Hydrophobic Soil and How to Fix It

What is Hydrophobic Soil?

Healthy soil contains organic matter that retains moisture longer, even in extreme climates or weather conditions, unlike Hydrophobic soil, which is dry soil that does not want to take in water. This happens when the bacteria and fungal life in your soil die off from lack of moisture. There are many different degrees of hydrophobic soil and many ways to fix it.

Amending Hydrophobic Soil

When I first arrived at growing Spaces, the soil in the domes had not been watered or cared for in many years. There was no choice but to remove 1.5- 2 ft of soil and replace it with healthy new alpaca manure compost. Though this extreme measure is not often necessary, it’s worth mentioning in those rare cases where the soil can not be healed.

Compost

Compost is an organic matter broken down into soil that contains high quantities of beneficial fungi and bacteria through natural process. It is always a better choice to either make your own compost or obtain it locally. The good “ life” aka bacteria and microorganisms that lives in the soil can be compromised or killed when sitting out in plastic bags in the sun or dry out for extended periods of time.

Compost Tea

Compost Tea - hydrophobic soil

Compost Tea is made from fully finished compost or worm castings. There are lots of ways to make compost tea. The easiest way is by putting compost into a pillowcase or burlap bag then allowing them to settle. After about 2 days fill a watering can and water it into your soil. If you leave it too long it will start to smell awful this is anaerobic bacteria and it is bad for your soil. You will get better results from using a bubbler or aerator because is will oxygenate the tea and support aerobic life in the soil. 

I recommend adding molasses, which is a great addition to support the life of beneficial bacterial in tea and soil. Fish Emulsion which is fermented fish product is also a great additive to support beneficial bacteria as well as nutrients in hydrophobic soil. Combined with kelp it will help to strengthen the roots of plants.

Manure

manure - hydrophobic soil

To be blunt manure is animal poo. There are many different kinds with different nutrient compositions. Each manure is best used in certain ways. Alpaca and Llama manure can be mixed directly into the soil, Cow and horse manure can be made into a tea and watered in. Chicken and other bird manure are best composted. Bagged cow manure is easy to obtain at any garden center. If you are really interested in poo, stay tuned. We are currently writing an all about manure. Join our newsletter to stay in the know.

Whey

whey for hydrophobic soil

Whey is a by-product of the cheese-making process and is rich in beneficial bacteria. It promotes the growth of new bacteria in the soil. I have used whey in Growing Domes with hydrophobic soil successfully. It has plenty of other great uses in your garden. If you are curious here’s an article that talks a little bit about what it is and how to use it.

Mycorrhizae

Mycorrhizae for hydrophobic soil

“Myco” – “rhiza” literally means “fungus” – “root” and describes the mutually beneficial relationship between the plant and root fungus. These specialized fungi colonize plant roots and extend far into the soil. Mycorrhizal fungal filaments in the soil are truly extensions of root systems and are more effective in nutrient and water absorption than the roots themselves.  My current favorite is Orca by Plant Revolution. It is a highly concentrated liquid mycorrhiza and beneficial bacteria product, which seems to be showing impressive results in increasing pest and disease resistance, growth, and production.  I prefer to get it at our local hydroponic store to support local businesses, but you can also find it on amazon.

Wetting Agent

A soil wetting agent lowers the surface tension of water so that it can be absorbed into the soil. It is often the first step in treating hydrophobic soil to increase permeability so that nutrients for increasing life can penetrate the soil and do their work. I don’t recommend buying a premade wetting agent. Not all wetting agents are suited for organic gardening because they contain petroleum derivatives and alcohol. Here is my favorite recipe. Or you can easily make yourself with agar agar and aloe vera, which are preferred for supporting soil life. I’m currently experimenting with nopal cactus as a wetting agent to support Water retention as the domes get hotter going into summer. A good biodegradable soap is another more conventional option.

not hydrophobic soil

In some cases, the soil is too far gone, and you might be better off starting fresh. The best way to deal with hydrophobic soil is to avoid it from happening in the first place. Above all, a regular watering schedule is key to a successful garden, even in the winter! Integrating a well-aged organic compost into the soil is essential for moisture retention. With a simple daily routine, your Dome will be a healthy source of joy filled with abundance and life.

Heather with a 24 pound zucchini

Written By: Heather Gray

I am a gardener and educator here at Growing Spaces. I have farmed and gardened for 27 years in clay, loam, and sand in many different environments. I’m certified in Permaculture design and have taught college courses in agroecology. My focus is on Organic, Holistic, Sustainability.

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