The challenges of waterlogged soil

The recent wet, cloudy, drizzly and overcast weather has certainly left our soils waterlogged. Anyone who works with the soil - from large-scale agricultural producers owning large tracts of the farm and ranch land for sale in Texas to home gardeners like you and I - recognizes the need for soil that doesn't stay too wet for too long. 

Soil drainage refers to the ability of water to move out of the soil. I describe it as the difference between standing in the shower or standing in the bathtub. Ideally, we want conditions where the water flows through the soil and runs off, like what happens in a shower, instead of standing there and stagnating like a bathtub. 

"Waterlogged soil will cause considerable problems for those running farms of all sizes."

In times of drought we easily see the results of lack of water, where plants die, and in times of extreme rain, when soils get downright soggy, excess water can kill plants or simply diminish performance. 

In one small example of crop being stifled by too much water in the ground, numerous home gardeners (including myself) tried to plant seed potatoes this past week. But planting a seed potato in soupy soil can easily lead to rotting seed potatoes.

My good friend and fellow country living enthusiast Tommy Bryan told me he decided to plant his potatoes in a very large, well-drained pot rather than risk it in his soil. Last year Bryan only had a fraction of the potato production he should've had because his soil stayed too wet. Potatoes are but one of the numerous plants that suffer from being deluged by too much water and fare better in well-drained soils.

The challenges of waterlogged soilWhen soil gets overly waterlogged, your crops can easily suffer.

So what exactly constitutes poorly or well-drained soil? Well, several factors can - but in our area, I often blame the underlying clay, and specifically its depth. Now, to some extent, nearly all of Angelina County has very good topsoil, but it can be shallow. You'll have a much easier time draining your soil if the clay is three feet or more below the surface, and it'll be more difficult if it's closer to the top.

Geography and other factors 
The names of the Redland and Redtown communities in northern Angelina County are taken from the soils in the area and their heavy concentrations of red clay. Alternatively, down around Diboll and Huntington, the local soil features a great deal of gray clay as little as 17 inches down, which means it's more easily saturated. 

Other areas of East Texas have some very deep, sandy soils. These may have the opposite problem - not holding enough water for plants to use. In a perfect soil, about half of every shovelful would be pore space and the other half would constitute the solids: sand, silt, clay and organic matter. Sand, silt and clay are the mineral components characteristic of the location and parent material from which soils originate. That "perfect porous half," meanwhile, is occupied with water and air. A surplus of air is the result of a drought or extremely deep and sandy soil that never quite holds the right amount of water - but too much water causes roots to drown.

Avoiding excessive moisture in soil
How, then, do we cope with poorly drained soils on our TX land, or the temporary conditions that result in the presence of too much water? 

Many gardeners choose to use raised beds. Forming a raised planting row in a conventional garden is the most obvious and widely used tactic. Some use lumber or other materials to create a permanently raised bed to grow produce. It's also wise to choose your planting sites very carefully. Watermelons, for example, simply won't perform well on a site that is poorly drained, and the same is true of most fruit trees. 

Adding organic matter is another great method for helping soil drainage - and when push comes to shove, I would argue that organic matter is the silver bullet for whatever ails your soil. If you have too much water held in a clay-heavy soil, introducing organic matter will break up the clay and provide the aforementioned pore space, ultimately benefiting your farm.

Cary Sims is the County Extension Agent for agriculture and natural resources for Angelina County. His email address is cw-sims@tamu.edu.