Category Archives: Water

Setting up a Soaker Hose

Looking back, one of the challenges of the summer was how to best keep the garden watered. Here was that story.

As the July weather heated up and the soil dried out, I realized that all the rain we had gotten in the spring wasn’t coming back. At least, not in the timeframe or quantity that my vegetable plants were calling for. To keep the soil around the plants moist, I considered a couple options: a sprinkler, mulch, and a soaker hose.

Last summer, I set up a sprinkler to water our new garden. That was sufficient for the cover crops.

Last summer, I set up a sprinkler to water our new garden. That was sufficient for the cover crops.

Last summer I had set up a sprinkler to water the vegetable garden. That was easy to do, however, it wasn’t very efficient. Drops of water soaring through the air tended to blow off course, evaporate, or wind up on the plants’ leaves instead of the soil. It also wasn’t ideal since the city water raised our water bill and contains chlorine.

Mulch was another consideration. I had heard from a few other gardeners that they didn’t need to water since their gardens had a thick layer of mulch. This option conserves water, however it means having to purchase a significant amount of mulch. This mulch would have to be purchased and delivered every year, and during droughts, I still might need to water. I added some straw as mulch, but was disappointed to see grass sprouting there later on. Unsure about the best logistics for this, I tabled this idea until I might be able to find a quality (seed free), cheap source of mulch.

I decided to try out a soaker hose. I wasn’t really sure how a soaker hose worked, which was the most appealing thing about this option. I wanted to see what it did and how well it worked. Essentially, a soaker hose is like a sprinkler, but it should be more efficient as it waters at the soil level and can be set-up wherever you want to put it. It also is cheap, except that it would still be calling on chlorinated city water. I found a Yardworks 50-foot soaker hose at Menard’s for $10.

The soaker hose package sounds impressive on the outside. Disappointing warnings are found inside.

The soaker hose package sounds impressive on the outside. Disappointing warnings are found inside.

The exterior packaging for the soaker hose sounded impressive. Here are some of the claims:
* 70% water savings (prevents water lost to evaporation and run-off)
* Steady, even soaking (perfect for gardens or shrubs and around walkways)
* Removeable coupler cap (for adding additional lengths of hose)
* 3-year limited guarantee

However, I was disappointed when I opened the package. Here are some of the interior warnings:
* Before using hose, place washer firmly into coupling at faucet end to ensure a watertight seal. This will help prevent leaking.
[I need to buy washers too? Or otherwise it will be leaking?]
* Do not leave hose under pressure while unattended or for extended periods of time.
[I need to babysit the hose while it’s on? Not much of a time savings.]
* Drain hose in the summer when not in use and keep it shaded as much as possible. Water left in hose in the sun will expand, damaging the hose.
[Wait a minute, shade the hose? My vegetable garden is in the sun! And how do you drain the hose without moving it? Having to move the hose defeats the convenience of having an irrigation system set up where you want it.]
* Drain hose completely before winter storage as water left in a hose can freeze, damaging the hose.
[Hmmmm, I sense an impending accident when I get busy in the fall and forget to bring the hose in before the first frost.]

Products these days are usually a disappointment. Why did I expect that a cheap soaker hose would be helpful time-saver, able to water my garden for years to come? It sounded more like it would leak all over and only last one summer. Yet, wanting to find out how it worked, I proceeded to pull the hose out of the packaging and set it up in the garden.

The first thing I noticed was that the hose was hesitant to straighten out. Being wound up in the package, it kept curling and didn’t want to stay in the assigned location. This was frustrating since the hose weighs enough that it can easily knock over delicate stems and take out a few plants. Looking back, I should have straightened the hose out on the grass first and perhaps used some U-shaped landscaping stakes to hold it in place as I went along.

When the soaker hose is being used, droplets of water are released all over the hose.

When the soaker hose is being used, droplets of water are released all over the hose.

The second thing that I noticed was that when I turned it on, small droplets of water came out of all sides of the hose. I hadn’t been sure how the water would come out, so watching the hose drip was interesting. As the water fell, it only watered the soil directly beneath the hose. Soil a foot away from the hose was still dry. It would have been nice if the water had traveled a little farther from the hose so that more of the plants roots would be able to access the water.

Overall, it worked fine. It was a convenient way to water the soil around the plants while still taking care of my kids. I expect I will use it again next year.

Now with the garden winding down, I put away the soaker hose for the winter. I will need to remind myself to set it up early next year so I’m prepared for dry spells and so the plants can grow around it.

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Digging a Swale

As I had explained in the post Planning to Dig a Swale, we decided to dig a swale to redirect water away from our home. This isn’t the ideal solution for handling the rainwater, but in the short term, it should prevent a pond next to our house during heavy rains and keep water from pouring into our basement. In the future, we’ll find ways to channel this water into the ground.

