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By: Darcy Larum, Landscape Designer
Is your garden soil drying out too fast? Many of us with dry, sandy soil know the frustration of watering thoroughly in the morning, only to find our plants wilting by the afternoon. In areas where city water is costly or limited, this is especially a problem. Soil amendments can help if your soil dries out too quickly. Continue reading to learn about retaining moisture in the soil.
Retaining Soil Moisture
Keeping garden beds weeded helps in retaining moisture in the soil. Excessive weeds can rob soil and desirable plants of the water and nutrients they need. Unfortunately, many weeds can thrive and flourish in dry, sandy soils where other plants struggle.
If your soil dries out too quickly, mulch can help with retaining soil moisture and helps prevent water evaporation. When mulching for moisture retention, use a thick layer of mulch 2-4 inches (5-10 cm.) deep. While it is not recommended to heap thick mulch around the crown or base of plants, it is a good idea to mound mulch in a donut-like fashion a few inches (8 cm.) away from the plant crown or tree base. This little raised ring around the plants encourages water to flow down toward the plant roots.
Soaker hoses can be buried under mulch when soil still dries out too quickly.
What to Do When Soil Dries Out too Fast
The best method of retaining moisture in the soil is by amending the top 6-12 inches (15-30 cm.) of the soil. To do this, till or mix in organic materials that have high water holding capacity. For instance, sphagnum peat moss can hold 20 times its weight in water. Humus rich compost also has high moisture retention.
Other organic materials you can use are:
- Worm castings
- Leaf mold
- Shredded bark
- Mushroom compost
- Grass clippings
Many of these amendments have added nutrients that your plants will benefit from too.
Some outside-the-box ideas for retaining soil moisture include:
- Creating moat-like basins around planting beds or cross-cross irrigation ditches.
- Burying unglazed terra cotta pots in the soil with the lip sticking just out of the soil surface.
- Poking holes in plastic water bottles and burying them in the soil near plants with the bottle top sticking out of the soil surface – fill the bottles with water and place the lid on the bottle to slow the seepage of the water from the holes.
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Read more about Soil, Fixes & Fertilizers
How to Correct Excessive Soil Moisture and Drainage Problems
Soils with excessive moisture have poor aeration because pore spaces are filled with water. Roots tend to grow near the surface in such soils. With poorly anchored roots, a tree is susceptible to wind throw. A tree may survive for a time, but the roots will eventually die and decay from lack of oxygen in the soil, leaving the tree without a way to absorb necessary water and nutrients.
Too much water in the soil is often caused by construction and planting practices, such as the improper use of irrigation systems. However, some locations are naturally susceptible to saturated soil because of soil type, terrain, heavy rains, flooding, or a high water table. For example, soils with high clay content tend to have more drainage problems than sandy soils because they are more easily compacted.
The following list describes some typical signs that drainage may be a problem at the site, along with techniques to prevent drainage problems.
Signs of Drainage Problems
- Water Movement –– A large amount of water flowing quickly over soil may indicate saturated soil conditions. This can also cause erosion.
- Standing Water — Water left standing after a rain may also indicate excessive moisture in the soil.
- Soil Type — The type of soil at a site influences moisture conditions. Sandy soils usually have a high infiltration rate with water moving quickly through, while clay soils tend to retain water.
- Browning Leaf Edges — Edges of leaves turning brown may indicate too much soil moisture.
- Root Decay — Waterlogged soils can cause root decay.
Preventing Drainage Problems
- Modify Construction Practices — When soil is moved or disturbed by activities such as grading, drainage patterns may be changed, affecting soil moisture conditions. Grade the soil during construction and landscaping so that no low spots are created at the planting site. Maintain the natural horizons during grading or filling so that infertile subsoil does not become the top layer of soil. Drainage problems can be avoided by minimizing the amount of soil compaction that occurs at a site. Keep debris, such as rocks and bricks, out of the topsoil to prevent interfaces or changes in soil texture. Impervious surfaces, such as concrete and asphalt, can inhibit water evaporation from a site. This can cause poor drainage and excessive moisture conditions.
- Break Up Hardpan — Belowground soil layers that are impervious to or restrict water infiltration can cause problems. Hardpan that occurs within 30 inches of the surface should be penetrated. Tractor-drawn subsoilers can be used for large sites, while digging and drilling holes often work in smaller areas.
- Use Care in Site Selection — For a location that is continually subject to excessive soil moisture, select a species that is tolerant of wet conditions. A site should have adequate soil volume to support the growth and development of the species selected. Avoid selecting a site where layers of rocks are near the soil surface, because there is little soil to absorb the water. Raised-bed planters are an option that elevates the tree’s roots out of the saturated soil. At sites with poor drainage, select a species that is tolerant of wet conditions.
- Adapt Planting Methods to Site Conditions — Plant the root ball so the crown is slightly above the soil level. Use coarse-textured fill material, such as sandy loam or loamy sand, to improve aeration and drainage. Do not use soil with a high clay content as fill material. Soil conditions that should be avoided include gravel under loam and sand on top of clay.
