Soil Has Hardly Any Drainage - What to Do?

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

The previous owner of our home did a lot of gardening and the front bed is
fairly nice, but I let it go for about 8 years. I'm cleaning it up and there is
some free space where I'd like to plant Blueberries. The soil PH is 6.0 so I'll
have to treat it. I dug the hole about 20" across and 18" deep, then it rained
and in the deepest part the water was about 6", the rain stopped by night
and by morning it had only dropped to about 5". Rained again, and I decided
to fill the hole from the hose after it stopped raining with about 12" of water
and again it drains about 1"- 2" per 24 hour period. This seems to me to be
very slow; how fast should it drain to be considered good drainage?
Edit: This site suggests that 1" to 6" per hour of drainage is good:

There was about 6" of nice dark top soil and then it seemed like sand, nothing
like hard clay. Looking here, the color is medium brown like what he is holding
in his hand but more sandy rather than smooth:
Edit: Had the wrong link here, this is correct:

I can form the wet material into a ball, and make a ribbon, but the ribbon breaks
right where I'm holding it when I do not support it. I'm new to this and am guessing
that this is loam, perhaps more on the clay side?

Blueberries need good drainage so at this point my plan is to dig a bit deeper,
and not use any of the material that came out but rather a good quality soil and
peat or whatever else is suggested for Blueberries. I'll add sulfer and pine materials
to lower the PH, perhaps Perlite, and Vermiculite for drainage but I'm just guessing
here. I can't do a raised bed, and I don't compost so I have to use materials that I can
Looking for suggestions/ideas as to the best solution and I appreciate any help.

This message was edited Jul 30, 2012 9:54 PM

This message was edited Jul 31, 2012 8:12 AM

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

Kenboy mentions in this thread to use granular gypsum:

The info there suggests that it is a cure for slow draining soil:
"Loosens hard packed soil FAST"

Perhaps I should loosen up the bottom as much as possible and toss in
some granular gypsum ...

It is interesting that this University report, "The Myth of Gypsum Magic":
is mostly negative about the claims for gypsum as a top coat, especially on
layered soils, however it did have one positive comment concerning clay
soil "gypsum can improve heavy clay soil structure and remove sodium from
saline soils." My plan is to mix it in at a lower level so perhaps it might help.

I know that I should probably have a soil test done.

This message was edited Jul 31, 2012 11:43 AM

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

I had to manually scoop the rest of the water out to dig more and what do you know I hit rock, very solid feeling rock. Hit it hard with a pick and was able to chip 2" pieces off but, so far not break through to more soil. Is this likely bedrock? Seems I need a jackhammer. Measured it and the topsoil is 7" total depth 15".

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

I've heard people say that gyopsum may help clay, gradually, along with other imporvements. I never saw gypsum do anything noticable to my clay, but I didn't do any controlled stgudy.

I don't understand how water can;t drain if there is sandy soil under it. Does the sand flood becuase there is some impervious layer under THAT?

My impervious layer is right at the surface and extends downward as far as I can dig.

If practical, dig a narrow hole deep enough to find what the imprevious layer is. Soil augur? Fenc h-post-digger? That has the side benefit of showing you your whole soil profile. Maybe when you find the impervious layer, it will be thin enough that you can chip or drill through uit and let water drain staright down. Maybe you have a rich, fertile illuviated layer within reach, that you could bring up to create really stellar soil!

Or maybe it is just the Earth's mantle, miles and miles of granite and basalt, forming a basin right where you want to grow blueberries. You might have to try to figure out where to drill, chip, or dynamite to put a hole or gap in that basin to let the water out.

HOWEVER, you don't really HAVE to know what's going on 3 feet down if you raise your root zone above it all. If you build a 12-16" raised bed, what's underneath could be clay, concrete or solid granite.

There just has to be some downhill path where water can flow away from your root zone, somewhere downhill from your root zone. If the lowest part of the root zone in your raised bed is ABOVE the grade of the rest of your yard, your blueberries will be OK even if the rest of your yard is ankle-deep in global warming climate-change water.

I like to raise the bed up a little, and lower the water table down a little.

