Dec. 15 2015 07:50 PM

“Help—my backyard has turned into a swamp!”

No contractor wants to get that “911”call from a client. Usually, it comes right after, or even during, a big rainstorm. And after you get off the phone, you might just let out a groan. That’s because you know that this person has a drainage problem, and a severe one at that.

“Nothing is as consistently destructive as water,” said Steve ‘Aquaman’ Bowes, superintendent and partner at Phoenix Home Services, Inc., Fairfax, Virginia. That may seem like a strange remark for someone called ‘Aquaman’ to make, but he’s speaking from many years of expertise in drainage matters (which is, of course, how he got the nickname).

Drainage affects virtually every aspect of landscape work, but is especially critical in design/build.

“It affects the stability and integrity of whatever you’re building,” said Bowes. “Without a solid base for whatever you’re doing, it doesn’t matter what else you do on top of or around it. If there is water around that can make it fall down, then you’re in a bad situation.”

Climate change has made drainage more important than ever. “There’s been a 900 percent increase in severe rainstorms in certain pockets, like Texas, the Southeast and Midwest,” said Dave Polisky, contractor account manager and drainage specialist for the Azusa, California-based Rain Bird Corporation.

“Where we used to get consistent rain throughout the year, now we’ll go for long periods without it, and when we do get it, it’s hard and substantial. If you don’t have proper drainage, you end up with migrating mulch, streaming water and low-lying floods.”

Drainage problems aren’t ‘fun’ fixes; that’s why a lot of landscape contractors avoid them. But a contractor who knows how to correct them, and even better, prevent them from happening in the first place, might have another type of flow to deal with: cash, and lots of it.

Signs and symptoms

Not all drainage issues announce themselves as dramatically as a swampy yard. The signs can be subtle, like mildew on the side of a house.

“If our mowers are making ruts in a lawn, that’s a sign,” said Krisjan Berzins, president and CEO of Lorton, Virginia-based Kingstowne Lawn & Landscape. “Or, people seeing lots of mud on their walkways, driveways or patios, or complaining that their dog is tracking it in.”

Or, their basements are flooded.

“This last season, we had a record downpour of rain,” said Don Holstead, owner of Pro Landscape & Design, LLC, Colorado Springs. “We saw a lot of flooded basements.”

It’s one drainage problem that can’t be ignored. Once a basement window-well fills up completely, the water spills over into the basement itself. It can then start to weaken the foundations of the house itself.

How does Holstead prevent that?

“There’ll usually be rock and/or mulch in place by the window-well. We remove that rock and mulch, and add soil, creating a flow away from the house or other structure, and steer the water to where it’s supposed to go. Usually, that’s to the storm sewer.”

Grade correction

The whole point of drainage work is to channel water away from structures. The way a site is graded is critical. Before you evaluate any drainage situation at a site, you first need to ‘read the grade,’ see where the high and low points are.

A property should be graded correctly from the start; that’s obvious.

But we all know that doesn’t always happen. Even if it did, topography has a way of changing over time.

What once was a high spot can become a low one a few years later.

Sprinkler systems, sidewalks, driveways and patios get added; all of this changes drainage patterns.

“If there is negative drainage, that is, towards a structure, we have to create positive drainage, and make the water flow away from the structure,” said Holstead. “That’s done by correcting the grade.”

He’s not suggesting bringing in heavy equipment. Tearing up an established lawn that’s in good shape in order to regrade a site is generally not feasible or economical.

For minor grade adjustments, all that’s needed is a landscape rake or shovel. To see where water is puddling, turn on the hose or sprinklers, and then fill in those low areas with soil. The ground should slope away from the structure in all directions, dropping down at least two or three inches every ten feet.

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