Thursday, July 14

The One Where Everything is Muddy {How We Installed a Backyard Drainage System}

This summer brought one of the the biggest, dirtiest, most labor intensive home-maintenance projects we've ever tackled. There's nothing like a little bit (or a lot) of mud to keep things interesting on the homefront. So hold on to your hats! This is the story of how we turned our backyard river into... you know... a normal backyard.

When we first toured this house we loved it, but as soon as we walked out the backdoor and saw the big deck overlooking two beautiful acres we were sold.

That was at the end of winter. We moved in just as spring came. The property looked even better when it was green. Then it started to rain. And rain. And the lowest part of the yard started to fill with water. And I mean really fill with water. It was like a small river running through the yard while it rained, then turned into a pond at the south end with a creek trickling out the North end for days after when the rain stopped. Over time it would get lower until the rain came again, but I didn't think it would ever really be dry again! We never mowed the center of the yard because the mud was so deep. Turns out, the ground has an abundance of clay and lacks any real drainage. Conclusion: Indiana is a swamp. We live here now.

 These boys love mud. And clay.

So we did a little googling and hatched a plan to improve our drainage. The flood zone was pretty flat at the south end of the yard, but the north end slanted toward the north and right into a culvert that runs under the neighbors yards and the street. Perfect. So we bought a van-full of material (we had a roll of pipes inside and one tied to the rack on top). (More details on the materials coming up in a second.) But first - the big dig. We waited for things to dry up a bit more, then enthusiastically grabbed our shovels to start digging the 200 ft. trench. This is the first hole I dug:

It immediately filled with water. This might be harder than we thought. The boys had a hey-day, of course. I turned my back to try a drier area and heard hysterical laughter followed by "Mommy! My brudder throw-ed a snowball at me!"

I don't think that was a snowball, son.

So we waited another couple days and moved farther north to a drier area to try again. This time no water pooled and the mud was less saturated and easier to turn over. But this is where we discovered the tree roots. So. many. roots. We dug about 5' and barely found a place to get our shovels in without hitting one. I declared the whole project a lost cause and started shopping for paddle boats for our little pond. Okay, not really. But I was close, man. Still, we fully intended to dig this whole thing.

That's when an angel of light descended into our backyard. His name was Steve. He lives down the street. And he has a backhoe. We were saved. His trusty little tractor putted across the whole property turning over mud and ripping out roots like they were nothing. In the matter of a couple hours, he finished what we probably would still be working on without him.

New life goal: be a neighbor like Steve.

And just like that, the trench was dug.

We did have to go back in two places and muscle out some serious roots that even the backhoe couldn't handle. I spent 45 minutes on this one with our beloved bear saw. It did the job beautifully, even under water. And once I finally realized there was a root running straight down and cut it the whole thing came right out.

Luckily the Bigger Badder Root was in a drier part of the yard so we could use electricity. Husband worked on this one even longer with the reciprocating saw, bear saw, and a hatchet before he finally got it out of there. It was another case of a hidden root going straight down under it. So watch out for that, k?

Then it rained again and we had to wait for everything to dry out. Again. But even with just our muddy trench, the water drained out of our yard faster than ever. We began to feel more optimistic about things.

Now at long last, with a (nearly) dry trench, it was time to start laying some pipes. Here's what we went with (using Lowe's stock photos. photography fail on my part.):

4" Corrugated Pipes
We chose these over pvc pipe largely because they were cheaper and we had a lot of ground to cover. (The difference added up pretty quickly!) With just about 200' from the "pond" to the culvert, we went with 100' of perforated pipe for the south end of the yard (it has holes all along it for water to seep in) and 100' of solid pipe for the north end (it was cheaper and we didn't really hold water at that end anyway). Make sure all the other pieces you buy fit 4" pipes!

Soil Separator Fabric
Next up was a roll of soil separator fabric. This wraps around the perforated pipe to help keep mud and junk from seeping in with the water.

Catch Basin
A catch basin is basically a small bucket you bury in the ground. It collects water and pours it through the pipes faster than waiting for it to seep in the perforated pipe (so it's great for areas with large amounts of standing water, or where water is coming in quickly). We chose a single outlet catch basin for the beginning of our pipe (the far south end), then two double outlet basins to install along the length of the perforated pipe where  the yard held the most water. They are super easy to install, just cut the pipe where you want to add the basin and snap the end of the pipe in place.

Grates & Couplers
Don't forget grate covers for each catch basin! You'll also need couplers any place you need to join two pipes together without a catch basin.

At this point there was still a little water running through the trench (I think the whole neighborhood basically drains across our backyard) but we plowed forward before it rained even more!

We went through the trench with a 3' level and a shovel to flatten everything and make sure we had at least a slight downward slope all the way to the culvert, and to check the depth (the depth we needed was predetermined by our catch basins, we just lined up the top of the basin with the ground and matched the opening for the pipes.).

We unrolled the soil separator on top of the trench (starting at the south/wet end), then laid the perforated pipe on top of it... and watched it float. Hmmm.

We cut in the catch basins where we thought they would be most useful, and used a coupler to attach the solid pipe and run the rest of the distance across the yard. We wrapped the soil separator around to get everything tucked in and snug.

Then... we buried the whole thing. It took hours. I worked on it during the day while the kids played in the yard, Husband worked on it when he got home at night. This is when the great Shovel vs. Hoe debate began. I'm here today to tell you a hoe is the way to go when you bury a pipe. So much easier to pull dirt into the ditch than to shovel and lift, shovel and lift. Husband disagreed. Something about going faster and bigger scoops.

Anyway, we buried the pipe, then we stomped on it to pack down the dirt/mud/clay, then filled it in some more (we became much more careless toward the end and had to go back and fill in some holes later). We waited for it to rain a couple more times (this helped pack it down more) and filled it in again. Confession: I just finished leveling out the lumps, filling in holes, and remove the extra last week. We put the pipe in like two months ago. Oops. Then we planted grass seed across all the dirt. Whew. I can finally say we are DONE with this muddy mess.

Happy little grate peeking out.

Now there's something you need to know about me: at some point, in almost every project we take on, I announce it's "the worst project we've ever done." Usually when I'm tired or hot or hungry. Basically the same reasons our two-year-old throws a fit. But this... this takes the cake. I think it's actually the worst, harderst project to date. But it had to be done since we don't want to worry about the boys drowning in the lawn. And now that it's behind us, we can see that it was totally worth it. When it pours we get a little bit of water through the yard, but it's gone almost as soon as the rain stops. And the mud usually dries up in just a day.

If you need us, we'll be enjoying a dry backyard with these crazy nuts.

So let's hear it - what's the worst project you've ever had to tackle?


  1. I love this post, your blog is a blessing - keep up the good work.
    Much appreciation from Israel :)

    1. Thank you! Love hearing from international readers! :)

  2. Trying to replace the carpet in our master closet with wood flooring. Not square, or rectangular for that matter. We did great but realized that if we were to ever sell the house, we'd have to have someone experienced lay the bedroom flooring. We did and they did.