Why Good Drainage is Important for Your Garden

This is just one of the reasons that we are renovating our demonstration garden:

The tracks are from several weeks ago, when we were working to remove the remaining concrete from the wheelchair garden area. There had been a little bit of rain a few days before, and the bobcat left these ruts. Ugh. Since then, they haven’t drained. Granted, a lot of this water is from yesterday and today. Still…it isn’t even pretending to drain. It’s just sitting there.

The first part of our garden renovation is going to be putting in drain tiles that will help move water away from the garden, especially through our lovely, sticky clay, compacted construction pad. When our building was originally built, this area was compacted like the foundation area. Then a little topsoil was added and proclaimed “ready to garden.” Yeah, not so much. These conditions are why we have always used raised beds and worked hard to develop a high organic matter loam soil in those beds. Even with the added drainage, these conditions are also why we will always use raised beds in our Demonstration Garden and also why we recommend that almost all home gardeners in this area also use raised beds.

Many parts of Sedgwick County naturally have a very heavy clay soil like is below our demonstration garden. If you can dig a hole in your garden or yard and fill it with water, and it takes more than 24 hours to drain, you absolutely need either a different location or a raised bed or berm to make your garden successful.

Why does it matter? Isn’t it just water that the plants can use? Actually, it matters a lot. Plant roots need oxygen as much as we do, and if the soil is full of water, there is no space for air! Water can smother the roots of the plants and increase the ability of some problematic diseases to move around in the soil and infect plants.

It might seem ironic to be talking about drainage as a problem after such a dry year. But if your soil is compacted and poorly drained, even a dry summer doesn’t protect you from problems. If anything, it makes it worse because your soil is either soggy or rock hard.

Improving soil drainage and structure. The reason we recommend raised beds so often is that they are a relatively quick solution to a problem that might otherwise take many years to fix. The way to actually improve your soil as it is will vary with the exact problems, but it would include a combination of deep tine aeration/ripping, incorporating organic matter by the ton, and probably planting some deep rooted cover crops like winter radishes that can break up the soil over several years (and incorporating them for more organic matter). Even then, you will still have a heavy, clay soil, albeit with better organic matter and drainage. Given all that work, raised beds seem like a good choice, don’t they?

About Rebecca

I'm a Horticulture Educator with Sedgwick County Extension, a branch of K-State Research and Extension, located in Wichita, KS. I teach about fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

Posted on December 20, 2011, in Around the Garden and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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