I try to make my raised beds on the top of a slight rise, or abutting a slope. I start digging from the lowest corner or edge of the "floor" of my raised bed, which for me is hard clay. (For you it may be a sandy layer, or a totally water-logged sandy layer.)

I make the floor of the bed slope an inch or two down towards that low corner.

Then I start cutting a narrow trench DOWNslope from that corner, using a pick and a mattock. The floor of that trench has to start deeper than the lowest part of the floor. Then it has to go consistently DOWN so water can flow away from where it would have drowned my roots.

Of course, even before starting to dig, you had to pick a site for the bed. If that site is a low spot, and there is nowhere you can trench down TO from it, and you have poor drainage, it's not a good site.

Try to find some spot in your yard that has some sun, AND is higher than some nearby spot. Then water may flow along the surface, or along whatever sub-surface layer is giving you trouble, down to that other spot. It may flood that other spot, but the water has to go SOMEwhere.

Back in New Jersey, a friend's neighbor put up a concrete curb that diverted all his run-off right into my fieeneds yard, flooding it. This being New Jersery, and him being an engineer, he went out at night and poured some acid into holes he drilled in the curb, until it disintegrated and the water flowed back to where it used to go. Fun times!

Thumbnail by RickCorey_WA Thumbnail by RickCorey_WA
Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Ouch, Pete. Worst news. Drilling through granite calls for seriosu equipment plus maybe blasting powder.

If you look at surface vegetation, is there anywhere that looks better drianed than the spot you started with? Maybe the rock layer has a crack somewhere that water can drain down through.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Hmm, there used to be a garden there?

Was som ething built that would prevent some runoff that used to provide drainage?

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

This is the front bed of the house and everything grows really well there, never any flooding, or puddles of water. The back yard has flooded to where there was a half inch of water above the grass in a few low spots, perhaps 4 times in 10 years during the worst rainstorms. I'm planning to plant a row of 3 so I'm going to dig the next one and see what I find, perhaps I'll join the two and remove most of the clay. I don't really want to do a raised bed but am considering having the plants up 3" perhaps a bit more with the soil mounded up to allow for compaction of the added material.

Charlotte, NC(Zone 7b)

Pete - I have a similar situation as yourself. I have hard red clay over solid rock!

My advice to you would be to leave the clay layer alone, and build raised beds. The raised beds will drain while the underlying clay will hold water and nutrients. Your blueberries will grow down into the clay, and because the underlying clay holds water, but does not get water-logged, they will suck up what water they need.

I have four blueberry bushes that have a set-up as I have described. I rarely need to water them - just give them fertilizer once in awhile.

Once you dig a hole in clay it will fill with water like a plugged-up bath tub. But if you leave it alone, and keep the surface from drying out, it stays wet without being water-logged. I use fall leaves in my walkways to keep the clay from drying out.

Blueberries need a very acid soil. I seem to remember its 4.5 to 5.0, but you could double check that online.

Virginia Beach, VA

I am very lucky not to have clay in my yard. I think it takes time to make clay soil porous.
If you can afford to buy bags or truck load of compost to amend your dirt then you save time.
If you compost and keep adding to your garden you will eventually have a fertile bed.


Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

One easy way to buil;d a raised bed is to buy concrete paving stones and stand them on end.

I use 8"x16"x3/4" or 12"x12"x1"

They go up as fast as you can carruy them and lean them agauinst a heap of soil, and are easy to move if you move a bed.

Around $1 - $1.25 each

Spring City, TN

Ditto, ditto, ditto. Your yard is classic for needing raised beds. Concrete pavers, 2x pressure treated wood, landscape timbers, rail road cross ties -- anything to hold the dirt UP so water can drain DOWN.

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

Again, I really don't want to do raised beds but thanks for the advice, I might use these ideas in the future.

After pounding on the rock with a pick the first hole drained, so I refilled it and it now drains about 3" in 19 hours. I'm going to do a bit more pounding and call it good enough.

We hit rock in the second hole mainly on one side and I pounded that one also with the pick. This drains 4 to 5" in 19 hours. It had a few clumps that were clearly clay but it was mostly a mix.

