what is well drained soil?
Well drained soil is a term used by gardeners to describe soil in a flower garden or vegetable garden that is loose and allows water to drain out in a reasonable time so the roots of a plant do not drown. The roots of plants do not grow in the soil. They grow between the particles of dirt or sand, in the air pockets. Plants need oxygen to grow. If the air particles are small because the soil is compacted such as in hard clay, they struggle to grow. If you over water so the air particles are full of water, the roots drown. If there are too many air particles and the soil is too loose such as in sand, the water drains too fast and the roots dry out.
In her article Preparing the Neighborhood Garden, Gladys said, “In general good growing soil is about 50% soil particles and organic matter, 25% air pockets, and 25% water pores. Clay soil is good but it has smaller particles which leave less room for air and water, both of which are necessary for roots to grow. Compost, which is organic matter, enters in here to create spaces and soak up water that would run off clay soil. Sandy soil is just the opposite. It has so many spaces your water and fertilizer runs through. Here again, organic matter will trap and hold them for the roots. It is almost impossible to have too much organic material in soil so start a compost pile to add to your garden. To add organic matter, you can also dig in leaves, manure, or grass clippings as deep as you can.”
To check the drainage of your soil, dig a hole 12 inches wide and 12 inches long and 12 to 18 inches deep. Fill the hole with water and let it drain dry. Refill the hole with water. If you have well drained soil the water will run out at the rate of about 1 inch per hour. If it runs out too slow or too fast, add organic matter. If you have added compost and it feels crumbly but the water drains slowly, you may have a hard layer of clay (hard pan) or a layer of rock, just under the top soil. The only way to correct this is to dig deeper and break up that hard pan that keeps the water from draining or remove as much of the rock as you can. One cause of “Hard Pan” is running a tiller at the same depth year after year. The tines beat down on the soil and cause it to compact at that level.
When I started my vegetable garden a few years after we built our house, I made raised beds from railroad ties and double dug the bed. Double digging is digging a trench at one end of a bed and putting the soil aside. Then dig down another layer deep and also put that soil aside. Go at least two spade blades deep. Fill the bottom of the trench you have just dug with leaves, grass clippings, compost, manure, or other organic material. Then move back and dig another trench putting that soil on top of the organic material in the first trench. Work your way to the end of the bed adding organic material in each trench. Finish off by putting the soil you set aside from the first trench at the end of the bed in the last trench. Some people double dig by just stirring up the bottom layer of soil. Adding good organic material in the bottom is better. This is a lot of work but it really makes for a well drained, healthy vegetable or flower garden bed.
If you don’t have a compost pile, this fall is a good time to start one. Many people say they don’t have room for a compost pile. Be creative. When I started to compost I made five small compost bins from woven wire fencing. They were about 3 feet in diameter and 3 feet tall. One was placed in the middle of a row in the garden. I planted miniature pumpkins for my granddaughter on one side and Acorn Squash on the other side of the bin. A second bin was also placed in the middle of a row and had Muskmelon on one side and Patty Pan squash on the other. The other two compost bins were at each end of a row. Planted on one side were two swan gourd plants given to me by Gladys. At the base of the other bin were three Butternut Squash plants. The compost bins fed the plants all summer. I ended up with over 200 mini pumpkins, over 50 butternut squash, and over 30 acorn squash. The insects got my melons. I also planted potatoes on the ground inside a small bin and then put about 3 inches of compost over the top. As the potato vines grew compost was added. Harvesting was easy. No digging. Just remove the bin and pull the compost away. I did not count the potatoes. Start with just one compost pile at the end of a row and plant flowers or vegetables next to the base. Be creative.
Now I have a number of compost piles in my vegetable garden. In the fall I pick up my leaves with the lawn mower and put them in a bin. I put in at least a foot of leaves, add a layer of green material such as grass clippings, and then a 2” to 4” layer of soil, finished compost, or coffee grounds. Then I start over with another layer of leaves, another layer of green material, and another layer of soil, etc. If you don’t have many leaves see if your neighbors will help you out. If you are short on green material this fall like grass clippings, add high nitrogen material such as coffee grounds or a handful of lawn fertilizer. The next fall take the finished compost and dig it into your soil to loosen it up and start over. Do not just layer the compost. Till or dig it in.
Once your garden beds are made, try not to walk on that soil or any soil that has just been dug, as it will compact and not be “well drained” but compacted again. Use walkways. The walkways in our flower garden have shredded hardwood. In the vegetable garden area next door I have made beds and the walkways have “old used carpet” that the owner of a carpet store gave me. Gladys uses gravel on her walkways as she feeds birds and squirrels year around on the walkways. Some gardeners use stepping stones or brick with a ground cover or thyme between the bricks/stones. Be creative.
For more information on composting contact your Local County Extension Office. Or go on the internet to www.ianrpubs.unl.edu/search. In the box in the upper left type in the name of the plant, or the subject, or the number of the publication. Recommended is NebGuide G810-Garden Compost.