The first thing we did was to measure and insert stakes into the ground at the proposed corners of the swale. We inserted the first stakes two feet from the lot line (to make lawn mowing easy on that side) and then measured another two feet over for the other stakes. Some twine was laid out between the stakes as a guideline.

After marking the location of the swale, we removed the sod.

After marking the location of the swale, we removed the sod.

Next, we removed the sod from the marked location. The dimensions of the swale are 48 feet long by 2 feet wide, so this produced a large amount of sod. If we had been able to finish this project in a couple days, we could have reused the sod after digging the swale. However, that wasn’t an option, so we piled the sod up in one of the compost bins to make use of later.

Next, we dug the soil out in the swale and adjacent to the pond location. One question was how deep to go in the swale. We wanted it to be deep enough that the water along the house would flow into the swale, but also high enough that the water would still be able to travel away from the house. This proved to be difficult to judge. My husband purchased a laser level, which helped a little, and we tried to use a string to look for irregularities, but the best test was to turn on the hose and see if the water flowed the way we wanted it to. A couple heavy rains helped us to see the effect of the ground’s depth just by looking out the window. The sides of the swale are steeper than they perhaps should be, so we will need to keep an eye out for erosion, but since the ground is such a heavy clay, I don’t expect it will move much. We piled the large amount of dug-up soil next to the house for later regrading.

While digging, we came across a couple of large roots from the Oak tree next to the swale. We didn’t want to chop through the roots and hurt the tree, so instead, we dug tunnels under the roots. The idea is that the water will just flow around roots and keep moving. It seems to be working so far, but we’ll have to keep an eye on that area to make sure that sediment doesn’t build up there and clog the swale. Some of the small roots got chopped, but we tried not to harm them in hopes that they will just get buried again and be fine.

I bought a yard of compost at the Bruce Company and used my Dad's truck to haul it home.

I bought a yard of compost at the Bruce Company and used my Dad’s truck to haul it home.

To prepare for the swale project, we had purchased one yard of shredded compost from the Bruce Company. My Dad helped me haul it home with his truck and it was great fun taking it across the backyard to dump it on a low corner of the yard. That compost would be used for enriching the soil in the swale when we wanted to regrow some grass (it looked unlikely to grow well with only the clay soil). We also thought we could use some of the compost for regrading or filling in some low areas in the yard. We could also use some compost for preparing a strawberry bed or adding to the vegetable garden… compost is just so useful. A yard looks like a lot at the garden center, but when you actually bring it home, it’s not as much as you thought it was. We’ll see how far it goes.

After the swale was in place, we added an inch of compost and then watered it. I handspread grass seed (the package instructed 12 seeds per inch, not 5 or 30) and straw and then lightly watered it again. I set up a sprinkler to make the daily task of watering a little easier.

After the swale was dug, an inch of compost was added along with grass seed and chopped straw.

After the swale was dug, an inch of compost was added along with grass seed and chopped straw.

Our next project will be to regrade along the side of the house. We already can see a great deal of water going through the swale during heavy rains, meaning that we should have less water by the house. But it’s equally important to get rid of the low area right next to the house so the water just doesn’t have a place to build up.

Planning to Dig a Swale

In my post about water in our basement, I mentioned all the rain we received this past winter and spring. Now, almost July, we are still receiving a significant amount of rain. According to Channel 3000, “southern Wisconsin is roughly 10 inches above the average for precipitation [this year], making it one of the wettest years on record so far.”

This past Wednesday morning, I had just published posts related to some initial steps we took to remediate our basement water issue, when what did I find in our basement again? Water.

We had hoped that our basement problems earlier this year were related to the frozen ground and lack of vegetation. Surely, the growing trees and perennials next to the house would drink up the water in the summertime. We had just dug the window wells deeper and removed the landscape timbers to improve drainage. But we had the same problems as before: a deep pond along the south corner of the house and water pouring in below two of our basement windows.

Water gathers on the southwest side of our house during heavy rainfall and then enters our basement.

Water gathers on the southwest side of our house during heavy rainfall and then enters our basement.

We decided to speed up our water in the basement project. I placed a call to Digger’s Hotline with plans to dig a swale this weekend to move some water away from the house.

The south corner of our house is a low area, not only on our property but also compared to our neighbors’ properties. Our house is built lower than our neighbors’ homes so regrading is limited by the height of our siding and the height of the neighbor’s yards. I’m a big fan of wetlands, but when one unexpected forms right next to my house and then invites itself in, it’s difficult for me to click ‘like’ on that. There isn’t room to slide the wetland away from the house. What we do have room for is a narrow swale, catching the water falling from both our property and the surrounding area and channeling it along our lot line away from our house.

