moisture retentive and free draining soils

with the unusual and in some places extreme weather we are experiencing I’ve been thinking more about soil and plants, plants need water but too much especially flooding can and will kill them as plant roots need to breath even water plants that’s why there needs to be oxygenating plants to add air to the water in stagnant water with no air plants die, on the other hand no water also kills plants,

I’ve experienced both extremes within the last year first too much water, we had rain for 10 months the lowest area of my garden that has never flooded before last winter flooded so many times I’ve lost count, in the areas of my garden with water retentive soil I lost 4 plants an Aster X frikartil Mönch, Cephalaria gigantean, Jasione Blue light and Iris sibirica Dear Dianne due to the excessive winter water yet my bearded iris which I was worried about are thriving ~ why? the Iris, Iris Blue Shimmer and Iris Black Swan are in my front garden which is on raised ground and the soil is free draining so the water never lingered around them,

since May where as most of the UK has had wet weather we have had dry weather up here in north west Scotland, dry to the point that crofters are now suffering the effects of low yielding crops, as with the previous wet I’ve not experienced this long a dry period before in the 13 years I have been living on Hebridean islands, it has been broken this week when we had some much needed rain, I sincerely hope that others who need rain get some soon too, due to living above the 58 parallel it didn’t get hot as it has in many other places, during this dry weather most of the plants in my retentive soil have not been as lush as usual but have been fine and the only watering I did was to newly planted plants I added this year by contrast I have needed to water the more drought tolerant plants in the free draining soil of my raised front garden, I didn’t water them for the first 2 months of dry weather but by July I was starting to worry so did one fairly good watering, then at the end of July we had a bit of rain, early August was dry and as the soil was turning to dust I was going to water when we had rain,

as I said I’ve been thinking about soil and realise from my experience that water retentive soil is great in normal and dry weather but can cause problems to plants in extreme wet weather and free draining soil is fine in normal and wet weather but can be a problem to plants in extreme dry periods and the more so if the dry is accompanied by heat and/or strong drying winds,

solutions are difficult as if you make a retentive soil drain better it becomes less retentive which during dry periods would cause the plants to suffer and it is difficult to drain flood water fast, if you make a free draining soil more retentive then in wet periods the plants would suffer, if you have a source of water to irrigate during dry spells that is a solution and one that I saw very much in practise on my trip to Egypt this year, however most of us do not live near a great river like The Nile, the ditch at the front of my house has been dry for over 3 months now and the small burn (stream) at the bottom of the hill is so low large and medium stones on the bed of the burn are sticking out of the low water,

I would be very much interested to hear other peoples experiences, soil type and how they cope with too much rain/not enough rain,

©Copyright 2012 Frances Caple. All rights reserved. Content created by Frances Caple for Island Threads.

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20 responses to “moisture retentive and free draining soils

  1. Frances we have lots of moisture normally here…too much so we have winter and spring floods, but drier summer and fall. I have clay and amended clay soils but it doesn’t matter…if it floods even amended clay retains water. In the back pf the house I created ditches to take the flood water away and planted wet loving plants…these are rain gardens at the low point in the land and my native water lovers thrive there. In the front where it is clay, it is drier, higher and drains better so I have no problems there.

    But this year we have had a drought like no other year and the clay moisture retaining soil certainly helped keep my plants from frying too bad. And when it rains as it did a couple of times for an inch or so in July or Aug it retained the moisture a bit longer…although a brief shower won’t penetrate the clay… it has to rain hard and long enough. I decided to plant mosre natives because they are acclimated to the soil type and climate and I find those that like clay and moisture or dry conditions…

    I never thought I would like my clay but I have you to thank for pointing out to me it is a blessing in these drought times. That is as long as I get the needed spring and winter moisture…still hot and dry here….most unusual year and even my stalwart natives are fading…

    • thank you Donna for taking the time to give such a detailed reply, I too have drainage ditches but last winter the ditch at the front of my house overflowed and flooded it’s banks where it runs beside the lower area of my garden, so the ditch in my garden couldn’t drain infact it was so bad that water from the overflowing ditch backed up into my garden, this happened several times and lasted for days, I think even natives suffer when the weather is so unusual, it has been said that even wild native areas have suffered from the extreme weather we are having, it’s the extremes and out of the usual pattern that is making it all so difficult, matching plants to conditions only works when conditions have a fairly regular pattern is what I am finding, I know what you mean about a little rain not penetrating that was like the rain in late July here the ground was soon dry again, I hope you get your good downpour soon, thanks again, Frances

  2. All my soil is extremely free draining but I have seen a garden with some of the same plants as me but in clay soil. In clay soil that was so baked over it would have been impossible to put a fork, let alone a spade into it the plants were surviving well, flowering even with irrigation in my free draining soil the same plants certainly weren’t flowering and some were summer hibernating if I’m lucky or dying if I’m not. Christina

    • thank you Christina for an interesting observation about the same plants, similar weather conditions, yet different soil so different outcome, coming from SE England I know how hard clay can be when baked it is afteral used to make bricks! it’s interesting though that plants can send down roots to the softer moist clay lower down for nourishment,
      the problem with free draining soil is that it doesn’t hold moisture, some pages from Beth Chattos books are online and I noticed in one she describes her soil and below the free draining stony soil is a pan of clay, water draining from surrounding land drains under the stony soil on top of the clay pan so roots going down to it will always find water, hence she can make a dry garden because it is being watered by underground water, this would make an enormous difference,
      reading garden blogs of people gardening in hot climates introduced me to summer hibernation I hope that’s what yours are doing Christina and you get a good downpour of rain soon, Frances

  3. paulinemulligan

    Being on heavy clay that we have improved certainly helps my plants when we have a drought, they just stop flowering, and most of them have coped this year when we have had far too much rain. Plants that like free draining soil soon die in my garden, I learnt that the hard way! The only way I can grow them are in troughs or raised beds to give them the drainage they require.

