Ever encountered yellowish, floppy, defoliating, and unproductive plants? The chances are they are screaming for help as their roots struggle to breathe in oxygen because of waterlogged soil. When the water-absorbing organ fails to respire, it cannot function well. If it’s unlucky, a looming fungus underground can strike at any time, putting one foot (or its entire roots) in the cold yard grave. While it can be disheartening to see a close-to-dying plant, cheer up, put on your working gloves and grab gardening tools as we share some tricks on how to improve the soil drainage.
What Is Healthy Soil?
Healthy soil is any plant medium that can provide the ideal conditions the plant demands. To fit in for the criteria, it should possess a loose texture for the roots to easily penetrate and have a good anchorage. It needs to have equal air and water pores ratio to allow the roots to respire while retaining the perfect moisture and nutrients required to quench the plant’s thirst to support its growth. If the ground structure is healthy, soil-dwelling creatures such as earthworms, crawling bugs, microscopic animals, and beneficial microorganisms are also active. In turn, they help to further improve the current soil health status. In addition, dark-colored ground and an earthy smell indicate organic-rich and biologically active soil.
What Does Well Drained Soil Mean? Why Is It Important to Improve It?
What is well drained soil in the first place, and why does it matter? Soil with good draining ability retains only a healthy quantity of water needed by plants which is essential for the following reasons:
- Help the plant respire. The roots also breathe in oxygen to function well, and compact soil limits the gas exchange, which is detrimental to plant growth.
- Avoid diseases. If the ground has the right balance of air and water, soil-borne pathogens struggle to strike the healthy roots, which usually need a boggy environment for their breeding ground.
- Increase biological activity. Porous soils increase the number and metabolism of microbial communities, which in turn help fight off the bad ones and further improve the ground.
- Absorb the proper nutrients. Essential nutrients adhere to the soil particles of a moderately well draining soil, in contrast to sandy soils that flush out water quickly, including the crucial minerals.
What Is The Best Soil For Drainage?
Sandy soil is considered a fast draining soil because it has a granulated texture that permits the water to drain swiftly. However, it dries up instantaneously, putting the roots under tremendous pressure to sponge up moisture from the arid soil. On top of that, essential nutrients are also leached with water, leading to malnutrition and weakened plants. Meanwhile, clay soil can lock in nutrients but will hold lots of moisture that can kill the plant. This means that the best soil for drainage should be in the goldilocks spot, not too gritty but not too sticky. Loamy soil possesses the best property for drainage, absorbs a suitable amount of moisture, and retains the needed nutrients while preventing the water from accumulating.
How to Indicate That Soil Drains Well?
A simple soil drainage test exists, known as percolation or “perk” test, to reveal whether the ground supports good seepage. According to Iowa State University Extension and Outreach, here are the 3 easy tips:
- Dig a hole. Excavate approximately 12 inches (30cm) deep and 4-12 inches (10-30cm) wide in your garden. If deep-rooted plants like tomatoes, squash, and low-lying ornamentals are intended to grow, scoop out around 18 inches (45cm). Allow the soil to dry before digging a trench, as the saturated ground leads to inaccurate results.
- Fill with water. Drench some water into the burrow and let it drain. The first pour saturates the air pockets and will calibrate the measurements later. This usually takes a day or less, depending on the soil type.
- Measure the water. Right after the water drains, refill the hole with water and measure the depth using a ruler. After 15 mins, measure the remaining water, if there is any. Subtract it to the initial reading and it will give you the displaced water level. Multiply by 4 to estimate the soil drainage rate per hour.
Soils that drain 1-3 in/hour (2.5-7.5 cm/hour) have an excellent soil texture. A score above 3 inches indicates that it excessively drains water fast, while below 1 inch means it is likely clay soil. If that’s the case, the following paragraphs cover the essential tips on how to improve clay soil drainage.
What Causes Poor Soil Drainage?
Now that we know what does well drained soil mean, it is time to explore the roots of the cause. If you are wondering why your backyard soil does not percolate water properly, we enumerated a list of possible reasons:
- Soil type. If your garden stands or has a clay soil type, it will apparently drain water at a sluggish rate than sandy or loamy ones.
- Compacted soil. Constant trampling and use of heavy equipment on the ground compacts the earth and can consequently cause drainage problems.
