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ALL of my soil has gone hydrophobic?

 
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Recently I had a bunch of transplanted tomatoes die. Confusing because I'd been soaking my garden beds daily on account of the drought in my area (south Kansas).

So, curious, I dug them up to inspect the roots: soil underneath the top layer was so bone dry that dust flew up when moved.

Checked on my houseplants, that also hadn't been doing well ever since I used local soil from around my garden/yard to repot them.......... same problem.

My newest blackberry is in steady decline, dropping leaves, no new growth despite daily watering. Suspecting the same problem, I yanked it up. It slid out of the dry soil with no resistance.

Edit for added detail: I don't rake, don't til, let native clover run rampant every summer, and own chickens, so the soil shouldn't be lacking in organic matter.

So... what's happening? My soil won't accept water anymore! It repels it like those pockets of still-dry cocoa powder you'd get drinking hot chocolate as a kid.

I've seen hydrophobic soil in old bags of potting soil, but now the outdoor soil is doing it. What can I do? My garden is usually full in this season, but this issue has halted my planting in its tracks. Is it as simple as the drought or is something more going on?

EDIT: My whining worked, we got a nice long rain just a few hours after I posted. Not sure if it'll solve all my problems but it's certainly going to help.
 
pioneer
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I imagine the entire garden needs to be watered equally and deeply, rather than the individual plant locations, as the rain does.

I will admit I use a watering can only because I have yet to purchase one of those 100 foot Water Right potable hoses, which are rather pricey. It takes an absolutely absurd amount of jug refills to water the entire garden, so I stagger things by day... trees one day, one section the next.

If the entire bed area isn't watered, the water will wick and dissipate to its surroundings, while the top layer evaporates. Is your soil a lot of peat/loamy substance? When I am making my soil blends peat moss is extremely difficult to wet. Once it's in a pot having been thoroughly wetted, it takes water no problem, which is interesting.

When I transplant anything, I use the dirt that was dug up to create a "ring" around the base of the plant, acting as a barrier or dam. I then water inside that ring, so that the water goes as directly downwards towards the roots as possible, rather than spreading out horizontally. Mulch mulch mulch some more!

Being in Florida, I have since chosen things that barely need water at all besides rain, but that will differentiate from your experience if you want to grow plenty of non-natives.

Perhaps try out some olla watering vessels?
 
Jane Marr
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Jeff Steez wrote:I imagine the entire garden needs to be watered equally and deeply, rather than the individual plant locations, as the rain does.

I will admit I use a watering can only because I have yet to purchase one of those 100 foot Water Right potable hoses, which are rather pricey. It takes an absolutely absurd amount of jug refills to water the entire garden, so I stagger things by day... trees one day, one section the next.

If the entire bed area isn't watered, the water will wick and dissipate to its surroundings, while the top layer evaporates. Is your soil a lot of peat/loamy substance? When I am making my soil blends peat moss is extremely difficult to wet. Once it's in a pot having been thoroughly wetted, it takes water no problem, which is interesting.

When I transplant anything, I use the dirt that was dug up to create a "ring" around the base of the plant, acting as a barrier or dam. I then water inside that ring, so that the water goes as directly downwards towards the roots as possible, rather than spreading out horizontally. Mulch mulch mulch some more!

Being in Florida, I have since chosen things that barely need water at all besides rain, but that will differentiate from your experience if you want to grow plenty of non-natives.

Perhaps try out some olla watering vessels?



Some soaker hoses are definitely on my shopping list then!

There's no eat in my soil to my knowledge, but I think you're right about the water just running off to its surroundings and not soaking in the spots I'm watering.

That's very smart on the "dam"/"ring" around transplanted plants. I definitely had an issue with the blackberry where the water just "ran away" from it, so I'll be using that idea to keep the water in a circle around it, thank you.

I've been wanting to use ollas for a long time--this could be a good time to install them.

I'll keep adding more mulch and compost, and along with the soaker hose I hope to see things turn around soon.
 
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From the description of what is happening to your plants and your discovery, I agree that soaker hoses would be the best solution.

I had never heard the term "hydrophobic soil" so I asked Mr. Google.

Hydrophobic soil is a soil whose particles repel water. The layer of hydrophobicity is commonly found at or a few centimeters below the surface, parallel to the soil profile.



One method of managing water repellent soils is claying. This is done by adding clay materials to the soil, making the overall soil texture have less surface area.



https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hydrophobic_soil


I feel you are on the right track to consider using mulch.

If you have wood chips available putting the chips on top of the mulch might also help.
 
pollinator
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I think I would try some manual manipulation as well.  Even something like a broom handle with a long nail attached to the end and used to stab some holes would help a great deal to get some water sinking in I think.
 
Jane Marr
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Trace Oswald wrote:I think I would try some manual manipulation as well.  Even something like a broom handle with a long nail attached to the end and used to stab some holes would help a great deal to get some water sinking in I think.



I definitely need to do some dirt stabbing in tandem with the soaker hose, I think :P Great suggestion!
 
pollinator
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Sometimes tilling is necessary if you haven't opened the soil with root (Carrots & Co) crops for a longer time.
 
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Is your soil kind of bare except for your crops? Apart from my veg garden, most of our land is left as a native meadow. If I hoe open a new bed, when I chop the thick cover of 'weeds' away and open up the ground, it is always lush and moist underneath. The meadow plants' roots and the shade they create ensure that the moisture is retained really well.

If I'm not yet ready to plant in said new bed, and I leave the freshly tilled bed open and bare for a few days, the newly exposed soil will completely dry out and and become hydrophobic, exactly as you describe since it is now essentially dead. At this point it just turns to powder and blows away.