    • with all the trees Pauline you must have plenty of leafmould to help improve your clay soil, all the trees was one of the first things I noticed in BC’s garden, I did also wonder if the trees take up a lot of the water keeping clay soil drier than in an open landscape without many trees, in times of drought do you water your troughs and raised beds? Frances

  4. Hi Frances, I am assuming you are on black soil or even peat if so it is the total opposite to my sandy machair soil. Although nothing will solve water logging due to flooding or a high water table apart from a land drain, a soil rich in organic matter will help. Although it sounds contradictory the organic matter increases water retentiveness, so when it is wet it will absorb the water and keep the soil structure open and when it is dry it holds the moisture. I am told this applies in peat soils but I have no direct experience.
    I do not have problems with flooding but I have spent a lot of time with a hose and watering can this year.
    Hope this helps

    • hmm Christine I was not looking for speculation on how I should treat my garden soil I am interested in what soil and conditions other gardeners have especially in these extreme weather conditions most of us have experienced this year, I know our soils are quite different we have mentioned this before and I would not begin to tell you how to deal with your soil, Frances

      • Sorry if I misinterpreted your post – I was just trying to be helpful

        • understood Christine but as you say you ‘assumed’ and ‘have no experience’ I’m tired of people including professional gardeners who ‘think’ they ‘know’ when what they say is just regurgitating what they have been taught, read and/or heard with no experience,
          you could share your experiences of working with the soil you DO have experience of, Frances

  5. Although we have had pretty severe droughts accompanied by very hot weather in Pennsylvania for the last ten years, I have lost more plants from the few times, like the second half of last summer, when there was too much rain. You can always water, but it is impossible to remove rain. My approach is to do nothing and let the chips fall where they may. I very rarely even water. My garden will just have to adjust to the new weather patterns.

    • that’s interesting Carolyn that too much water has caused more loss for you than heat and dry, am I right thinking you have a clay soil which would be moisture retentive, I agree about being able to add water easier than removing water, I think most gardens and wild natural areas have been going through some steep curves of ajustment in recent years, a changing landscape, thanks for your experiences, Frances

  6. Valery O'Neill

    I have a small weeping willow tree. It was doing well. I put water retive soil on my little garden this little plot never gets any sun. One morning I went out and the willow was covered in rust and a small fungus. The new shoots that where comin through was also rust. I was told that these leaves would all fall off and not to cut the tree back. I am hoping it will revive.

    • Valery sorry to hear about your weeping willow such beautiful trees, I hope yours will regrow if not this year then next spring, Frances

      • Valery O'Neill

        Hi Frances I hope it will as well it is one of the small variety and it looks so sad. We will have to wait and see. Thank you for your reply.

  7. Frances, water seems to be on everyone’s lips these days. We too have had months of dry weather, everything is parched. Our heavier clay soil does well to hold some moisture so plants aren’t totally lost and I’ve gotten away with only minimal waterings this summer. But then too much rain at once as I saw this past winter and parts of my yard begin to pool up with water. The best soil seems to be the happy medium, part clay, part soil, lots of humous. But even that won’t help with a drought.

  8. oops, I meant part clay, part sand, part humus…

    • nice to have you back Marguerite, I’ve read the thirds ratio is best but I doubt if anyone has it we have to work with what we have, amending it here and there and finding plants that cope with our soil and conditions, I remember your flooded bed of plants, I hope you get some rain soon but not too much, wet and windy here today, Frances

  9. Frances, we seem to have relatively free draining soil but this year the Lilies have not been so happy which may be due to the constant rain and temperatures which have been low for most of the Summer season. Lavender as you will know is difficult in soggy conditions, in fact I had no success until I added loads of grit to the soil where I have planted them. I have replaced a good few of my Heathers this past week, but to be quite honest I think it was down to the variety, you know, those types with colourful tipped foliage of, red, pink or cream, cant remember the name may be a calluna. Havent been of any help but just like to keep in touch from time to time. Alistair

    • thanks Alistair, not looking for help but just what other gardeners have and how they deal with weather and soil, heathers apparently don’t like it too wet, where my garden has lots of uncultivated ground the heath/heather calluna vulgaris only grows in the areas that drain, it grows on the more rocky shallow but peaty soil, never in the grassy damper areas with deeper soil, lavender likes very free draining soil and perfers it neutral to alkaline, mine that grew was in my raised front garden, it’s a shame you had to replace some of the heathers as you had not had them long, I’ve just posted that some of my lilies have not grown very tall this year and I wondered if it was due to our dry weather, so who knows….. Frances