Feast or famine best describes our weather patterns over the past few years.
We go through periods of drought followed by seemingly monsoon-like conditions. After experiencing one of the wettest winters on record, spring has now brought us ample rainfall.
These extended wet periods lead to problems with our soils, which tend to have a high clay content. Clay soil drains poorly and holds water — detrimental issues for many plants.
Symptoms of excess soil moisture include a wilted appearance, rotting at the base of the plant and poor growth. People often unknowingly compound the problem because they think the wilted plants need more water, as wilting is also a common symptom of dry weather.
Learning to manage clay soils during periods of excess moisture and drought can be difficult. The importance of good soil cannot be overstressed.
Soil supports the roots that in turn supports the top growth. Waterlogged soils exclude oxygen from the roots, causing them to die. Without roots, the plant is unable to uptake needed moisture and nutrients.
Simply put, poor roots leads to poor plants. Gardening is really not about growing plants but growing healthy, well-established root systems.
Soil management is one of the hardest aspects of plant culture to grasp. It is not easy to visualize the internal workings of a mass of soil. The most effective long-term solution to poorly drained soils is the proper cultivation and addition of organic matter.
Many products market themselves as a quick fix to the problem. To date, no non-biased research exists to fully substantiate their claims.
Improving the soil with organic matter takes time. Over the long haul, adding compost, peat moss or manures to the soil will improve the drainage and aeration. Of the three, compost is the best method for improving soil drainage.
When possible, incorporate a 2- to 4-inch layer into the garden soil at least 6 inches deep for best results. During periods of excess moisture, use mulch with caution as it slows the drying out process. During a wet spring, pull back the mulch layer from poorly drained areas.
Another trick is to plant a little shallower, getting establishing roots out of the muck. Proper plant selection is essential. A few trees, shrubs and flowers thrive in wet locations. But for these areas, avoid plants that do not tolerate wet feet.
Plants damaged by wet soils do not need extra moisture until the area dries out. Adding fertilizer will only compound the problem. It will take time for a plant to recover and develop new roots.
Lastly, as much as possible, avoid tilling or walking on wet soils. This only exacerbates the issues.
As the saying goes, this too shall pass. Soon I will be dispensing watering advice because, at some point, the pendulum will swing the other way.
Dennis Patton is a horticulture agent with Kansas State University Research and Extension. Got a question for him or other university extension experts? You can also email them to firstname.lastname@example.org.