Days of steady rain inevitably lead to claggy, sticky, waterlogged soil. It’s typical of this time of year, at least in damp Britain or areas with a similarly moist, maritime climate such as the Pacific Northwest.
The symptoms of relentless drizzle, rain or showers (delete as appropriate!) are universal at any time of year. Soil clumps to the bottom of your boots, turning them into the horticultural version of platform shoes. Paths get churned up into a slippery quagmire. And the muddy mess gets, well, everywhere!
But it doesn’t have to be like this. Nourish your soil – show it some love – and it’ll behave itself when the rains come. The simple aim of the gardener is to develop a soil structure that’s springy, open and free draining but that hangs onto the moisture when it really matters. The solution, of course, is lots and lots of nourishing organic matter.
Amending Waterlogged Soil
Organic matter – anything from well-rotted manure to two-year-old leafmold and everything in between – should form the bedrock to all soil maintenance regimes. At the end of the growing season the priority is to lavish beds with ankle-deep lashings of this nutrient-rich goodness. It’s not rocket science: plop it onto the soil surface by the barrow-load, spread it out then stand back and let the worms do the rest. They’ll do the digging for you, drawing down and mixing in the organic matter to leave rich, ready-to-plant soil by next growing season.
Personally I love leafmold. It’s so easy to make, and while the best compost is made from a carefully balanced mix of different ingredients, leafmold can be made in bulk just once a year, piled into heaps, then forgotten about until it’s needed.
Leafmold that’s been two years resting and rotting is the best type for spreading onto beds. By this time any large chunks will have decomposed enough to allow for sowing and planting by spring. Just think about the springy texture of a forest floor. What makes it so crumbly, dark and delicious? The fallen leaves of course!
Use Narrow Beds or Raised Beds
Naturally springy soil has a certain amount of give, just like a well-sprung mattress. But even soil of perfect pedigree becomes tired and compacted if it’s subjected to repeated foot traffic. Soil that’s downtrodden has fewer air pores in it, so it quickly ‘fills up’ in wet weather and won’t drain as easily. This is a common cause behind waterlogged soils. The solution is to simply stay well clear of the soil, especially during wetter spells and throughout winter. So it’s boots off beds please!
One of the obvious advantages of raised beds is that they clearly delineate planting areas from paths. Limit their width to around 1.2m (4ft) so you can tend them from the sides without overreaching, and there will be no reason to ever step onto the growing area. You don’t necessarily need to contain raised beds within wooden sides: simply marking out beds and concentrating all of your added organic matter within these areas will produce the same effects. The paths between beds may be covered with wood chips, shredded bark or straw to keep them clean and slip-slide free.
If on-foot access to growing areas is unavoidable – for sowing, servicing or harvesting larger beds – then prolific use of planks or stepping stones is advised. Planks help to spread your weight over a greater area so that the soil beneath is subjected to less pressure. Strategically placed stepping stones will help you to get in among your crops without trampling willy-nilly on cultivated ground.
Keeping Pots Sludge-Free
Plants grown in containers may also find their roots uncomfortably saturated when the wet stuff keeps on falling. Some plants will just about cope but others, including most overwintering herbs, will positively hate it. Combine sodden potting soil with penetrating frost, and otherwise hardy plants can quickly die off.
It really is essential that pots, troughs and tubs have enough drainage holes at their base. Be guided by size – a 30cm (12in) pot, for example, should have around six 1cm (0.5in) wide drainage holes. Clearly if your pot is bigger it will need more drainage holes, and vice versa. If there aren’t enough, drill some more. Then stand pots up onto pot feet or pebbles so that excess water can drain out and away from these holes unhindered.
Finally a word on adding ‘drainage materials’ to the bottom of pots: don’t! Much-repeated advice recommends adding a layer of grit, stones or similar material to the bottom of pots before filling with potting soil. The theory goes that the larger gaps allow for better drainage of the growing medium above. This sounds plausible, but in practice it does little to alleviate wet conditions and may even impede drainage. So don’t overcomplicate things. Simply fill your pot with your preferred potting soil – and nothing else.
Keeping soil, or potting soil, in tip-top condition for the plants growing in it needn’t be overly complicated. It all comes down to showing some respect: feed your soil with organic matter, avoid compacting it, and help it to work naturally with your plants’ roots.