Protect your landscape
from unwanted water

Don Evans - CorrespondentNovember 13, 2012 

From late July through mid-September, a lot of rain fell on the Triangle — 2 inches more than normal, in fact.

That extra rainfall meant that while many property owners gazed cozily out their windows at a drenched pastoral setting, what they really were looking at was their property washing away due to poor drainage, sloping ground or lack of protective ground cover.

The tell-tale signs that water has gotten out of control on a property are easy to spot — ponding, emerging tree roots where flowing water has carried away the topsoil, exposed drain pipes and mud and dirt collecting in corners of walkways.

None of that has to happen, according to landscaper Ken Leimone of 1st Choice Maintenance.

“The heavy downpours of late summer have been real difficult,” Leimone said. “We’ve had more calls for drainage work. Proper and well-maintained drainage will get rid of a lot of wash and erosion.”

And when it comes time to deal with drainage problems, Leimone said he always starts at the top. Because water has to flow downhill.

“If you wait for the water to get halfway down the hill, it will have built up speed and moved all that dirt from the top,” said Leimone, whose company works on projects in Raleigh, Durham and Chapel Hill with a fulltime staff of seven. “That will create a lot more problems than if you address it by building a short wall, for example, to slow the water or redirect that water away before it causes even more problems.”

The first thing Leimone studies when taking on an erosion problem is where the water’s going and if there’s some washing or obvious erosion problems. Then he looks for the best way to slow it or stop it, whether that be by creating a swale to divert the water or plant seeding to help keep the water from flowing. He also calculates where a retaining wall might work. Sometimes even rock drains, or dry creek beds will do the job.

For example, a swale with rocks lining it will be dry most of the time, but when it rains the water will hit it and flow away -- leaving the soil in its place. And that’s an outcome that is best for the land and the property owner.

With 20 years in landscaping, Leimone said that sometimes the most effective tool against water erosion is also the simplest —mulch, pine straw and plant coverage can make a world of difference in how water is broken up and absorbed into the ground.

By far, the most common waterproofing/landscaping problem Leimone encounters is improperly installed or badly maintained drains.

“A lot of water comes off the roof of a house,” he said. “Cutter pipes get clogged and water starts backing up. We seem to fix a lot of that.”

The right drainage system is crucial to keeping the soil in place around the foundation of a building and will divert excess water. Sloping the ground away from the outside foundation works well, but drains are a key component in any efficient war against water.

A box drain will collect water and then allow it to seep slowly into the ground. A French drain uses gravity to move excess water from problem areas in the yard, usually with a system of rock-filled ditches that are angled so that water will flow to a lower place on the property. Either system can effectively fight or stop erosion.

Terracing is another tool that landscapers have in their arsenal. Two years ago, Leimone worked on a project in Bahama that offered special challenges. The back yard was an erosion disaster area that consisted of a severe slope that became a washed slope whenever the rains came. Leimone built a multi-tiered wall system that included step-downs and a patio, all of which rearranged the land so that water’s role was negated. He added a patio and outdoor fireplace to make an entertaining area that transformed the back yard from a place to avoid to an attractive place for gathering.

Every landscaping project has its issues. Often, the biggest challenge can be to find room to direct the water in neighborhoods where the houses are close together and there’s not a lot of room for a drainage solution. One solution is to dig settlement pits for gutters and fill them full of rocks.

“Everybody captures everybody else’s water, and that gets magnified as you go downhill,” Leimone said. “It can be touchy – I’ve known neighbors to become untalking neighbors because of water issues.”

Sometimes, the problems start with the builder. Because builders are not landscapers, they tend to use the land as they can, with not much thought to soil and drainage issues.

“Most times they’re not concerned with water flow or drainage,” Leimone said. “They just want to back-fill the project and throw some grass seed and then move on to the next project.”

Leimone said the ideal building project would start with a landscaper’s advice on where to put drains and how to adapt the land to the realities of nature.

“Landscapers tend to know more about water on the land and how to make things slope,” he said. “Contractors don’t always see the things that we do.”

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