Sometimes bad drainage can be improved by amending the soil, but other times that is just not enough.

Back when I was 23 years old and had no idea how to grow anything, my husband Brian and I bought our first home in Hillsboro. It was a cute little house built on what I thought was a flat lot. However, it seems that our lot sloped gently toward the back fence. The lot behind us also sloped toward the back fence. This may have been a good idea for keeping water out from under the houses, but it resulted in a small lake under the back fence whenever we had a hard rain.

The solution was simple, but a bit scary to a novice gardener. We had to install a French drain from the back of the garden to the intake of the downspout on the house.

Our second home was on top of Cooper Mountain, on the south end of 185th Avenue in Aloha. We had drainage issues there, too. We had a one-acre property that sloped gently to the southwest across the entire lot. In a heavy rain, all the water that didn’t soak into our abundant lawn would collect along the edge of the bed, then run 100 feet down to the corner of the lot. A dry creek bed was the solution that worked best in that garden.

When the need for the dry creek arose, my son had just been suspended for a week from high school for physically responding to a bully (aka fighting). So I thought digging a two-feet-deep, three-feet-wide, 100-feet-long stream bed was a reasonable use of his free time.

Once the stream bed was dug, including an outlet to our ditch along the street, I placed some interesting looking one- and two-foot boulders along the border, then scattered a layer of five- to seven-inch river rock. On top of the river rock I poured one- to three-inch river rock so it looked like a real stream bed. In the winter, the creek would flow as high as six inches with rain water. In the summer, it made a lovely accent in my side yard.

My present yard also had some drainage issues. Some I’ve dealt with and others are not a real concern. Occasionally during a heavy rain, our gravel patio in the Italian garden will puddle heavily, but the water usually soaks into the soil within an hour or two after the rain slows down, so I assume the gravel patio is doing its job of allowing water to percolate down into the soil. In the English garden, I accidentally created a small lake by gently berming the garden beds that surrounded the lawn. That problem was also solved by using a French drain and the downspout.

The answer to bad drainage is to help the water soak down into the soil or move the water away from the saturated soil. If the soil remains boggy, the roots will rot and your plants will die. That’s never a happy sight.

Ann Nickerson has lived and practiced landscape design in Tualatin Valley since 1993. You can contact via her at or by phone at 503-846-1352 with comments or questions.

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