Improving Your Water Logged Soil

Q. I want to ask if any of you know what to do with soil that is holding water. I planted a dogwood tree 3 months back and saw it was doing poorly and when I removed it I had to "ring the roots out." Everytime I watered it and fed it the liquids were choking the roots. I want to put a dogwood in the same place but I really don’t know what to do with that much standing water except to build it up with a berm. Do any of you have any ideas on the subject?

A. I’m in Australia (southern) and I would suggest planting tea-trees (melaleucas species), willows, gum trees, iris, anything that thrives on being in boggy conditions. (its called ‘puggy’ where I live ) because its like a sponge in winter (soaks up the water) and cracks in the very dry drought like conditions (not very often) Dogwoods, in Australia at least, seem to like dry conditions, build up a hill like formation of soil and then plant so that it drains really well and keeps the roots out of damp. Gail in Australia

A. Most problems with water and trees and bushes start with too small a hole dug with a shovel thus packing the outside edges as the next shovelful is levered out. The water has a hard time getting past this wall of packed dirt. BUT, first you need to determine if the surrounding area just plain holds water due to hardpan soil or a high content of clay. OR is the water table naturally that close to the surface? If is just a high watertable, raise the surface level to keep tree from standing in water. If the problem is small hole or packed earth there are solutions. Never dig a planting whole with a shovel; ever. Use a mattock and dig the hole twice as deep and three times the rootball size. place the soil that was on or near the surface in the bottom of the hole mounded up so that when the bare-root of the tree or bush is placed on it all of the main trunk or stem is slightly higher that the surrounding area. 2-3 inches. then fill in the hole, adding water to make a sticky mud. This is called ‘mudding-in’. The second option is to use a ‘clamshell’ type post hole digger. Dig the hole twice as wide and twice as deep as rootball. Then mud-in, again inverting the soil.  Why bareroot? Your soil will not match the soil from the nursery. When roots hit the unfamiliar soil they can shock and the roots quit growing. When you bareroot the entire plant may shock but will recover. Shocked roots usually do not. If your tree is planted using one of the preceding methods your tree will thrive, IF you resist the temptation to water and fertilize; ever. The inversion of the soil is all the fertilizer it will need. Fertilizer, even starter fertilizer is only needed in nurseries and orchards to prevent exhaustion of the soil. Native trees need no fertilizer. Home orchard trees should only be fertilized in the late winter and not needed every year. Hope this helps. Michael Futrelle

A. I know this will sound silly to you, but have you checked to be sure you don’t have a leak in your water pipe nearby? I had a similar situation several years ago. A place in my yard about 20 feet from the rear of my house. I decided to plant a cranberry bush there as they thrive on lots of water. It did well. Later on I was digging in the area about half way between the bush and my house and the hole filled with water almost immediately! Upon checking, I found that there was a leak in the main water supply line for my house. It was a steel pipe and had rusted. I repaired the leak…my water bill dropped so drastically that the water company came out and replaced the water meter! Needless to say, the cranberry bush died, as I had neglected to water it. Bill R.

A. It might be that the water is going to be harder to get rid of than simply planting another variety in it`s place that enjoys lots of water. Willows usually grow well and like lots of water, also certain cyprus trees, also. – JF

A. Standing water in tree planting holes usually indicates heavy clay soil that acts as a water retainer rather than a drain. Gardening books suggest that you dig a much larger and deeper hole than normal. Sometimes you can dig through the clay in depth to better soil. Then put topsoil, a planting mix, or some peat moss in the hole, filling it to the proper depth for the new tree. Use the same product to fill the hole the rest of the way. If you use peat moss, be sure to mix good dirt with it. Ed

A. To increase drainage, work organic materials such as bark, rotted manure, leaf mold, peat moss and compost into the soil. You will need to then wait a season if before planting if your materials have not already been thoroughly composted because otherwise they may burn the plant roots. Also unless you work it very deep and in a large area around the spot it may encourage the roots to stay in the hole and not spread as much as they should. A better idea may be to plant another type of tree, such as a willow, that tolerates wet soil well. Or maybe plant a bog garden. (Irises LOVE wet feet.) Two good sources for information on what to do with different soil types are: www.gardengatemagazine.com and www.arborday.org. – Celia