- Regulate Irrigation System — Setting irrigation systems to deliver water based on need, instead of time, will help prevent excessive soil moisture.
|Photo Credit: Ed Macie|
Testing for Drainage Problems
Follow these steps to determine if there is a drainage problem (Gilman 1997):
- Dig a 12-by-12-inch wide hole and fill with water.
- Drainage is good if the water drains from the hole in an hour.
- If the water takes from several hours to a day to drain from the hole, drainage is fair.
- If water stands in the hole for more than a day, there is either a high water table or poor drainage.
Solving Drainage Problems
Excessive soil moisture can sometimes be solved by providing proper drainage for the tree, but this can be difficult and often expensive to correct. Proper planting procedures and selecting a species adaptable to the site are the best means for dealing with excessive moisture that cannot be corrected without drainage techniques. As a last resort, drainage can be improved by installing a drainage system such as a French drain or perforated pipe, redirecting the flow of water, or breaking up compacted soil, all depending upon the site conditions and available resources.
To learn this content and more for ISA and SAF credit, go to cfegroup.org!
To learn this content and more for volunteer hours and a certificate of completion, enroll in eLearn Urban Forestry at campus.extension.org!
Gilman, E.F. 1997. Trees for Urban and Suburban Landscapes. Albany, NY: Delmar Publishers. 662 p.
By: Ed Macie, Regional Urban Forester, USFS Southern Region
Why Is My Garden Soil So Dry?
There are two main reasons that your garden soil can end up dry. One reason is that the soil does not contain enough organic material. The second reason is that the soil is dry due to a drought and lack of watering. Let’s explore both of these causes in more detail.
Your Soil Does Not Contain Enough Organic Material
This is likely if your soil is very sandy, or if you have been planting a garden for many years without replacing any organic material.This soil looks pretty sandy, and it is dry as a result of a lack of organic material.
Over time, the plants will use up the organic material in the soil as they grow. Remember that chemical fertilizers provide nutrients to plants, but they do not replace organic material in the soil.
This organic material, such as compost or manure, is necessary for the soil to be able to absorb and retain moisture. For more information, check out my article on how to make your own compost and my article on compost versus mulch.
Your Garden Has Not Been Watered Enough
Even if you have enough organic material in your soil, a lack of water over an extended period of time can dry out the soil. This is especially true if the weather has been hot and dry (low humidity), with no clouds. In this scenario, water will evaporate quickly from the soil.
It is also possible that you have been watering at the wrong time of day, when the water will quickly evaporate instead of soaking into the soil.
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K Draper says
You may want to try some biochar which is a bit more earth friendly than perlite and tends to be alkaline which can help in acidic soils. It adds long lasting carbon to the soil as well. This chart spells out some of the differences: pic.twitter.com/ogq8OryUfi
Thanks K! I just did an article on biochar for DIYNatural last time. I love the idea more and more. I charred a few things last week and it’s already being worked into my soil. I’m really excited to see it take effect!
Jennifer Burrows says
I find that veggies like a higher PH than you mentioned so I prefer to use straw for mulch. If you are in an area that rains a lot, look into straw bale gardening since keeping them wet is the only downfall. May be perfect for you!
I still have not tried straw bale gardening, but I want to. I’ll get started on one this week. Thanks Jennifer!
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Soil Smack Down: Peat Moss vs. Coconut Coir: Compost Wins!
Retaining wall using railroad ties
Moisture crystals are not great to put in the soil.
You need to amend the soil with compost. Top soil and peat moss just get "eaten" by red clay. It needs organic matter such as compost, manures, mushroom compost - and then mulch very well on top. For flower gardens you can use pine bark or pine needles (does not attract so many insects) but insects are not bad, they signify that the mulch will be eventually composted and that goodness brought into the soil.
If you are mulching a vegetable garden, you might choose to use a thick layer of straw. It works great, and gets incorporated into the soil.
17 Water Saving Tips for Edible Container Gardens
These are some of the key strategies I use to grow healthy crops in pots – even in tough, dry conditions.
- Choose pots wisely to minimize moisture loss. Avoid porous planters like terracotta or coconut/coir fibre liners in hanging baskets. These materials leach nutrients and moisture more rapidly than glazed ceramic pots and solid stone. Dark colours like black, and metal containers heat up quickly. They provide little insulation, causing the potting soil to dry out faster and increase the possibility of root damage. If you have dark coloured pots, try positioning in a shady spot with shade-loving edibles. Locate your light-coloured, non-porous pots in full sun areas.
If you already have coconut fibre basket liners, include moisture-hugging ingredients in your potting mix. Add 2-3cm (1″) of mulch to the top. Edibles quickly become water-stressed when soil is left exposed like this.
- Use self-watering containers that slowly ‘wick’ moisture up from the bottom. You can also install drip irrigation or upturned bottles (with holes in the lid). These systems trickle water into your planter, so there’s no waste or over-watering. Water spikes are another option. They direct moisture into the root zone where your plants need it most.
