Skip to main content

What’s a French drain? A fantastic way to rid your garden of excess water

Build your own French drain with these tips

A flooded lawn
rihaij / Pixabay

All plants need some amount of water, but they also all have a limit. Too much water can be even worse than too little water in some cases. During rainy weather, if water is pooling in parts of your garden it could spell disaster for your plants. Luckily, there are ways to drain the extra water away from your garden and direct it elsewhere. This simple guide to French drains will explain everything you need to know to answer the question, “What is a French drain?” and to learn about installation and maintenance.

What is a French drain?

A person digging into grass with a garden fork
Eugene_Brennan / Pixabay

As the name implies, a French drain is a type of drainage system. Think of it as a reverse irrigation channel; rather than carrying water to thirsty plants, it takes water away from drowning ones. The system itself is fairly simple. You put a pipe in a trench, which slopes away from the garden toward a storm drain, drainage ditch, or rain barrel.

It can also drain to any other place where the water won’t cause damage. You put gravel over the pipe to keep it in place without blocking the water’s access to the system. In addition to keeping excess water out of your garden, it can also stop basements or foundations from flooding or receiving damage from water. The only difference is where you put the French drain.

What are the pros and cons of a French drain?

A large marshy puddle in grass
eg6da6 / Pixabay

Pros

French drains are relatively easy to install yourself, but they’re also common enough that many landscaping or plumbing professionals offer French drain installation as a service. French drains are also effective. They remove excess water that’s pooling on the surface of your garden, but they can also drain water that has already been absorbed into the soil. Additionally, the materials used to make a French drain are relatively easy to find, and easy substitutions mean the budget required for the project is flexible.

Cons

While French drain installation is generally easy, there are some factors that complicate it. If your yard or garden is small, has multiple structures or features, or has electrical lines or plumbing running through or near it, then installing a French drain will be more difficult. French drain installation also involves quite a bit of digging, which can be hard on you physically. Additionally, it can be challenging to find a good place for the water to drain to.

Installing a French drain

A pile of corrugated drain pipes
paulbr75 / Pixabay

First, find the proper location for your French drain. It needs to be at a lower elevation so water will flow toward the drain. Take note of the places where water gathers after a storm, as this is where your drain is needed the most! Plan the route your drain will take before you begin working on it, and check the path for pipes, cables, or other obstacles.

Next, dig your trench. It should be roughly 1 foot wide throughout, but the depth will vary. Your pipe needs to run downhill to carry the water away. If your yard doesn’t have a natural slope, you’ll need to create the slope by digging the trench deeper as you move. Line the trench with drainage fabric, with plenty of excess left to wrap over the pipe. This will protect your pipe from becoming clogged while still letting the water through.

Then, add your pipe to the trench. The pipe should be perforated, meaning it has holes in it, so the water can enter the drain at any point. You can perforate your own pipe, but pre-perforated pipes are available at most hardware stores. Corrugated and PVC piping are the two most commonly used types of pipe for this. Corrugated pipe is more flexible, while PVC is more durable.

Next, add gravel around your pipe. Wrap the excess drainage fabric around the gravel and secure it with duct tape or wire. If the fabric doesn’t reach far enough, you can add a second layer of fabric over top and secure it with wire. Finally, refill the trench as much as possible with the displaced dirt. You will have some left over, which can you can use for other projects such as building a raised garden bed.

French drain maintenance

A person digging with a shovel in the garden
AdinaVoicu / Pixabay

The most important thing to watch for is a change in drainage. If you notice water building up on the surface of your yard or garden again, then most likely, your French drain is clogged. You can fix this with a long drain snake or sewer snake, such as one that you might use to unclog a sink. You’ll need to dig your French drain up for this. Some gardeners choose to attach surface connectors at the beginning and/or end of the drain. While it isn’t strictly necessary, it can make maintenance easier. Cleaning your French drain once a year as part of your regular home maintenance routine will keep it in good shape and help you catch blockages before they become severe.

French drains may not be the ideal solution for your garden, but they can be incredibly helpful. If water is building up in and around your garden or in other parts of your yard, then installing a French drain might be a good idea. Whether you’re planning a long system of multiple pipes to drain your entire yard or just need a short drain to keep water from building up around your vegetable patch, then hopefully, this guide has helped.

Editors' Recommendations

Cayla Leonard
Cayla Leonard is a writer from North Carolina who is passionate about plants.  She enjoys reading and writing fiction and…
What should you do if you find a snake in your garden?
If you run into a slithering intruder while gardening, here’s what to do
Brown and black snake near some purple flowers

Outdoor gardens are bound to have outdoor creatures in them from time to time, but not all creatures are popular. While you might be delighted to see a bird or bunny in your garden (or feel distraught, if they’re eating your plants), many gardeners would be less excited to see a spider or snake. Snakes have an important role in our ecosystem, and they can even benefit your garden, but you might still wonder what exactly you should do if you see one. We’ll answer all your questions, so you’ll know what to do if you see a slithering intruder in your garden.
What to do if you see a snake

If you see a snake in your garden (or anywhere else), do not approach it. It’s easy to misidentify snakes, especially if they're moving quickly or partially hidden by plants, and even non-venomous snakes will bite if they feel threatened. Keep pets or children away from the area as well. In most cases, you can simply wait for the snake to leave with no further action.

Read more
5 fantastic (and creative) container garden ideas
Container garden inspiration to get you started
Three container gardens with flowers on a patio

From simple but lovely displays of a single flower to a complicated but elegant bonsai tree, container gardens come in many forms. If you’re facing down an empty spot by a window or on your porch and aren’t sure what to put there, a container garden might just be the best idea. What should your container garden look like, though, and which plants should you choose? No need to be overwhelmed with endless options. We’ve put together five creative container garden ideas to get you started.
(Snap)dragon’s hoard

For fans of fantasy, why not create an enchanting display that’s also a fun pun? Start with a cluster of snapdragons in the center of your container garden. Red is traditional for a dragon, but any color of snapdragon will work. Next, assemble the dragon’s hoard around it.

Read more
Watch out for these signs of root rot in your plants
How to prevent and treat root rot
Pothos plant in a vase of water with roots

Every gardener wants their plants to be healthy and thriving. There are pests and diseases to look out for, but most of those affect plants above the ground, which makes them somewhat easier to spot, prevent, and treat. What about your plant’s roots, though? Don’t let root rot be out of sight, out of mind! Here is everything you need to know about spotting the signs of root rot.
What is root rot?

Root rot is, as the name suggests, is when the roots of a plant begin to rot and decompose before the plant is dead. There are two main causes of root rot, and although there is some overlap in symptoms and preventative measures, your treatment options may be slightly different.

Read more