A. Two things. First, add sand, lots and lots of sharp sand-you can buy it. Secondly, start yourself a compost pile and next time you have this problem, mix in lots of compost. It breaks down heavy soils, which is what you’ve got. Any gardening book would be able to give you more examples of "soil conditioners" for heavy, waterlogged soil. You need to be sure and make the hole three times bigger than the root "area" of anything you’re planting and mix in the above items when you backfill in the hole. Your area will drain a lot better and give the roots a chance to get stronger and spread before hitting the "brick wall" that is your soil. I have the same kind of soil. – Lauryi

A. I have been trying to get dogwoods going for the last 4 years with no luck. I know it can’t be the area because they are the state tree here!!! I finally decided to splurge and spend all of this years gardening money on having a nursery do it for me. I know the guy there pretty well and he said that dogwoods are kinda temperamental, they don’t like too much water – -well bingo, I had been drowning the trees!! He built up like a raised bed (so there would be plenty of runoff) to plant the trees in and mulched them super heavy, he said water them but not like you would other newly planted trees. So far they are doing good, good luck with yours.- Carolyn

A. Poor drainage problem around dogwood? Do you have heavy clay soil? You need to amend it with compost, humus etc. Maybe even a little sand. – Ivy

A. My husband is a landscape designer. He said you may have a clay soil. You need to dig the hole deeper and add compost or peat moss to create some drainage away from the plant or even add some pea gravel to the hole and then add some peat or compost and then plant your tree a little higher and mound the soil so it sets a little higher. – Toni

A. Use packing peanuts, turned into the soil. They will loosen the soil so water will not just puddle up. – Shirley

A. I’ve been attending our local community college for about 4 years now (at night) taking various landscape courses. I’d like to help out with your standing water problem and your dogwood tree. What exactly IS the problem? I mean, is it poor drainage…is it in some sort of large planter? or is it poor soil? very heavy clay or something? There are various things you can do, if the soil is poor, then you can always ammend it with organic matter, if the drainage is poor, then you have a totally different problem on your hands. In that case you’d have to provide some sort of way for the water to escape, possibly a drainage hole in the planter, or figure some way to channel it away from your tree. I’m sorry I couldn’t have been more helpful. Ask another question!! 😉 – Catfische

A. Glad to have you running the show. I used to take a city friend buckets of sand from our farm so she could add it around her plants. She too had heavy soil that had no drainage. Sand will work like a charm. You can buy it but it can get expensive. See if you have someone nearby that might have sand. It is very heavy, and more so if it is wet. You can sometimes fine good quality from a sand & gravel yard that will even deliver it and dump it where you want. Try the yellow pages and call around and get prices first. If you have plenty, you can afford to be generous. You don’t want to get some that is full of weed stickers. Dig the hole deeper than you will be putting the tree roots and mix with the soil. Mix it all through the soil around the tree. Good luck to your efforts. You and all TFL readers are all invited to check out my new site & newsletter. It’s FREE, email and weekly. Topics: Kitchen Tips, Around The House, Gardening, Assistance, Homesteading, Homespun Creations, Homeschooling, Critters, Free Stuff, Wild Bird Watching. Members only may use the E-postcard Creator with some awesome artwork. You must be able to submit an email address for confirmation and to receive weekly email updates. Thank you, – Nita & Randal Holstine

A. I live in the desert and we have horrible clay soil here that is the death of things if you don’t prepare it well. Since you are planting a dogwood I am surmising that you live somewhere in a nicer climate. How to prepare clay soils: Dig a big hole, much bigger than you need to put the tree in. It should be at least twice as big in each dimension. Fill the hole with water and see if it drains. It may take a while. If it takes more than a day you should probably dig deeper. Then buy some composted mulch and mix it in with the clay you took out of the hole. Use this mixture, about 50-50, to plant the tree. If you have some sand, you can mix in a little of that, too. You don’t want to overwater the tree. I suggest you get a moisture meter (available at places like Walmart and Home Depot, etc) to check the moisture level. Overwatering kills more plants than under-watering. Especially if you have clay soil, overwatering can be a problem.

A. As for your dogwood tree, you could dig a deeper hole and put sand and or gravel in it to let the water drain away from the roots. Then put some of the soil over the gravel and replant the tree. – Fred

One thought on “Improving Your Water Logged Soil

  1. margaret andrews says:

    I had small cesspit put in corner of lawn to take up rainfall. now the situation is even worse. the sloping lawn and surrounding ground soil is a quagmire. Is this because too much ch soil was removed to make the small drain?

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