Tuesday 14 July 2015

When it rains I rush out and plant

Can you do the same?

I have discussed walking on wet soil before. I am like a dog with a bone - gnawing away. In an early post I histrionically jumped on my wet soil. In a later one I claimed that your gardening would be transformed if you could weed, prune and plant as soon as it stopped raining - or even before! No doubt some readers muttered something about losing an excuse to stay inside!

I want today to talk about the suitability of wet conditions for planting. Not just for the none digger whose soil is settled and wonderfully drained and aerated but what about the more traditional gardener?

I will start with those circumstances you should NOT take my advice.

  1. If your image of a good soil is something loose and fluffy my advice is not for you. If your feet sink in to a very wet loosened clay soil you must wait until it dries. Loosened soil is not cohesive and every footprint, wheel barrow rut or kid’s bicycle tyre causes compaction. Ruining soil structure by compaction is gardening’s greatest sin.
  2. If drainage water is slow to run away because it has nowhere to go or the soil has been ruined by previous compaction beware. On the other hand a freely drained soil when holding the maximum water it can against gravity (technically called ‘field capacity’ by soil scientists) is normally suitable for planting. If the water exceeds field capacity and potential air spaces are still filled with water then wait.
  3. If you have remarkably heavy rainfall  - perhaps you live in Preston - and have a heavy clay soil then be very careful. Here in dry York I do a happy dance when it rains. I despair when the wind blows water away as quickly as it falls! For me it is very important to take the opportunity to plant when we get heavy rain.
  4. If you are of the school that needs to work the soil when you plant you will be better staying inside.
  5. If you consider your soil needs ameliorating by mixing in some fiendish product from the garden centre not only are you probably wrong but you had better stay inside and watch more ads on the tele.
This soil at the base of this drying up pond is far too wet to plant. It is above ‘field capacity’ and might be described as waterlogged!
I garden on several types of soil in my two cemetery gardens, on the village plot and at home in my own garden and at Cathi’s next door. Cathi whose garden I am refurbishing receives much of my largesse when spare plants migrate round. Plants come from divisions from my borders and new plants I have propagated in my greenhouse.
All the gardens are managed with a no dig regime and all the soils are firm to walk on but are NOT compacted. The soils are amassed with open channels made by plant roots, worms and natural cracking. When I put my spade in to make a planting hole or perhaps just  to cut a single slit, the soil crumbles. If the opportunity is there I always wait for it to rain before I plant. It is one of the huge benefits of being a no dig gardener!

There are several advantages of the soil being wetted by heavy rain when you plant.

  1. Roots grow towards wet. They don’t grow towards dry. If it is very dry when you plant then it is highly desirable that you very generously water the planting hole. Incidentally it is sometimes important that the plants have been watered before you plant. If you are planting container grown garden centre plants in modern composts they are best dunked in a bucket to bubble all the air away - the air soon comes back but this procedure ensures any hydrophobic dryness is dispelled and the compost is thoroughly wetted.
  2. If the soil is well wetted by rain then surrounding humidity will usually be high, perhaps for several days. Rain often comes on repeated occasions in wet spells. Oh the joy of a five day metrological depression if you are planting in summer! Repeated rainfall ensures the plants are well settled in and make good capillary contact with the soil.
  3. If the surrounding soil to the immediate root zone has been well wetted by rain, then as your plant’s rootball starts to dehydrate when the plant transpires water, there will be both replenishing capillary movement of water towards the rootball and new fibrous roots will grow out to the wet soil.
  4. Think how useless it is to hoe weeds when it is wet. (It is beyond the pale to rake them away). When exposed to drying winds and sunshine they desiccate and die. When rain is around - even if it is just clouded and humid - weeds have marvellous powers of recovery. Your plants behave in the same way.

So what if you are a traditional gardener, can you plant when it is wet?

Often you can.

  1. Many normal gardeners these days do not dig their borders and instead control their weeds by hand pulling and shallow hoeing. To my mind hoeing means detaching the weed at or just below ground level and NOT churning the soil. Sadly most Dutch hoes manufactured today are so designed that you can hardly avoid it! If your method of weed control is just to hoe the weeds with minimum soil disturbance soil then because the soil is settled you can later plant as I do.
  2. Many vegetable growers grow in raised beds and work from the path. After rain do NOT  ‘work’ the soil but just get planting or sowing.
  3. Many modern gardens sadly are small and the borders are narrow. You can work from the path or the lawn. If your plants are in gravel gardens or rock gardens you can perch on the stones.
  4. I hate to admit this but if your soil is very sandy the plants will still thrive even if you damage soil structure when you walk on its loose wet surface. Structure of sandy soil is actually very fragile and crumbs easily collapse and aerating channels made by roots and worms can cave in. Even so, because the unchangeable grains of sand are of coarse texture, aeration and drainage is maintained.
Glory be, we had half an inch of rain which was repeated three days later. Here in York it was manna from heaven. We were due to go out, I had half an hour to pop in these aquilegia, hollyhock and dahlias - and a few other things
Although my bog garden was wet anyway these newly planted small primulas benefited from the humid conditions

Ten days after planting the dry weather had returned with a vengeance but my dwarf aquilegias were now well established

I broadcast my leek seed but the wet weather was an opportunity to patch out some of the plants into the gaps. You can see that when the dry weather returned they needed more water. (We thin out the leeks as they grow and eat them)

I have written before about wet soil

More tips on planting here
I jump on wet soil
I work on wet soil
I discuss field capacity
I describe hydrophobic soil

I don’t walk on water

If you can persuade yourself that loose fluffy soil is a very bad thing and a firm cohesive surface fulfils your heart's desire - then you can walk, plant and prune on wet soil


  1. This year has afforded few opportunities for planting into wet soil. The soil in my garden is sandy and dries out rapidly at the best of times, so in the current hot, dry, windy conditions I have had to make extensive use of the hosepipe.

    1. I have used the hosepipe more this year on my veg than for a very long time Mark

  2. We are waiting for some rain so we can plant our leeks. Any holes made in the dry soil just fill in before we can plant.

  3. Both amusing and informative as ever Roger, but I can't help thinking that your sand/silt type soil does lend itself to your no dig policy. Although I no longer cultivate other than shallow hoeing, I put the amenable nature of my clay/sand soil down to the amount of grit I have incorporated over the years.

    1. Yes I know Rick, not only do I have none dug soil but also sand. I would argue that at Bolton Percy the soil is heavier and that at Worsbrough is different again and I carry out the same policy.

  4. I agree we need to make the most of these opportunities. I've just been out planting in the wet. My plants are happy and so am I.

    1. I am happy too when my plants are.
      Looked at your blog and see you have got some recycled compost. Hope its good stuff

    2. Well, I'll have to wait and see. I'll be cautious after reading your post, It's too light and loose to plant into really but I'll probably try some with a few lettuces and see how they do.

    3. By the way, it is marketed as a soil conditioner not compost.

    4. Thanks Alison for confirming they are distinct products and not potting composts


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