I really don't think this is going to be a problem if I fill the entire hole with well draining soil since I've found in this bed that the roots seem to be mainly in the first 6 -8" of soil. 3 - 4" inches of rain will leave water in the bottom most part of the hole and obviously not in the first 6 to 8 inches. It is probably not ideal but I hope good enough.

Thanks for all the tips!

Charlotte, NC(Zone 7b)

Pete, you might want to check out this link to get a better understandinf of just how deep roots go

If you do find what you are proposing is successful, please let us know.

Spring City, TN

If I had your situation and raised beds were out, I'd look at bog plants, something that liked to drown occaisionally, cuz with that sort of drainage, the wet seasons are going to be like living in a bathtub. Not sure of the water requirements for the plants you suggested. Maybe they'll like being in water for weeks on end.

I'm fighting the opposite. Everything here is steep and hilly. We have phenomenal drainage -- whether we want it or not!

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

Thank you, I'll read that since this is all new to me. Just to be clear, did I mention that this is mainly a shrub and flower bed and I'm mainly adding Blueberry and Rose bushes? We just pulled out an old Rose bush and the roots were about 6 to 8" deep, we had not even gone through the top soil when we pulled it out. We hit a few roots from the other plants, Arbor Vitae, Rhododendron, and they were all in the 7" of top soil.

I realize that this is far from perfect, but I'm willing to give it a try.

I have a feeling that the plants adapt to the soil conditions, so if it is too wet down below the roots tend to stay up higher, and probably some roots go lower but this is what we've observed so far. I've done virtually nothing to these other than to shape them every few years (not often enough) and they are growing very strong. The Arbor Vitaes have gotten over grown and from what I've read there is really no solution other than to pull them out. If anyone has a link to better solutions I would appreciate it very much.

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

Took a look at that paper and, for example, they showed Corn with a primary root extending 4 ft down. What happens if it hits rock? I suppose it has to go horizontally and that is what we found with the primary root of the large rose root system that we pulled out. Perhaps the rock helps in this situation by forcing horizontal and shallow roots.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

>> After pounding on the rock with a pick the first hole drained,

Steel drivin' man!

I'm going to stop boasting about pick-and-mattock work on hard (dry) clay. If you can break through solid rock with a PICK, you're way ahead of me!

My guess is that, now that you've made the rock layer drain, you will have lowered the "water table" or root zone right down to the rocks. I bet all your roots will grow deeper over time.

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

LOL, We hit it about 10 times and manged to chip off a few small pieces, don't know if we caused some sort of deeper crack.

I've attached a picture of the old rose root that we pulled out. I learned recently that Dr. Huey root stock is often used for grafting and when we moved in here there were nice pink roses on this plant, probably grafted. I did not do anything special for them and did not know how to properly prune them at the time. What was probably the graft broke off - all of them. I didn't know that often shoots (is cane the right word) will come up from the Dr. Huey roots and covered it with mulch so that nothing grew until we just pulled it out. I base this on the fact that the grafts broke off, and another one of our rose bushes now looks like Dr. Huey and is growing nicely. I am open to other opinions as to what this root stock is. I like Dr. Huey roses but they only bloom once as far as I know, so we are putting in Home Run roses as a replacement.

Some info on Dr. Huey root stock and grafts:

It can be seen that the primary root is more or less horizontal, and there is not much going on below about 8":
Is this root dead or nearly dead, should it also have those much finer roots?

This message was edited Aug 2, 2012 4:25 PM

This message was edited Aug 2, 2012 4:45 PM

This message was edited Aug 2, 2012 6:45 PM

Thumbnail by PeteB7
Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

Interesting, that a wine maker mentions, on this thread, how one grape grower, with excellent results in clay soil, put on 3 to 4 feet of topsoil! See post by green-zeus one post before the last:

That's one raised bed.

Charlotte, NC(Zone 7b)

PeteB7 - Knockout roses will grow in clay. Mine are in pots of potting mix, but the roots have grown through the pots into the clay. It's hard to kill Knockout roses!