- Elevation. Low-lying areas accumulate standing water that usually comes from elevated grounds.
- Land use. Conventional agriculture that uses excessive chemicals, fertilizers, and colossal machinery depletes the soil structure and texture in the long run.
Generally, the reasons above come solely or in combination. Depending on the degree, it can quickly be resolved with proper cultural practices.
Tips on Improving Soil Drainage
Whether you are already facing poorly drained soil or are still preparing the garden beds, we covered essential points on how to make well drained soil:
- Use the right soil ratio. Before planting, utilizing the right proportion of potting media is recommended. When preparing the soil for potted plants, combine equal portions of a universal mix, perlite, and organic matter. Putting coarse objects like pebbles or bark at the pot's base also improves the drainage.
- Soil amendments. For nursery beds, incorporate organic matter, sand, or perlite to enhance the ground’s percolation capacity. Place large plant residues like dried leaves, bark, and branches at the base before putting the finer soil mix.
- Dig drainage. If vegetables are planted, rescue your plant from standing water by burrowing trenches about 12-20 inches (30-50cm) deep to drain the ground.
Improving soil drainage is efficiently done before planting rather than when the problem has already occurred.
How to Make Soil Drain Better — Best Methods
Seeing standing water in your yard potentially detrimental to its health is bothersome. Hence, we listed the best practices on how to make the soil better and straighten out this gardening hassle for good:
- Raised planting beds. If your green area sits on a low-lying zone, elevate your vegetable patch by cultivating it higher than the soil level, approximately 7-17 inches (20-40 cm). In this manner, the plant roots are well-aerated and free from standing water.
- Hilling. Named after its steep appearance, this cultural practice to mitigate water accumulation is modified from the previous one. The soil between the plant rows is dug and then piled up to the plant rows, so water runs off to the excavated surface rather than on raised rows. In contrast to raised beds, this technique works best for tuberous plants even at the post-planting stage.
- Use planters with holes. Another method to elevate your greens is to use planters and pots. Raised beds sometimes need wooden planters to prevent the soil from eroding. Plant containers should have drainage holes and the right soil mix to drip the excess water properly.
- Installing drainage system. This practice includes the installation of pipes underground to drain the soggy soil, especially in shallow areas. It is labor-intensive and costly if the earth is rock hard as the ground needs excavating to lay the device.
- Loosen the soil. If the soil is compact, tending it with a hand trowel or a piece of mechanical equipment aerates the soil. For example, using a rototiller is an efficient way to dig up and loosen the topsoil. Weeds are also controlled using this method, so you hit two birds with one stone.
- Worm help. After making the soil granulated, earthworms and organic materials can be added to the ground. They are garden friends that improve the soil structure for free by tunneling into the topsoil. Spread plenty of compost or organic materials over the soil, which is actually their food, to increase their activity.
- Planting soil covers. Living perennial or annual ground covers is a long-term solution to improve the soil drain. It preserves the soil texture because of its stable root system and leaves shielding from direct rain splashes. In addition, dead leaves can build up over time, adding to the number of organic matter deposits in the soil.
Any of the above methods would work perfectly fine. However, integrate 1 or 2 short and long-term practices for best results.
Does Adding Organic Matter Help Well Draining Soil?
Yes, you heard it right. Amending the soil with organic matter improves the soil draining capacity. The carbon-rich substance possesses unique properties that glue coarse sand while separating the sticky clay particles. Not only does the ground become well-drained, but it also enhances the microbial community and fertilizes the soil. Because of its dual-purpose quality, it has been prized by many gardeners to amend sandy or clay soil.
There is no limit or recommended amount to add to the ground. Depending on the soil type in your backyard, the amount of organic matter to be added varies until you get the right soil texture. On the other hand, one should note that adding pure organic matter to the soil on dug holes before planting is not good as it will only create an unstable base, especially for shallow-rooted plants.
What to Add to Soil to Improve Drainage?
Various organic and non-organic materials are lifeguards in saving the soil from pooled water. Use any of the following to enrich your garden’s soil and improve its seepage:
- Perlite. Perlite is coarse volcanic sand that can be incorporated into the soil. Because of its size, it can bulk up and aerate compacted or clay soils.