So what I do is mulch immediately after opening the bed, or even just cover the fresh soil back up with the meadow plants that I removed, until I'm ready to plant. After that I either mulch around my crops or just try to never let the soil dry out below the surface. I also make sure to water empty beds to keep them 'alive' - this is really important as without plants to trap and wick moisture to down below the surface, the soil will die, lose its structure and collapse if you don't water it. At least, in my soil type this is the case. If you have a lot of clay in your soil, you can get away with more, but it sounds like yours is similar to mine.

If your veg garden has a lot of bare patches, I suggest giving everything a mega Super Soak - day after rain is great as the moisture provided by the rain will have already made a start soaking into those dust pockets. Once it's all wet, mulch all the bare spots to reduce surface evaporation. If you are getting hot days already, as we are here, then watering just before nightfall will give the water more time to soak into the soil overnight without being cooked off by the sun.

You could also consider a cover crop for the long term. I allow wild volunteer chickweed to grow all over my beds as it stays low, forms a thick mat that shades the soil, is edible and also holds the soil together really well and gives it structure back after being hoed. The crops don't mind it one bit and I think it actually does them a favour by keeping things moist, even on 30°C days.

We're working towards minimal digging in future years, as disturbing the soil without protecting it from the sun definitely seems to be the main cause of the hydrophobia effect in our garden (Central Portugal) - effectively killing the dirt and its microorganisms by drying them out. It then turns to dust and blows away...

Sadly no-one here understands what I'm doing, to the point that they're convinced I probably don't know anything about gardening - because first thing in spring everyone here rotovates their entire plots and sprays it all with weedkiller, then they spend all their time and a bit of money irrigating everything everyday so it doesn't turn to a dust pile. I've had 5 people offer to 'help me get started' by ploughing up the lot with a tractor and I'm always gracious but also like.. naaaaaah, thank you, my crops are, 'by some miracle', thriving, and there's a reason why I have all the village's bees and songbirds hanging out at my place too.
 
gardener
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At least three others have mentioned this, among other things. I wanted to make sure it stands out.

Mulch

Mulch

Mulch

:)

Soaker hoses could help, but the mulch will help the soil more and for longer. I'd use both, but it sounds like the soil is dried out and compacted so the water runs off instead of soaking in. A soaker hose will slow the water and could help some, but if you don't water it will go back to what it was. The mulch will help hold the moisture in the soil and this will cause the microbes to thrive and loosen the soil.
 
pollinator
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Trace Oswald wrote:I think I would try some manual manipulation as well.  Even something like a broom handle with a long nail attached to the end and used to stab some holes would help a great deal to get some water sinking in I think.



If you have a garden fork, spading fork, or pitchfork, they make quick work of this task. Just stab, wiggle to remove, and move on. Combined with some mini earthworks and a deeper watering routine you should be right as rain. Just keep in mind how much water it takes to act like an inch of rain.
 
pollinator
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You have had the advice to mulch, which I partially agree with. In my situation adding a deep layer of mulch (partially rotted woodchips) seemed to hinder my plants, despite regular watering.

When I dug down I discovered - like you - that the soil beneath the mulch layer was bone dry. The mulch was intercepting all the water, and not sharing with the dry soil below. My conclusion was that I needed to do a much more thorough job of deep watering the whole area to fix the dry soil problem prior to putting the deep mulch down.
 
Matt McSpadden
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When I dug down I discovered - like you - that the soil beneath the mulch layer was bone dry.



At the beginning, you will need to water more. Water the ground, add a layer of mulch, water that, add another layer, water that. Then soak it really well. Mulch will help hold moisture, but you are correct it does not create the moisture. That has to be added at first and soaked down through all the mulch. Afterwards I have not needed to water any more than normal, and usually a lot less.
 
gardener
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Jane Marr wrote:

Edit for added detail: I don't rake, don't til, let native clover run rampant every summer, and own chickens, so the soil shouldn't be lacking in organic matter



How's your garden doing after the soaking rain?
Have you checked the soil before planting? Is it loose and friable, dark in color or dense and pale? The severe drought can cause organic matters to "burn" out of previously fertile soil to turn into pure clay. Tomato transplants are grown in peat moss. It's very light and porous so when the texture is too different from the surrounding clay soil, the root ball will dry out and the new roots can't grow outwards. If that's the case, you probably need to amend the soil with compost or manure in a big hole where tomato was planted.
 
pollinator
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Hi, just curious. does the soil have the appearance of dried coffee grounds?
Here in Western North Carolina we have an invasive jumper worms.
https://extension.umd.edu/resource/invasive-jumping-worms

you may also consider a soil test. usually a local extension office offers these services. if the soil nutrients are out of balance, could even had to do with flocculation. this is more common with desert and clay soils. They clay particles bound to itself and begins to repel water.

mulch and soaker hose will greatly reduce.
 
pollinator
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This is a sign the soil got too dry in the first place most likely, but my first response would be a simple actively aerated compost tea (check out tealab recipes). The natural glues created by the abundant beneficial microbes will help reform hydrophilic soil and particle aggregation.  Compost extract wouldn’t hurt either.
 
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Ben Zumeta wrote:This is a sign the soil got too dry in the first place most likely, but my first response would be a simple actively aerated compost tea (check out tealab recipes). The natural glues created by the abundant beneficial microbes will help reform hydrophilic soil and particle aggregation.  Compost extract wouldn’t hurt either.



Yeah my soil acts hydrophobic when it gets too dry and there's a lack of microbial and fungal life in it. Those tiny living things turn the soil into a sticky sponge that sucks up and hold onto water.
 
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