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Many agricultural soils need drainage to improve production or to manage water supplies.

Table of contents
1 Reasons for artificial drainage
2 Drainage in the 19th century
3 Current Practices

Reasons for artificial drainage

1. Wetland soils may need drainage to be used for agriculture in the first place. In northern USA and Europe, glaciation created numerous small lakes which gradually filled with humus to make marshes. Some of these were drained to make mucklands, which are primarily used for high value crops such as vegetables. Drainage must be maintained on these, not only to prevent flooding, but to also keep the soil moist enough to prevent wind erosion and fires.
The largest project of this type in the world has been in process for centuries in the Netherlands. The area between Amsterdam, Haarlem and Leiden was, in prehistoric times mucky swampland and small lakes. Peat mining, subsidance and shoreline erosion gradually caused the formation of one large lake Haarlem Lake (Haarlemmermeer). The invention of wind powered pumping stations in the 15th century permitted drainage of some of the surrounding land, but the drainage of the entire lake awaited until the design of large steam powered pumps and agreements between regional authorities. The elimination of the lake occurred between 1849 and 1852, creating thousands of acres of new land.

Coastal plains and river deltas may have seasonal or permanant high water tables and must have drainage improvements to be used for agricultural purposes. Rice production requires complete control of water, as fields may be flooded or drained at different stages of the crop cycle. The Netherlands has also led the way in this type of drainage, not only to drain lowland along the shore, but actually pushing back the sea until the original nation has been greatly enlarged.

2. Moist climate soils may be adequate for cropping with the exception that they become waterlogged for brief periods each year, from snow melt or from heavy rains. Soils that are predominantly clay will pass water very slowly downward, meanwhile plant roots suffocate because the excessive water around the roots eliminates air movement through the soil.
Other soils may have an impervious layer of mineralized soil, called a hardpan or relatively impervious rock layers may underlie shallow soils. Drainage is especially important in tree fruit production. Soils that are otherwise excellent may be waterloged for a week of the year, which is sufficient to kill fruit trees and cost the productivity of the land until replacements can be established. In each of these cases appropriate drainage is used to carry off temporary flushes of water to prevent damage to annual or perennial crops.

3. In dryland farming, irrigation is often used, and one would not consider drainage necessary. However, irrigation water always contains minerals, and these minerals can be concentrated to toxic levels by evaporation. Irrigated land may need periodic flushes with excessive irrigation water and drainage to remove these toxic minerals.

Drainage in the 19th century

From the 1881 Household Cyclopedia

This operation is always best performed in spring or summer, when the ground is dry. Main drains ought to be made in every part of the field where a cross-cut or open drain was formerly wanted; they ought to be cut four feet deep, upon an average. This completely secures them from the possibility of being damaged by the treading of horses or cattle, and being so far below the small drains, clears the water finely out of them. In every situation, pipe-turfs for the main drains, if they can be had, are preferable. If good stiff clay, a single row of pipe-turf; if sandy, a double row. When pipe-turf cannot be got conveniently, a good wedge drain may answer well, when the subsoil is a strong, stiff clay; but if the subsoil be only moderately so, a thorn drain, with couples below, will do still better; and if the subsoil is very sandy, except pipes can be had, it is in vain to attempt under-draining the field by any other method. It may be necessary to mention here that the size of the main drains ought to be regulated according to the length and declivity of the run, and the quantity of water to be carried off by them. It is always safe, however, to have the main drains large, and plenty of them; for economy here seldom turns out well.

Having finished the main drains, proceed next to make a small drain in every furrow of the field if the ridges formerly have not been less than fifteen feet wide. But if that should be the case, first level the ridges, and make the drains in the best direction, and at such a distance from each other as may be thought necessary. If the water rises well in the bottom of the drains, they ought to be cut three feet deep, and in this ease would dry the field sufficiently well, although they were from twenty-five to thirty feet asunder; but if the water does not draw well to the bottom of the drains, two feet will be a sufficient deepness for the pipe-drain, and two and a half feet for the wedge drain. In no case ought they to be shallower where the field has been previously levelled. In this instance, however, as the surface water is carried off chiefly by the water sinking immediately into the top of the drains, it will be necessary to have the drains much nearer each other--say from fifteen to twenty feet. If the ridges are more than fifteen feet wide, however broad and irregular they may be, follow invariably the line of the old furrows, as the best direction for the drains; and, where they are high-gathered ridges, from twenty to twenty-four inches will be a sufficient depth for the pipe-drain, and from twenty-four to thirty inches for the wedge-drain. Particular care should be taken in connecting the small and main drains together, so that the water may have a gentle declivity, with free access into the main drains.

