Dealing with standing water in your yard

standing water in the yard

Deal with standing water by adding topsoil or planting vegetation that prefers boggy areas. Photo: UME / Ask an Expert

Q: Our backyard has very low spots where the water ends up after heavy rains. How do I deal with this? I would like to plant a garden of shrubs and perennials but don’t think many can take that much water. Red maples and birch seem happy, but the hydrangeas I planted last year all died. It gets quite a bit of sun.

Most plants will not tolerate sitting in standing water or saturated, soggy soil for long periods. You may be able to add one to two inches of soil to fill in low spots or raise the grade enough so that water will run off better or at least not accumulate there. A steep grade is not necessary or desirable because in dry years you do want the water to sink into the soil and down to plant roots.

This past year we had abnormal rainfall — about twice the average. Many people lost plants in areas where they had grown for years but were now under water too much for the plants to survive. The maple you have may be red maple, which is happy even in a bog; the birch is probably a river birch. Hydrangeas love moist soil, but cannot tolerate standing water. In saturated soils, the water pushes out the oxygen roots need. Eventually, the plant drowns, unless it is a plant adapted to saturated soil, i.e. a bog.

You may have a good location for a rain garden. Many plants love this environment — some stunning natives in particular, such as button bush and clethra. (Both are also butterfly magnets!) Take a look at the University of Maryland Extension webpage on stormwater practices.

Don’t get bogged down (no pun intended!) with details. Just plant what likes “wet feet.” Native plants are the best. For more plant choices, look at the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service’s excellent publication, “Native Plants for Wildlife Habitat and Conservation Landscaping: Chesapeake Bay Watershed.” In the lists, ‘Plants for Freshwater Wetlands and Other Wet Sites’ should be helpful. (There is also the equivalent online database,

You may not have standing water continuously in the future. However, it is predicted that we can expect a lot more wet years and extreme weather ahead because of climate change. A rain garden is a smart way to handle this, as long as this spot does not hold water all summer (and breed mosquitoes). When you install a rain garden, the plant roots will be pulling in the water and drying up the low area, too.

By Ellen Nibali, Horticulturist, University of Maryland Extension Home and Garden Information Center. Ellen writes the Garden Q&A for The Baltimore Sun.

Have a plant or insect question? University of Maryland Extension’s experts have answers! Send your questions and photos to Ask Extension.

13 Comments on “Dealing with standing water in your yard

  1. Before you add soil to change drainage, make sure it stays on your property and does not become your neighbor’s problem. And check local ordinances on rules for grading.

  2. While adding soil over grass and weeds is easy, one must be cautious around existing woody plants to respect their root crowns. Don’t kill one tree/plant when plant another.

    • Correct. No more than 2 to 4 inches of soil should be added on top of existing tree roots. Adding a layer of soil that is too thick a can starve the root zone of oxygen.

  3. Is your backyard a “designated wetland ?” If if is, you can do nothing.

    • That’s correct. In addition to the trees mentioned in the article, black gum (Nyssa sylvatica), American sycamore (Platanus occidentalis), black willow (Salix nigra), and hackberry (Celtis occidentalis) are some native trees that tolerate wet areas and occasional flooding.

      • We have different versions of the same trees here (except for the species of Nyssa), but because they are dormant through winter, they do not consume any moisture when the soil is most saturated. Of course, the plants that are in the saturated area here are also dormant through winter, so do not mind the extra saturation.

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