- Vermiculite. Vermiculite is another additive that is porous like perlite. It is porous enough to pump air into the soil while absorbing the ideal moisture the plant needs.
- Sand. Finer than perlite and vermiculite, sand is an excellent additive to flocculate sticky clay soils.
- Compost. Compost is a product of partially decomposed animal or plant-derived residues such as manure, dead leaves, or branches. It is also an excellent soil amendment to improve the percolation of clay soils.
- Mulch. Available in different forms, from animals or plants, mulch is a soil cover that improves drainage in the long run. Unlike compost, it is still undecomposed and will take time and test your patience. However, humus will be deposited in the soil in the long run, enriching its drainage ability.
Combining all the above materials in equal proportions is recommended to improve the soil drainage.
How to Fix Soil That Doesn’t Drain?
If your planting area is not blessed with the perfect well-draining soil, worry not, as we have listed helpful tips on how to fix waterlogged soil:
- Install ditches. This solution helps drain your garden that is situated in a low-lying zone. The idea is that excess water from rain or surrounding elevated areas is diverted and pooled in the small canal.
- Create raised beds. If digging up tiny canals is not feasible due to labor and cost reasons, elevating the planting beds is the best solution. In this manner, the plant can still grow in a dry foot without dealing with the poorly drained soil underneath.
- Excavate garden pond. Small man-made ponds serve two purposes: drain the area and collect water for any use. Select the lowest level of the ground and excavate a mini-lake. During the rainy season, excess water is deposited that can be used for watering your plants.
Installing waterways and preparing planting beds are cost-efficient measures to fix waterlogged ground. However, a garden pond may have the best qualities for a sustainable little farm, although time-demanding.
How to Fix Waterlogged Soil?
Mending waterlogged soil might need extra patience to drain out standing water. Follow these easy steps on how to fix soil that doesn't drain, and you are set to plant your favorite veggies:
- Cover crops. Planting ground cover instead of mulch is a sustainable practice in your garden to end the waterlogged soils. They protect the soil from direct wind and rain forces that can destroy the structure. At the same time, they increase the soil properties with organic residues from dead leaf debris piled up through time. Many species of flowering, non-flowering, or lawn plants exist that are excellent cover crops in your garden.
- Practice Minimal Tillage. Also known as no-tillage, this practice intends to preserve the original structure of the soil that can support the natural or local vegetation nearby. Only the spot for planting is dug, retaining the original soil texture. The minimal tillage technique contrasts with the active ground disturbance to oxygenate the soil, which can also fix the waterlogged one. However, long-term soil cultivation tends to damage the soil structure, resulting in finer individual particles that can clog water after saturation.
- Drain your garden. Many ways are practiced by experienced gardeners to drain their soggy backyard soil. Digging up nearby trenches is a quick way to force the pooled water to drain. If shallow-rooted plants like leafy vegetables are grown, scoop out at least 12 inches (30cm) deep trench, while for deep-rooted plants like bushy veggies and small trees, excavate about 15-20 inches (40-50cm).
- Incorporate organic and non-organic amendments. Integrating a cocktail of artificial soil medium can boost aeration and improve soil drainage. A mix of organic substrates such as compost, sawdust, coarse wood bark, or materials derived from inorganic sources such as sand, perlite, or vermiculite, is an indispensable farming practice one should have. Adding gravel to the soil for drainage is also an excellent hack, especially at the pre-planting stage.
How to Deal With Very Soggy Gardens?
In cases where the tactics above are almost impossible in your case, primarily if the garden is situated at the lowest elevation or is made up of clay particles, one may opt for creative solutions to jive with the innate soil type rather than transforming it.
Why not incorporate aquatic or sub-aquatic plants in your garden for a highly soggy backyard? Many flowering, non-flowering, leafy, medium-sized, or bushy plants can tolerate a permanently wet or submerged condition. Large cobblestones or wooden planks can also be incorporated into your vegetable patch to add a natural element that can function as a walkable pathway.
On the other hand, installing a rain garden or a pond is an ingenious way to collect extra water in the rainy months. The hollow ground can also be used to grow aquatic plants like lilies and be used for watering some plants. Likewise, drainage tiles installed under the soil also offer similar benefits, but this could be a laborious and costly approach to solve the issue.