Unfortunately, a swale along the lot line means that some of this water will probably end up in the street and sewers. This is sad. Rainwater is a mostly clean source of free water for us all. When it goes to the sewage treatment plant, it wastes energy as it becomes mixed with chemicals. We don’t yet have a rain barrel, but even a rain barrel (at only 50 gallons) would only hold a small percent of the water that pools up by our house. Water containers can be purchased at 250 gallons, but at over $250, they are expensive.

Another problem with water rolling onto the street is flooding. The corner by our house receives a rush of water from the two intersecting streets (and other properties). During heavy rains, the street by our house fills with puddles that reach to the elevated center of the road. Cars zig-zag around the deep water during these flash floods. The sidewalk also becomes one huge puddle. Among our neighborhood, our problem isn’t unique.

Rain gardens would be a good long-term solution for many of us neighbors to implement on our properties. Of course, a rain garden isn’t a quick project. We need to do some research and invest money into plants suitable for rain gardens. For now, we just have a shovel and a little time to dig those swales. But with more education and cheap access to rain garden plants, we could wisely sink the rainwater into the ground.

I was disappointed when I called the City of Madison Water Utility this year and asked about the Terrace Rain Garden Program. The person I talked to seemed to think that this program wasn’t worth the high cost. Perhaps I need to talk to someone else, because I think our property would be a good candidate for this project (if we could only ensure that the water doesn’t overflow into our basement).

In the meantime, we need to get the water away from our basement so that large-scale damage is not caused on our home. Then, once we have a swale, perhaps we could implement rain gardens at multiple points along the swale to absorb the water. To read about the swale we dug, check out Digging a Swale.

Improving Drainage by Window Wells

This past winter and spring during times of frozen ground and rain, we had a problem with water entering the basement under windows. Those two cute waterfalls and the long river to the floor drain meant that we couldn’t use that corner of our basement. It also meant that our basement could develop mold with all the moisture. We hoped to find a natural way to prevent water from getting in.

We had heard from some companies that specialize in basement water problems that digging the window wells deeper and adding medium-sized rocks would help prevent water build-up next to the windows. Given that rocks are cheap and we have a shovel, we decided to try implementing this solution.

The window well on the southwest corner of our house.

The window well on the southwest corner of our house.

First, we needed to purchase rocks. The Bruce Company sells 1 1/2 inch washed rock by either the shovel, bushel, or yard. They agreed to sell us a quarter yard for $8.50 and were very helpful making sure we got what we paid for. I brought our car to the garden center with five Menard’s buckets (each 5-gallon size) and we managed to fill them with half of the quarter yard. A second car trip brought home the second half of the load, another five buckets full. I was happy with the price. It turned out that a quarter yard was 70 shovels, which if we had paid by the shovel would have been $27.30 instead of the $8.50 for the quarter yard. It was worth it to buy in bulk and load up with all that we would need from the start.

The window well on the southeast corner of our house.

The window well on the southeast corner of our house.

Next, my husband did the real work. Over the course of two days, he dug the window wells down about 2 1/2 feet. Our normal shovels were too large and awkward for the cramped space, so he ended up using one of our kid’s miniature plastic shovels. He angled the hole away from the house about 1 foot. We weren’t quite sure what to do with the dirt that was removed: the first six inches was mixed with rocks and below that was mostly clay. We ended up piling it up on a tarp in hopes that we will find time to sift out the rocks. Then, we plan to mix that dirt with some healthier soil later when we regrade that side of the house. The window well also contained some black landscape fabric (a sheet about an inch down – now removed), small pieces of concrete (thrown away), and some large tree roots that had to be hacked out with a pruning shears and a saw. All in all, I am grateful to my husband for taking on this part of the project, digging upside-down in a small dark hole.

A yard stick shows the new depth of the window wells.

A yard stick shows the new depth of the window wells.

As it turned out, we will need to pick up a couple more buckets of rocks. We picked up about 6.75 cubic feet (a quarter yard), but we need about 2 more buckets (about 1.25 cubic feet) to finish filling the second window well up to the window level.

This project is part of a larger project to improve drainage and move water away from our house. Depending on the weather in the next few winters, we will see if this project turns out to be a success.

Removing Landscape Timbers

One of our projects this year is to improve drainage on the south corner of our house and keep water from entering our basement. While the wet conditions this past winter were not typical, and many Madison residents experienced unusual water in their basements like we did, I believe that extreme weather conditions are only becoming more common and an ounce of prevention now will prevent a pound of problems in the future.

