The excitement of a productive patch renders most of us weak at the knees, as we swoon over fruits and vegetables through spring and summer. However once the season peters out to the finish line, so do the watering habits of the once self-proclaimed tomato enthusiasts. We’re not pointing the finger, which is too busy on the hose trigger anyways; we have all been there. Like a self-inflicted hangover it’s too late to go back and and drink more water the night before. You’ve already texted your ex and regret now exists in the form of hydrophobic soil. What’s most important is drawing a line in the sand, vowing that you’ll never forget to water again and fix the problem at the source.
Hydration is the greatest challenge of small-space gardening. The smaller your pot, the more susceptible it is to drying out. Compounding that challenge is our lifestyle, which is often poorly suited to any task requiring a routine. Getting your watering wrong at the wrong time of year not only spells trouble for that generation of plants, but for the future of the soil. Without moisture the soil can bake dry under the harsh sun, making it impervious to water. At this point it becomes hydrophobic. Try as you might, any amount of water thrown on the veggie patch is not absorbed in the soil, it is rather lazy like your watering habits and finds the path of least resistance and drains straight through.
Once soil is hydrophobic it’s a long road back. You are able to slowly restore it using wetting agents and hydration liquids like Eco-Hydrate, however sometimes it is easier to start afresh. Few people have the attention span to last The Godfather series, let alone wait weeks, even months for potted soil to be useful again. At the very least replace the top few inches of the most badly affected soil. Soil is a living ecosystem and hydrophobic soil is a town with tumbleweeds and For Lease signs. Add some compost and slow release/pelletised manure to your soil to give it a replenishing feed. When we add organic materials, we not only add nutrients, but we also invite life into our soil.
To insure against future hydrophobic soil, you have a few options. The first is a simple irrigation system that relies on a timer rather than your rollercoaster-like motivation levels for watering, the second is mulching, and the third relates to the style of growing. Wicking, hydroponic and aquaponic gardening are all self-watering systems. While they seem more complicated at first, they take care of the most critical element of vegetable gardening and the place where most people fall over - water.
Hydrophobic Soil… How did it come to this?
1. It starts well. You buy the best quality potting mix the perfect sized pot and plant in peak season. You water daily and your plants are doing great. You are at the peak of your excitement for your garden, new year, new me, new garden.
2. A small stumble; work gets busy. But then so does the rest of your life. Your watering routine is now erratic at best and the plants soon begin to suffer.
3. The season has passed and a new one is about to break you replace your failed twigs with fresh seedlings. Nothing but greatness ahead!
4. Despite daily watering, the plant seems to be stunted.
5. Months of neglect have rendered your soil hydrophobic and it can no longer absorb water, but rather it passes through it. Once the soil becomes hydrophobic it's a long way back. Often it's best to remove the top few inches of the soil that is most affected. Alternatively, if growing in pots, you can submerge them in a bucket/tub of water and allow the soil to rehydrate by wicking moisture up.