get into the soil quickly
  • increased soil aeration – when worms dig holes in the ground, they also bring much-needed oxygen into the soil
  • reduced soil compaction – worms move soil around as they dig and move organic material, which loosens up the soil
  • more organic matter – worms digest organic matter and mix it with soil, which also makes nutrients more available for plants.

In short, Worms make soil less compact and aerate the soil at the same time.  They also break down organic matter into a form that plants can use as nutrition.

earthworm
Earthworms are good for your garden or compost pile, and they help to improve soil structure.

You can try moving worms into your garden from another area of your yard, or from a friend or neighbor’s yard.  You can also buy them at a bait shop or online.

For more information, check out my article on how to get more worms in your garden.

Worms will not stay in your garden unless you give them a good reason to do so.  One good way to keep worms around is to add plenty of organic material to your garden.

Worms will help to take the material in your compost pile and turn it into nutrients that plants can use.

Organic material can come from grass clippings, fallen leaves, and plants from the prior year’s garden. You can also turn these materials into compost and invite worms to help with the process.

If worms find their way into your compost pile, they will gladly help to speed up the process of turning grass, leaves, and vegetable matter into compost for your garden.

Soil Drainage Method #5: Use Additives

The fifth and final way to improve soil drainage is to use additives in your soil.  There are a few different additives that will make your soil drain better and also help with nutrition.

Organic Material (Compost or Manure)

Organic material is the most common and well-known additive to improve soil drainage.  Soil drains better when it contains more organic material, such as compost, manure, and mulch.

compost bin
Good compost is worth its weight in gold – well, at least in your garden.

Making compost can take months, depending on how much help the pile has from bacteria and worms.  However, it is a great way to recycle yard and kitchen scraps, including:

  • grass clippings
  • leaves from fall cleanup
  • fruit or vegetable scraps
cutting grass
Add grass clippings to your compost pile to provide a nitrogen boost.

You can even use wood ash, paper, cardboard, and many other materials to make your compost.  If you are ambitious and have a large garden, you can ask friends, neighbors, or local landscapers if they have extra material you can use for composting.

For more information, check out my article on how to make compost, as well as my article on where to get manure, and my article on mulch vs compost.

cardboard boxes
You can often get free cardboard boxes for your compost pile if you ask local stores for their empty boxes.

There are lots of ways to find fresh or aged manure for your garden (use aged manure to avoid burning plants!) For example, you can find bags of Black Kow manure online from Ace Hardware.

You can also source manure from a friend who keeps chickens, or from a local business that boards horses or raises cows.

chickens
If you raise chickens, you can get eggs from them – and also manure for your garden!

You can create your own leaf mulch by going over fallen leaves with your lawnmower.

Sand, Gypsum, or Limestone

Sand, gypsum, and limestone are good additives to improve drainage if you have clay soil.  Make sure to use coarse sand, since fine sand can lead to hard, compacted soil (sort of like concrete!).

Gypsum (calcium sulfate) and lime (calcium carbonate) both help to improve drainage, in addition to providing extra calcium for your soil.

calcium carbonate
Lime, or calcium carbonate, is a soil additive that increases drainage and also raises pH if your soil is too acidic.

Remember that gypsum does not change the pH of your soil, while lime will raise the pH of your soil (making it less acidic). It is helpful to know the pH of your soil before adding anything to your garden.

So, make sure to do a soil test before you add any supplements to your garden.  Excessive calcium (from too much lime) can prevent plants from absorbing other important nutrients, such as magnesium.

Volcanic Rock (Perlite or Vermiculite)

You don’t need to visit a volcano to use this method to improve soil drainage.  Perlite is a common volcanic rock, and it is generally available online or at garden centers.

perlite
Perlite is a white, glass-like volcanic rock. It is good for improving soil drainage.

Vermiculite is an alternative to perlite that holds more water, but allows less aeration.

Perlite and vermiculite both have air pockets, making them somewhat lightweight.  They are both good at absorbing water, meaning that they help to prevent soil from becoming too moist, while releasing water in times of drought (that is, when you forget to water!)

For more information, check out my article on perlite, vermiculite, and alternatives.

How To Make Soil Drain Better In Pots Or Containers

When growing in small containers, such as pots, it is important to make sure the soil drains well. One of the best ways to do this is to choose the right soil in the first place.

The soil you choose will depend on the plant and its water needs. For example, sandy soil that drains well and dries out fast is preferable for succulents and cacti, which do not need much water.

cacti
Cacti and succulents can handle dry soil much better than other plants.

You can find fast draining soil mixes that will also provide nutrition for your plants. Many of these potting mixes contain some perlite, vermiculite, or peat moss to give proper drainage.

(You can learn how to make homemade potting soil mix in my article here).

Over time, the soil in a container may become compacted due to watering or lack of movement and aeration in the soil.

To remedy this, you can remove the old soil and replace it with new soil. If your plant is root bound in its pot, you can repot it in a larger container.

Conclusion

Hopefully, these five methods will help you to improve soil drainage and avoid soggy soil. Well-drained soil leads to healthier plants and an abundant harvest.

If you continue to struggle with soggy soil, check out my article on some plants you can grow in soggy soil (and other poor soil types).

I hope you found the article helpful – if so, please share it with someone who can use the information.

If you want to read some of my most popular posts, check out the “Best of GreenUpSide” page here.  Enjoy!

~Jonathon

jonathon.david.madore

Hi, I'm Jon. Let's solve your gardening problems, spend more time growing, and get the best harvest every year!

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