The first part of our project was to remove the landscape timbers on the southwest side of the house. A landscaper had suggested that the timbers were preventing water from draining away. He suggested that they be removed prior to regrading along that side of the house. We decided that we could do this work ourselves, so we set to work in the spring to take out the timbers.

We thought that an axe and a wrecking bar would easily rip up some old timbers, but that wasn’t the case. Wearing safety glasses, we chipped, hacked, and pulled without managing to get the 3” x 4.5” x 8’ timbers apart. They did not want to budge. We worked around the nails with the axe so that we could get the wrecking bar under the nail head and try to pull it out, but mostly we got a lesson in the strength of our landscaping.

Progress finally came after we found our saw. It had been packed from our move to this house last June and was one of those things on our ‘missing’ list that we didn’t know we had anymore. My husband sawed the timbers into sections. This allowed him to remove enough material to get under the timbers and pull them out. We were surprised to find that there were 1.5-foot long timbers buried vertically in the ground and that the nails holding them all together were 8-inches long! It’s good to know they were installed by someone who cared enough to make the landscaping durable.

And now what do we do with the removed timbers?

And now what do we do with the removed timbers?

Water in the Basement

As usual, the weather here in Madison, Wisconsin, brought some surprises this past year. We moved into our house during a summer drought and watered sagging plants to try to save them. Then during the following winter, warm temperatures and heavy rains brought water into many basements in the area, including ours (despite a clean condition report that didn’t indicate water problems in the basement). One moment a drought, the next moment water in the basement. We really hoped this wasn’t typical weather.

Water entering our basement this past winter.

Water entering our basement this past winter.

While we were able to fare ok in our house during the drought, the winter weather was a problem that hit closer to home. As the temperatures rose and precipitation turned from snow to rain in January, water began to pool up on top of the frozen ground. With no where to go, it poured into our basement under two of the windows. We rushed to move our belongings away from that corner. Luckily, the water formed a river and flowed into the drain about 20 feet away. But part of our basement was now unavailable for storage.

We already had a sump pump and floor drain tiles along that corner of the basement, which seemed to be working. However, we wondered if there was anything wrong with our setup. Searching for answers, we contacted a couple of businesses that specialize in basement water problems. The businesses proposed to cut a hole in the basement wall under the windows and install drain pipes going to the sump pump. For $700, we could cycle water from our window wells, down to the sump pump, and then back out to the side of our house again. Hmmmm, it seemed like there should be a better solution. We didn’t want holes in the basement wall or fancy features which could become clogged or require repair. Rather, we wanted to prevent the water from coming near our house.

The south corner of our house is a low point on our property.

The south corner of our house is a low point on our property.

Next, we contacted some landscaping companies about how to keep the water away from the house. Some of them recommended digging the window wells deeper and adding rocks so that the water would drain down and not get saturated next to the basement windows. Another company proposed, for $1400, removing the timbers bordering the house’s landscaping, re-grading the soil next to the house, and adding a swale to move the water away from the house. We liked these ideas better since they sounded more natural. We didn’t need our sump pump running if we could just keep the water away in the first place. We decided to wait until spring to start our outdoor re-landscaping project.

April showers bring... a small pond along our house.

April showers bring… a small pond along our house.

As the weather got warmer, we hoped that the water problems would go away, but in April we had a couple weeks of rainfall which really got our sump pump running again. A small pond formed next to that same south corner of our house and Mallard ducks came to splash about.

The previous owners of the house had planted a number of hostas on the southwest side of the house. I can imagine that these plants helped absorb some of the water as it pooled up from heavy rainfalls in the summer, but unfortunately, they aren’t able to help in the winter and early spring. Likewise, a more formal rain garden or a rain barrel aren’t able to hold water at these times of year. Controlling the path of the water by re-grading and using swales or berms sounds like a better option to start with.

Here are my current thoughts for a complete solution:
1. Remove the landscaping timbers on the southwest side of the house.
2. Dig the window wells deeper and add rocks.
3. Dig a swale to channel water away from the house.
4. Use soil to re-grade along the southwest side of the house.
5. Raise the soil level in low areas to that of the surrounding area.
6. Add a rain barrel on the south corner of the house.
7. Add a berm around the south corner of the house to divert water to the swale.
8. Add a rain garden at the end of the swale to prevent water from making it to the sewer.

Since weather conditions could be quite different next year, we might not know for several years if our work pays off. But I’m inclined to believe that climate change will continue to bring extreme weather in the future and that any steps we take to improve the flow of water on our property will make a difference. I will post updates as we take on this water challenge.

Hostas on the southwest side of our house last summer.

Hostas on the southwest side of our house last summer.