How to Design a Yard Drainage System


Most homeowners want to improve their landscaping at some point. Even those who won't change everything can find spots where water sits or where heavy rains cause erosion. A yard drainage system applies rules developed by landscapers to use the "free" water that falls from the sky. By draining standing water areas and conserving your use of community water sources, you will be a good neighbor as well. Spend some time watching where water goes in your yard, and then plan ways that you can use more of it in your little corner of the water cycle.

Step 1

Make a map of your yard using a copy of your survey plat or another accurate map. Begin by adding geographic features and their heights.

Step 2

Locate the direction of flow for rainwater. Water should flow toward the storm sewer or any other water collection feature, like a stream or pond. Water that falls on your yard should flow toward that collection feature, but the best drainage plans provide ways for the water to be used by plants or absorbed by the underlying soil in the yard before it runs off.

Step 3

Add creeks and swales---long, low areas that carry water, often located between yards or along backyard boundaries. Plan to add ground covers or gravel "streams" for swales and wetland plants for streamside planting so that you control erosion and catch runoff water. Consider a pond for retention of storm water.

Step 4

Note areas around buildings where water may seep into foundations. Soil should drop away from walls with a slope of about 6 degrees. Plan extra soil, gravel or French drains around buildings to keep water out of basements and away from concrete and wood foundation elements. Add rain barrels or cisterns to your plan to collect rainwater for use in the garden and thus conserve your use of city water and limit runoff.

Step 5

Measure steep slopes and add features to your plan to shorten and flatten them with terraces using cross-tie or stone retaining walls. Design terraces with low-maintenance, thick-rooted plants like daylilies and hostas to help keep water in place.

Step 6

Check out low spots in your lawn. If a foot-deep hole filled with water once and then filled again does not drain quickly, plan ways to connect it to other low spots in a swale. Alternatively, you can improve drainage by filling a 4-foot hole with 3 feet of gravel and then leveling it off with topsoil.

Tips and Warnings

  • Underground drains and the trenches used to lay them require familiarity with how water flows and use of specific safety measures. If you need a system of French drains, consult a hydrological engineer who specializes in landscaping. Consult a professional about a sinkhole, no matter how small. It may appear to be an easy matter to fill it with gravel and top it with soil, but it may also be part of a larger drainage problem that may affect neighbors' yards, as well as your own.

Things You'll Need

  • Map
  • Architect's (scaled) ruler
  • Measuring tape
  • Shovel


  • Walter Reeves: Predicting Drainage Problems

Who Can Help

  • Virginia Cooperative Extension: Water Quality
  • Iowa State University Extension: Home Landscape Planning
Keywords: design drainage, drainage system, yard landscaping

About this Author

Chicago native Laura Reynolds has been writing for 40 years. She attended American University (D.C.), Northern Illinois University and University of Illinois Chicago and has a B.S. in communications (theater). Originally a secondary school communications and history teacher, she's written one book and edited several others. She has 30 years of experience as a local official, including service as a municipal judge.