When the drains are finished, the ridges are cleaved down upon the drains by the plough; and where they had been very high formerly, a second clearing may be given; but it is better not to level the ridges too much, for by allowing them to retain a little of their former shape, the ground being lowest immediately where the drains are, the surface water collects upon the top of the drains; and, by shrinking into them, gets freely away. After the field is thus finished, run the new ridges across the small drains, making them about nine or ten feet broad, and continue afterwards to plough the field in the same manner as dry land.

It is evident from the above method of draining that the expense will vary very much, according to the quantity of main drains necessary for the field, the distance of the small drains from each other, and the distance the turf is to be carried.

The advantage resulting from under-draining, is very great, for besides a considerable saving annually of water furrowing, cross cutting, etc., the land can often be ploughed and sown to advantage, both in the spring and in the fall of the year, when otherwise it would be found quite impracticable; every species of drilled crops, such as beans, potatoes, turnips, etc., can be cultivated successfully; and every species, both of green and white crops, is less apt to fail in wet and untoward seasons.

Wherever a burst of water appears in any particular spot, the sure and certain way of getting quit of such an evil is to dig hollow drains to such a depth below the surface as is required by the fall or level that can be gained, and by the quantity of water expected to proceed from the burst or spring. Having ascertained the extent of water to be carried off, taken the necessary levels, and cleared a mouth or loading passage for the water, begin the drain at the extremity next to that leader, and go on with the work till the top of the spring is touched, which probably will accomplish the intended object. But if it should not be completely accomplished, run off from the main drain with such a number of branches as may be required to intercept the water, and in this way disappointment will hardly be experienced. Drains, to be substantially useful, should seldom be less than three feet in depth, twenty or twentyfour inches thereof to be close packed with stones or wood, according to circumstances. The former are the best materials, but in many places are not to be got in sufficient quantities; recourse therefore, must often be made to the latter, though not so effectual or durable.

It is of vast importance to fill up drains as fast as they are dug out; because, if left open for any length of time, the earth is not only apt to fall in but the sides get into a broken, irregular state, which cannot afterwards be completely rectified. It also deserves attention, that a proper covering of straw or sod should be put upon the top of the materials, to keep the surface earth from mixing with them; and where wood is the material used for filling up, a double degree of attention is necessary, otherwise the proposed improvement may be effectually frustrated.

The pit method of draining is a very effectual one, if executed with judgment. When it is sufficiently ascertained where the bed of water is deposited, which can easily be done by boring with an auger, sink a pit into the place of a size which will allow a man freely to work within its bounds. Dig this pit of such a depth as to reach the bed of the water meant to be carried off; and when this depth is attained, which is easily discerned by the rising of the water, fill up the pit with great land-stones and carry off the water by a stout drain to some adjoining ditch or mouth, whence it may proceed to the nearest river.

To construct Main drains

When the ground is soft and springy the bottom of the drain is laid with bricks placed across. On these, on each side, two bricks are laid flat, one upon the other, forming a drain six inches high and four broad, which is covered with bricks laid flat. Where stones are used instead of bricks, the bottom of the drain should be about eight inches in width, and in all cases the bottom of main drains ought to be sunk four inches below the level of the narrow ones, whose contents they receive, even at the point where the latter fall into them.

The main drains should be kept open or uncovered till the narrow ones are begun from them, after which they may be finished; but before the earth is returned upon the stones or bricks, it is advisable to throw in straw, rushes or brushwood, to increase the freedom of the drain. The small narrow drains should be cut at the distance of sixteen or eighteen feet from each other, and should full into the main drain at very acute angles, to prevent any stoppage. At the point where they fall in, and eight or ten inches above it, they should be made firm with brick or stone. These drains should be eighteen inches wide at the top and sixteen at bottom.

The completest method yet known is to cut the strongest willows, or other aquatic brushwood, into lengths of about twenty inches, and place them alternately in the drain, with one end against one side of the bottom and the other leaning against the opposite side. Having placed the strong wood in this manner, fill up the space between them, on the upper side, with the small brushwood, upon which a few rushes or straw being laid, as before mentioned, the work is done. Willow, alder, asp or beach boughs, are exceedingly durable if put into the drain green, or before the sap is dried; but if they are suffered to become dry, and then laid under ground, a rapid decay is the consequence.

As in some situations it is an object of great importance to save the expense of materials commonly used in filling drains, a variety of devices have, with that view, been adopted. One of these is of the following nature:--A drain is first dug to the necessary depth, narrow at bottom. Into the trench is laid a smooth tree or cylindrical piece of wood, twelve feet long, six inches in diameter at the one end and five at the other, having a ring fastened into the thickest end. After strewing a little sand upon the upper side of the tree, the clay, or toughest part of the contents of the trench, is first thrown in upon it, and after that the remainder of the earth is fully trodden down. By means of the ring, the tree is then drawn out to within a foot or two of the smaller or hinder end; and the same operation is repeated till the whole drain is complete. Such a drain is said to have conducted a small run of water a considerable way under ground for more than twenty years without any sign of failure.

Current Practices

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