plants, the soil does not absorb water

Question: The plants in my raised bed keep wilting, sometimes just hours after I have watered. I water until the water collects on top and starts to flow from the edges of the bed.

My neighbor suggested that I water too much, but this morning while pulling weeds, I noticed that even after watering, the soil was very dry under the first few inches of soil. How can I wet my soil down to the roots of my plants?

A: I guess, like most gardeners, your raised bed is filled with potting soil or a mixture of compost and potting soil, so it has a high percentage of organic matter. Soils rich in organic matter can become hydrophobic when they dry out, which means they repel water and are difficult to rewet. This is a very common problem in containers where water drains from the bottom of a pot but does not saturate the soil, leaving the roots of the plant dry.

Hydrophobic soils, like those in your raised bed, need to be watered properly to rehydrate them. This can be done by using a hose to run the water over the floor slowly enough that the water has time to absorb instead of draining, it can take several hours when you move the hose around the bed , but once the soil is re-wetted, make sure you water often enough that it doesn’t dry out so completely.

Do you have soil that does not hold water?  If you can lift it, submerge the entire pot in a bucket of water for a few minutes.

Once the soil is rehydrated, consider other watering and maintenance practices that can help prevent this from happening again. Consider using drip irrigation or a weeping hose in the bed to apply the water more slowly. Add a layer of mulch, such as straw, leaves, wood chips and / or compost to the soil surface to retain moisture in the soil.

Hard clay and loamy garden soils can also crust and resist wetting, allowing water to drain away instead of absorbing it. To rewet, lightly dust the surface a few times, making sure there is no runoff. Eventually, the soil will become moist enough to break up the crust. Adding gypsum and lightly tilling the soil surface can also help break up the crust on these types of soils.

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If you have plants in hydrophobic containers, water will run down the sides of the posts but will not wet the soil in the center. Try the following tips for rehydrating the soil:

  • If you can lift the pot, submerge the entire pot in a bucket of water. Initially, there may be so much air in the soil that the pot is floating, or the soil is trying to come out, and you will have to hold it down. Air bubbles form when air escapes from the ground and is displaced by water. Once the bubbling stops, it means the water has saturated the soil and you can remove the pot from the water bucket.
  • Another way to re-wet the soil in a pot is to place it in a shallow water container, allowing the soil to absorb the water slowly. It may take an hour or more to thoroughly rewet the soil.

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Be careful not to soak the pots in standing water for too long, as this can make the soil too saturated and leave the roots without oxygen.

The Shasta Master Gardeners program can be contacted by phone at 242-2219 or by email [email protected]. The Gardener’s Office is made up of volunteers trained by the University of California to answer gardeners’ questions using information based on scientific research.

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