I gave a cutting to my neighbor and she just stuck it in the ground and it grew and bloomed like crazy!

My blueberries are in raised beds filled with peat moss. I usually use coir in raised beds, but the peat moss is quite acid. I then mulch with pine needles and fertilize with fertilizer especially formulated for acid loving plants.

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

Thanks for the tips again, that's what I need hard to kill plants!
Home Run roses are a derivative of Knockouts so I expect them to do as well, good to know then don't mind clay.

There are a few pesty ones around here, lots of poison Ivy, Virginia creeper, wild grapes, and these thorn bushes that I dislike very much but seem to grow like weeds. Anyone know what these common thorn bushes are that do not flower and grow like weeds? They line the border of our back yard boundary with the woods and grow so much that I have to cut them back each year so I can mow the lawn up to them.

Yes, I have read that about Blueberry plants needing very acidic soil. I'll probably go with 50% peat to lower the current 6.0 PH. Will probably mix it then test the PH to see if it needs any treatment. Also read about pine being acidic and good for them. Check about the fertilizer, so do you use Miracid, Hollytone ... or something else?

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

>> common thorn bushes

What I always called "briars" turned out to be Himalayan Blackberries (I think).

But I never saw no berries! roots and vines that would stretch forever, and come right back next year no matter how many yards of rolots I pulled up.

Charlotte, NC(Zone 7b)

Pete - I use holly tone from Espoma

Hmm... don't remember where I purchased it!

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

I found it at HD, Lowes, etc. it seems to be a favorite organic brand.

This message was edited Aug 5, 2012 10:53 PM

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

Rick, these are shrubs without vines, like a rose bush that grows like crazy but without flowers.

Charlotte, NC(Zone 7b)

Glady you found the Holly Tone, Pete. I probably purchased mine at Lowe's, too.

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

We now have 3 holes dug and one Home Run rose planted. It came by mail cut down to about 12" in a gallon container and bloomed within 2 days of planting, now after 5 days it has about 4 red roses, but it is so short! I'm sure it will shoot up next Spring.

Second hole drained only slightly better than the first and the 3rd is draining 2" in 12 hours which is much better but still not very good. The third (rose near front door) is .17"/hr, second (rose near driveway) .21"/hr and the first .16"/hr.

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

Sometimes I prop up a hoop of garden fence or even chcike3n wire over a bed, and throw plastic over it, to divert excessive rain out of a bed. Like a hoop tunnel, but flimsy. We seldom have high winds.

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

That is a good idea but we do have high winds often. It started raining about an hour ago and it is really coming down. I went to and it says flood advisory until 2:45, it is now 2:45, lol! I look outside and the first hole is about an inch away from full! The two rose plantings look fine without any puddling around them.

I want to try to find out the actual rainfall for today when it is all over. Is there a good site for this info?

This message was edited Aug 10, 2012 1:48 PM

This message was edited Aug 10, 2012 1:49 PM

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

Power outages, chance of winds up to 60 MPH! We are not getting the watch for high winds that is 30 miles North of us with a Tornado watch also!

This message was edited Aug 10, 2012 3:09 PM

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

I use for 10 and 30 day forcasts.

The ribbon in the upper 1/4 of the page has a "Farmer's Forcast" as the far-right button. This will display degree-days over any date range you specify.

You probably have to choose your own ZIP code som ewhere else in the site, or maybe you can edit the above link by just substituting your zipcode for mine.

I see "past 24 hours precip".

Under "Almanac", there is a row for "Reported Conditions" that lists high and low temops, AND PRECIP, for "yesterday", "Last 7 Days" and "Month to date".

