You pour water on your garden soil but it rolls right off the surface. It won’t soak in!
Or, after you water, the soil looks dark brown and damp, but when you poke your finger into it (the one-finger test), only the top crust is dampened and everything is dry, dry, dry beneath.
If you live in dry Southern California, you’re undoubtedly familiar with this phenomenon, known as a hydrophobic condition.
I’m not sure what fear/phobia has to do with it. In the sandy, it’s-really-a-sand-dune soils of Westchester (L.A. 90045, near LAX), hydrophobic conditions are more and more frequent.
Used to be we’d see this phenomenon beginning in, say, June, continuing through the summer, and not letting up until the first rains of autumn. Ahem. These days that “first rain” might be the “only rain,” and it might not arrive til December. And hydrophobic conditions can easily appear in January.
Welcome to climate change. Welcome to aridification. You have no choice but to get used to it.
What can you do when your soil behaves like this? Here are some things that work for me:
Compost is things that used to be plants, mostly decomposed. Compost acts like a sponge in your soil, soaking up water and holding it for plants and soil critters to use later.
If your compost supply feels dry to the touch, mix water into the compost before you begin to use it. You want it to feel like a wrung-out kitchen sponge.
If you’re planting a new garden, mix the moistened compost into the soil.
If you’re working with existing plantings, dig out small plugs — say, the size of 1-pint yogurt tubs — between your plants. Shovel compost into the holes you’ve created.
Use existing garden soil (not mulch) to surround your plant with a rimmed basin. When you water, this basin or moat will prevent runoff. It will hold water above the plant’s rootball until the water has a chance to soak in.
How big a basin? As wide as the plant’s rain shadow.
What’s a rain shadow? Imagine a gentle rain falling onto a plant or tree: the circle of soil that the plant shelters from the rain is the plant’s rain shadow. This circle is defined by the furthest reach of the plant or tree’s branch tips.
Nature abhors bare soil — Emilia Hazelip, French Permaculturist
Simply lay mulch on top of the surface of your soil. The mulch will soak up water and hold it for the plants and soil critters.
Also, the mulch helps keep the top layer of surface open, friable. That helps water penetrate into the soil.
For veggie plants, mulch with crumbled dry leaves, chopped-up garden trimmings, grass clippings (without seedheads), straw (not hay), or shredded newspaper.
For perennials and trees, use tree chippings, or chipped-bark mulch. Remember to leave a small mulch-free gap against the trunk of all trees — because mulch against tree bark can cultivate plant pathogens.
This one isn’t a technique for watering your overall garden — instead it’s a spot treatment. It’s good for integrating a new plant into your garden, giving emergency care to a plant that is suffering, or delivering water to a plant that’s not located near conventional irrigation.
In conclusion, remember the ultimate goal: you’re trying to re-hydrate your soil. Hydration is for the soil critters, both visible and microscopic, so that they can function as the ecosystem which feeds your plant roots.
We need those living soils — flourishing — because living soils sequester carbon (they capture it and hold onto it), so living soils are a major solution to climate change.