How to Fix a Muddy backyard – if you have a mud, you need solutions. I hope this post helps you quickly solve your soil and drainage issues and get you started towards planting a sustainable rain garden.
Every gardener will tell you that their plot is the worst. It is the coldest, hottest, driest, weediest, awkwardest, sandiest, chalkiest, patch of struggle that won’t grow anything, to ever exist.
“You have no idea…”, they all say.
Believe me, I do have an idea, and I am here to put and end to the jockeying. I don’t care if you live on the Cliffs of Moor, the Dunes of cape cod, the side of Pikes Peak, the edge of the literal Outback, or in the tundra of Canada. The hands down hardest place to make a garden is in a mud pit.
A muddy backyard is demoralizing. When it is wet, it’s impossible to walk on, it covers you in its gunk, looks a mess and gives you absolutely nothing for your efforts. (Thoughts and prayers for those of you with dogs!) And when it is dry, it becomes an impenetrable rock. It constantly makes itself worse the longer it sits (oh the smell!) and of course all the most vicious of backyard bugs are drawn to its unique grotesqueness. Muddy yards are the worst.
How to fix a Muddy Backyard
A mucky mess is fixable – but before we talk about muddy backyard solutions, you need to understand a two things first.
- Everything you might want to do in your garden is secondary to the mud issue. Stop all other plans and deal with the water first – dealing with drainage issues has the potential to change the entire function of your yard’s ecosystem. The mud controls everything and trumps everything … ALWAYS SOLVE A DRAINAGE PROBLEM FIRST. And… (to answer the most common question about muddy backyard fixes…)
- NO, PLANTS CAN’T FIX DRAINAGE PROBLEMS. Why does everyone think this? Water loving plants can deal with wet conditions (as in, they will survive and maybe even thrive, and I’ll talk about some of them below) – but they are not mops. Plants are awesome and can do amazing things, but sopping up too much water is not one of them. Stop thinking plants can save you from the flood – and refer back to my first point – fix the drainage issue!
Assessing the Muddy Backyard
If you have mud, it is either because your soil can’t hold any more liquid or because the liquid is trapped. Most likely it is both. The problem with mud is that once you have it, it often propels you into an ever worsening downward cycle situation where the mud perpetuates even more mud.
Healthy draining soil has air pockets in it that let water percolate through. The air pockets also create space for plant roots and all the organism that live inside this underground ecosystem to move around. (want to learn more about all the amazing things in your soil?)
When soil is saturated, not only do things start to literally drown (so plants and organisms that create air-pockets die and stop helping you correct the situation), but also smaller particles start to move around with the water, and when they settle (usually at the bottom of a soil layer) they can make the drainage issue even worse.
We can use this silt settling to our advantage when we want to create a clay bottom pond (no liner required… the extra silty soil seals in the water!). But when it is in your back yard and you don’t want it to be a boggy lake, the settling of smaller particles, coupled with the death of everything good, can turn a one time flooding event into an ever-worsening cycle of yard decline.
Practical Solutions for Fixing the Mud
The solution to mud is to increase drainage and to protect the soil from over-compaction.
How to evaluate the severity of the drainage issue and identify specific problem areas:
- Observe where the most water gathers. Where are the last places to dry out? These are your low spots and your natural swales.
- Which way does the water run to drain? Is it getting stuck or trapped along its exit route?
- Where is the water coming from? Can it be re-routed? Can some of the water go another way?
- What is your soil like? It is compacted? Clay? Sand? Something in between?
You can improve drainage in a variety of ways. The most common are to install French drains or gravel trenches to redirect water flow. These are highly effective and typically work for most homeowners. You can also create swales or berms to divert excess water away from the yard.
Implementing Hardscape Features can also help.
When we walk on wet soil, we exacerbate the drainage issue because we further compact the soil – making it even harder for the water to drain away. The solution – build a pathway using stepping stones or gravel to minimize direct contact with muddy areas. Alternatively, you can install a deck or a patio over the mud using budget-friendly materials like concrete pavers or composite wood
(I’m not a huge lover of composite woods – but in a very wet situation – these are the most cost effective way to building something over the mud that will also have longevity).
Enhance the Soil
Many people fail to simply dig a hole and look at the soil to understand what is happening.
Clay soil will not drain as well as other types of soil- and sometimes the layer of clay is buried and you don’t even know it is there. Dig a hole at least a foot deep and examine your soil for layers and familiarize yourself with what it is like under there. Understand also that soil can vary widely across a yard (so dig multiple holes – look for areas that are different and get curious to figure out why).
Incorporate organic matter, such as compost, into the soil to improve its drainage capacity. In extreme situations, sand can also be added to increase drainage. You might also consider raised garden beds or container gardening to prevent soil compaction and give yourself healthier areas for growing that don’t require remediating your entire yard.
LEARN MORE ABOUT SOIL!
>>>Renowned agronomist Dale Strickler (author of The Complete Guide to Restoring your Soil and The Drought Resiliant Farm) recently joined PITH + VIGOR as part of our ongoing garden makers lecture series to share strategies for fixing your soil. Learn directly from him about how to fix your soil in his fascinating and empowering lecture. <<<
Use Ground Covers
While plants can’t soak up the water, their roots can help to stabilize the soil. If there is excess water, often the top soil is prone to being washed away. In addition to grasses (which tend to have particularly deep and web like root systems that are great for soil retention) other low maintenance ground covers can be nurtured to control mud.
Moss and clovers thrive in soils that grass will not and are also great options that you shouldn’t ignore or malign.
Select appropriate Rain Garden plants
Muddy yards are excellent places to build rain gardens. I’m working on a few rain garden posts to help you know how to create one for yourself. (Rain garden creation comes up regularly in my online garden design courses – so I know there is a need).
But for now – the basics is to focus on plants that are typically able to tolerate both periods of excess moisture and drought.
A rain garden a depressed area in your garden where you corral water so that it isn’t flooding everywhere else. Then in this area, you plant very strategically – you focus on plants that are ideal for rain gardens. These plants will thrive excessive moisture, prevent erosion, and attract pollinators but they will also live when things inevitably dry out too.
Remember to consider your specific climate and soil conditions when selecting plants for your rain garden.
Here is a list of common rain garden plants:
- Cardinal Flower (Lobelia cardinalis)
- Blue Flag Iris (Iris versicolor)
- Joe Pye Weed (Eutrochium purpureum)
- Swamp Milkweed (Asclepias incarnata)
- Blue Vervain (Verbena hastata)
- Switchgrass (Panicum virgatum)
- Ostrich Fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris)
- Black-eyed Susan (Rudbeckia hirta)
- Turtlehead (Chelone spp.)
- New England Aster (Symphyotrichum novae-angliae)
- Buttonbush (Cephalanthus occidentalis)
- Marsh Marigold (Caltha palustris)
- Liatris (Liatris spp.)
- Culver’s Root (Veronicastrum virginicum)
- Blue Lobelia (Lobelia siphilitica)
Ongoing maintenance of a less muddy backyard
Remember, if the wet problem persists despite your efforts, it may be beneficial to consult a professional landscaper or horticulturist who can provide tailored advice and solutions for your specific garden conditions.
Regular maintenance is always required (a garden is never done!). Keep an eye on your garden’s drainage patterns and make adjustments as needed. Regularly inspect and clean drainage systems, remove debris, and monitor plant health to address any ongoing issues.
Images from: Gardening with Wyatt.