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

Thanks, I do use but had not noticed those features and I did also use google but was unable to find exactly what I wanted. Good to know about the Farmers section. said we got 1.18" that day (and I think we got most of it over a one hour period) which seems low since the hole filled to the top by the time it was over. I think the answer was that I had several piles of soil dug out that were high points so they all drained into the hole. If I raise the top of the planting just a few inches higher, then water will tend to run to other lower spots. In general the front lawn and driveway are well graded so that they drain down to the street. On the other hand the gutters collected all the water over the surface area of the roof and somewhat flooded the front of the house. The front did drain fairly quickly and the hole is not really that close to the gutter down spouts. But we got a lot of water in a short period of time.
I also have e-buckets and they drained fine, I did not see a puddle in the top of the buckets:

The worst I remember in this house was Tropical Storm Allison in 2001 where it states here that we got 7.2" and I think it came in 2 days, most over a few hours one day as I remember:
They say NY got 3" in one hour! Take that over the area of a roof and you have a lot of water coming down the gutters!

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

>> I had several piles of soil dug out that were high points so they all drained into the hole.

I know what you mean! There's a turnaround in front of my yard with a slight slope toward me. It's a very slight slope, b ut a relatively large paved turnaround. When rqain is more than just a mist, I get a lot of run-off. I dug a deep trench and laid some corrugated perforated pipe to keep that run-off OUT of my beds.

>> If I raise the top of the planting just a few inches higher, then water will tend to run to other lower spots.

I like to dig down rather than build up, so that I lower "the water table". But a raised berm deflects surface runoff and is probably much easier to construct. Especially if your soil is sticky enough that it won't be washed away, and the water won't just permeate right through it.

Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

Finally got around to having my boys and their friend help out - mainly to dig holes. I got a bit carried away and purchased more blueberry plants, 2 semi dwarf cherry trees, and a Himrod grape vine. The roses went in months ago, two of the 6 blueberry plants and the grape vine went in yesterday, rest going in very soon.

I removed all the soil from the root balls, dead roots, and tried to fix up any root spiraling as best as I could. Did this to all but one of the cherry trees. I don't really know how to root prune but I just let anything loose fall off and straightened things out as best as I could.

I read that Blueberries rely heavily on mycorrhizal fungi for growth and was thinking that with root pruning it is removed. Wondering if I have to find a source for this and buy some? They say it grows on grass roots and I was wondering if I could just put a few plugs of grass roots in there to provide a source?

Wake Forest, NC(Zone 7b)

I skipped abut 20 of the comments above because I'm getting hungry and wanted to say that, I think, gypsum is used to raise pH so would be a bad choice for blueberries. My backyard, mostly red clay, is sloped so extra water just runs off. It is pH from 4.2 to 4.6 and i have had very good luck with my blueberries.

Thumbnail by pbyrley
Trumbull, CT(Zone 7a)

Thanks for the tip, I'll look into that.

We have storm Sandy coming today, hope it isn't too bad.

Montreal, QC(Zone 5b)

I answered this on another thread, but thought I would post it here.
I have a very clay soil and it's true things will grow. I have added everything. There was a product from the U.S. called Profile and it's a ceramic type of soil amendment. If the soil is too heavy it lightens it and if it's too sandy it helps it retain moisture. I haven't been able to find it in Montreal anymore. At some point it was in the bags of soil, but alas no more. the point being it stays in the soil once you add it in and it helps soil retain the nutrients that you add like compost, fertilizer, etc. It worked a miracle in my soil. It's natural from what I understand and if you can get your hands on it, I would highly recommend it! There were places my shovel could barely make a dent and it lightened it up and made it so much more workable.

ps we're going to get some nasty weather from Sandy as well! Good luck!

Everett, WA(Zone 8a)

According to Ran Prieur, who cites a botanist friend, blueberry mycorrhizal fungi are unusual and probably not commerically available. If you can find a healthy old bluberry bush, dig some soil from among its roots and use that as an innoculent. It seems to be that soil around wild blueberries would be as good a source.

He also suggests as an alternative soil from under these:
"wild vaccinium / cranberry / heath / rhododendron / heather plant in decending order of preference"

Someone else mentioned red huckleberries (Vaccinium parvifolium) as if they might harbor related mycorhiz.

I read someone, somewhere, who had the opinion that, when it came to microbes, "everything is everywhere" and that, if the conditions were right, enough spores of the needed type would be near enoguh, would sprout and mujltiply. I wonder how true that is with unusual microbes that are symbiotic with just certain uncommon species?

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