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How to handle your messy, muddy yard

It's the time of year when people's thoughts turn toward their gardens. This new weekly feature -- Great Gardening -- by local expert Sally Cunningham, is the 26th entry in our 30 in 30 campaign. Cunningham -- a landscape consultant, author, and go-to resource for everything that grows in our soil -- will help you with all you need to know to enjoy the gardening season.


The yard is a muddy mess, a river runs through the lawn, and the garden has gullies. What to do?

This time of year is often called Mud Season. But not all yards are affected equally. Some folks have no standing water or mud runoff, by virtue of luck (your location or soil type) or because the landscaper planned for proper "drainage."

Drainage is a topic that makes people yawn -- maybe the least exciting aspect of gardening or landscaping. (Would you attend a talk on drainage?) Yet, drainage can make a landscape terrific or terrible. Trees, shrubs, perennials and annuals live or die because of good or bad drainage. And when drainage is bad, you wreck your new shoes in the wet lawn, the dog tracks mud all over the kitchen floor and you can't plant flowers until June.

"Drainage" is how water moves through your soil and plantings. If you have good drainage, you see puddles only briefly in the spring, the lawn dries out quickly and the soil is ready for planting (with a nice crumbly feel) early in the season.

If you have poor drainage, water stands in puddles for long periods and you're among the last to plant anything (or you damage the soil by gardening when it's still wet).

At first blush, people think it's all about whether you're high on a hill or in the valley. And, yes, surface water runs downhill so low points can flood or collect a lot of water runoff after a big rainstorm or snow melt. But you can live high on a hill and still have poor drainage. That's because it's also about the soil and geology.

Clay soil is common in Western New York. Clay is heavy, compacts easily and simply cannot absorb moisture. Clay is made of tiny, tight particles with little air space between them; it's not porous. While water runs through sandy soil, with its big pore spaces, it just sits on clay. It's great for ponds; maybe not for lawns. Sound familiar?

Finally, the underlying geology -- the rock formations and the location of the water table -- create the big picture in your drainage situation. You can pipe and trench and create catch basins, but they won't help if the water table is higher than the drainage outlets you're offering. Water still won't flow uphill!


From simplest to most difficult, here are some ways to solve your drainage troubles:

*Add compost: When soil is clayey and won't absorb water, you need compost. Mixed into clay, it acts as a sponge, absorbing and holding the moisture. Make your plants happy.

*Raise the bed, elevate the planting: For flowers or vegetables, raised beds drain well and let you plant much sooner in the season. On a larger scale, changing the grade of the whole landscape or building a berm will get those plant roots above your lake of standing water. Berms should be built as large, wide plateaus. A little mound of soil packed around a tree's root ball is not a berm.

*Rain gardens: If runoff from the roof heads toward the basement, consider a rain garden. It's a boggy area full of plants that take up lots of moisture, placed at the right distance from your house to capture the excess moisture.

*French ditches, French drains: Some DIY types can create a French drain but be careful: Use the 811 number (Call Before You Dig) and know where you are directing the water (or you could have a lawsuit or at least bad neighborly relations.) A French drain is a trench that's layered with landscape fabric, gravel and sand, and then covered with soil and sod.

*Engineering: Underground pipes, trenching and catch basins are just some of the other techniques that some landscapers, architects and civil engineers have to offer. Serious drainage problems aren't simple; choose professionals carefully.

>Living with the water

On the other hand, there are those who have lemons who love to make lemonade. If you have standing water and wet locations, why not celebrate it? When someone tells me, "Oh dear, that part of the yard is so wet," I think, "Great -- a place for Rodgersia and dogwoods!

Many plants naturally thrive next to streams or ponds and enjoy a wet yard. Just be aware that some locations are wet in spring but dry as a desert in the middle of summer, before you choose plants that "require" constant moisture. (Again, adding compost will help the soil hold moisture and those plants will be happier.) Try some from our listing of "Plants that Love Wet Locations."

Mud season is indeed here. If it's a big problem for you, there are solutions. For the rest of us, let's put on the mud boots, splash in a puddle, and laugh. Spring has sprung!


SATURDAY: Religion reporter Jay Tokasz will introduce readers to his new feature on places of worship around the region.

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