Self-watering pots are ideal for VIP plants as an ‘insurance policy.’ The plants draw up moisture only when they need it.
- Use pot saucers. Many planters come with matching saucers. Better still, make your own. Rather than wasting valuable moisture, water not absorbed immediately can ‘wick’ back up into the pot. No water lost running out the bottom! Add a thin layer of gravel or coir peat to the saucer. This helps prevent mosquitoes breeding.
Click below for helpful watering resources
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- Improve or make your own potting mix. Add moisture-holding ingredients like coir peat (rehydrated coconut fibre). It’s hydrophilic or ‘water-loving’ (from the Greek words for water, hydro, and love, philos). Vermiculite also holds moisture, minerals and is an efficient insulator. These ingredients may help extend the time between watering.
Coir peat quickly reabsorbs water, even when it has completely dried out. It holds up to 70% of its own weight in water.
- Build healthy living soil. Plants living in a microbially-active, nutrient-rich soil are stronger, having all their mineral needs met. There are easy ways you can help create a healthy soil to support them in dry times. Add organic matter like compost, microbes, worm castings and minerals.
- Double mulch. Add a feeding mulch e.g. sugar cane. This builds organic matter, holds moisture and provides nutrients. Top this layer with a second mulch e.g. pale-coloured pebbles or gravel, to help reflect heat and further improve moisture-holding capacity.
A layer of crushed or larger shells reflects heat and traps moisture. It’s also very decorative for potted edibles!
- Select short-season crops. They mature faster and require less water and energy to grow. The ‘Days to Maturity’ on a seed packet or catalogue will help you choose wisely. Try rocket/arugula, loose-leaf lettuce varieties, radish, baby spinach, Asian greens, pea shoots, spring onions and bush beans.
Fast growing crops that can be harvested in just a few weeks are a smart choice to help you conserve water
- Choose easy-to-maintain, low-water needs edibles like sprouts, microgreens, rosemary, garlic chives, garlic, nasturtiums, chard, Malabar or New Zealand spinach, bush beans, pineapples, Italian flat leaf parsley, sage, oregano, marjoram and thyme. Look for the terms “drought-tolerant” or “drought resistant” food crops on seed packets and in catalogues. Let’s face it: the mint family are thirsty water hogs! It may be more sustainable and economical to buy dried mint than grow it in dry conditions.
- Upsize your plants into BIGGER container gardens. It’s much more efficient to water five large pots every 2-3 days than 15 small ones daily. Also try to combine plants with similar water needs. e.g. tough herbs like rosemary, thyme and oregano may only need a brief water weekly. If you combine these with edibles that need a more regular drink, you’re wasting time and water!
Clay pots are OK with hardy herbs that need little watering but ensure they are well mulched.
- Locate tall pots and leafy plants so they shade shorter, smaller ones. Hang or attach pots vertically (one above the other) so water drips down to those below to minimise wastage.
Vertical stackable planters minimise moisture loss when watering from the top. Water drips slowly into the next tier down & finally into a saucer at the base.
- Provide short-term shade protection from the sun or drying winds to help minimise plant stress. e.g. temporary portable solutions like shade cloth stapled to stakes or A-frame trellises. Move them around to where they are needed most. Fold up when not in use.
A simple DIY shade cloth system over a raised bed. Low cost, quick to assemble, portable & provides sun protection.
- Move plants into protected or semi-shaded conditions to minimise moisture loss. e.g. in a cooler microclimate under trees, taller plants or a porch.
- Prune unnecessary growth. Plants with lots of large leaves are prone to losing moisture. They transpire (lose water) through the pores or stomata on the underside of their leaves.
Give plants a ‘haircut’ with secateurs at the right time of year. This may help prevent unnecessary water stress.
- Harvest on time. Pick produce when young and tender, before fruits and vegetables go past their prime. This helps reduce water use, minimises transpiration and conserves the plant’s energy.
- Use a moisture meter so you water only when absolutely necessary.
An ideal moisture range is 40-70%. Water when dry (10-30% soil moisure) Don’t water when wet (80%+)
- Time your watering. Water when the air is still and early morning, when temperatures are cooler. Water evaporates from the soil surface more quickly later in the day, when the air is hot and dry. Watering in hot or windy weather = increased evaporation. Vegetables also tend to require more water on sunny days with low humidity.
- Apply liquid seaweed or fish emulsion as a foliar spray ‘tonic’ or ‘rescue remedy’ for your plants.
Water plants with diluted liquid seaweed or fish emulsion onto foliage, fruit and flowers or use a spray bottle. Fast take-up of trace elements helps build resilience and healthy plant immune systems.
Finally, grow only what you can manage. A small, well-maintained container garden can provide you with many of your basic food needs – even in dry conditions. Be realistic with the time, space and resources you have, so you can find satisfaction with what you choose to grow.
Did you like these practical tips to help conserve water and grow healthier container gardens? Then please share this article! You might also enjoy Ten Water Saving Tips for Your Garden.
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