Dealing with Water-retentive Soils

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

A good friend recently asked me if putting a brick in the bottom of a container interferes with drainage? After reading the question, it occurred to me that there are aspects to the question that Iíve discussed very little here at Dave's. It also occurred to me that I could use her question to help those who grow in heavy (water-retentive) soils. Iím going to define those soils, but this isnít about disparaging soil types - itís about helping you try to squeeze the most plant vitality (and the water) ;-) out of them. Heavy soils are based on fine ingredients. If the soil contains more than 30-40% of any combination of peat, coir, compost, or other fine ingredients like builders sand or topsoil, it will retain appreciable amounts of 'perched water' and remain soggy after itís saturated - and this is about dealing with soggy soils.

Perched water is water that remains in the soil after the soil stops draining. If you wet a sponge & hold it by a corner until it stops draining, the water that is forced out of the sponge when you squeeze it is perched water. From the plantís perspective, perched water is unhealthy because it occupies air spaces that are needed for normal root function and metabolism. The gasses produced under anoxic (airless) conditions (CO2, sulfurous compounds, methane) are also an issue. The main issue though, is that roots deprived of sufficient oxygen begin to die within hours. You donít actually see this, but the finest, most important roots die first. The plant then has to spend stored energy or current photosynthetic (food production) to regenerate lost roots - an expensive energy outlay that would otherwise have been spent on blooms, fruit, branch extension, increasing biomass, systems maintenance Ö.. Perhaps the plant would have stored the energy for a winterís rest and the spring flush of growth instead of expending it on root regeneration.

You can see that perched water, from the plantís perspective, is not a good thing. From our own perspective, we think itís rather convenient when we only need to water our plantings every 4-5 days, but because we canít see it, there is a sacrifice in potential growth/vitality for our convenience - like driving on low tires reduces fuel economy. How we choose to resolve this issue is of no concern to me - we all arrange our priorities & few of us are willing to water plants every hour to squeeze the last wee bit of vitality from them. Growing is about compromise in more cases than not. There is no judgment passed here on soil choice.

If you donít agree that perched water is generally a bad thing in containers, thereís no need to read on. If youíre still interested, Iíll lay a little groundwork here before I outline some things remedial you can do to combat excess water retention. Almost all out-of-the-bag soils retain a considerable amount of perched water after they have been saturated. Each individual soil formulation will retain a specific height of perched water unique to THAT soil. No matter what the shape or size of the container - height, width, round, square ÖÖ the height of the PWT (perched water table) will be the same. You can fill a 1" diameter pipe with a particular soil or a 55 gallon S-shaped drum with the same soil, and both will have exactly the same PWT height.

Letís do some imagining for the purpose of illustration. Most peat or compost based soils retain in excess of 3 inches of perched water, so lets imagine a soil that retains 3 inches of perched water. Also, imagine a funnel that is 10 inches between the exit hole & the mouth and is filled with soil. Because we are imagining, the mouth is enclosed & has a drain hole in it. In your minds eye, picture the funnel filled with a soil that holds 3 inches of perched water, and the soil is saturated. If the funnel is placed so the large opening, the mouth, is down, you can see the largest possible volume of soil possible when using this container is saturated, the first 3 inches; but, turn the funnel over and what happens? We KNOW that the PWT level is constant at 3 inches, but there is a very large difference in the volume of soil in the lower 3 inches of the funnel after it is placed small end down. This means there is only a small fraction of the volume of perched water in the small-end-down application vs. the large-end-down. When you tip the funnel so the small end is down, all but a small fraction of the perched water runs out the bottom hole as the large water column seeks its 3 inch level in the small volume of soil. In a way, you have employed gravity to help you push the extra water out of the soil.

You havenít affected the DRAINAGE characteristics of the soil or its level of aeration, but you HAVE affected the o/a water retention of the container. This allows air to return to the soil much faster and greatly reduces any issues associated with excess water retention. OK - we can see that tapered containers will hold a reduced VOLUME of perched water, even when drainage characteristics, aeration, and the actual height of the PWT remain unchanged, but we donít and wonít all grow in funnels, so lets see how we can apply this information PRACTICALLY to other containers.

Drainage layers donít work. The soil rests on top of drainage layers, then the water Ďperchesí in the soil above - just as it would if the soil was resting on the container bottom. Drainage layers simply raises the LOCATION where the PWT resides. But what if we put a brick or several bricks on the bottom of the container? Letís look at that idea, using the soil with the 3inch PWT again. Letís say the brick is 4x8x3 inches tall, and the container is a rectangle 10x12x12 inches high. The volume of soil occupied by perched water is going to be 10x12x3, or 360 cubic inches. If we add the brick to the bottom of the container so the height of the brick is 3 inches, it reduces the volume of soil that can hold perched water, so for every brick you add (4x8x3=96) you reduce the volume of soil that can hold perched water by 96 cubic inches. If you add 3 bricks, the volume of soil that holds perched water would be 360-288, or only 72 cubic inches, so you have reduced the amount of perched water in the container by 80% Ö.. quite a feat for a brick.

Your job though, is to be sure that what you add to the bottom of the container to reduce the volume of soil that can hold perched water doesnít create stress later on when the planting has matured. Be sure the container has a large enough volume of soil to produce plants free from the stress of excessive root constriction. You donít want to trade one stress for another.

How else might we Ďtrickí the water in the container into leaving? Letís think about the following in 2 dimensions, because itís easier to visualize. If you look at the side view of a cylindrical or rectangular container, you see a rectangle, so imagine a cylinder or rectangle 10 inches wide or 10 inches in diameter and 8" deep. Both side views are rectangles. Now, draw a horizontal line 3 inches above the bottom to represent the level of the PWT. Remember, this line will always remain horizontal and 3 inches above the bottom. Now tip the container at a 45 degree angle and notice what happens. The profile is now a triangle with an apex pointing downward and the base is of course the line of the PWT 3 inches above the bottom. Can you see there is a much lower volume of soil in the bottom 3 inches of the triangle than in the bottom 3 inches of the rectangle? The PWT line is level at 3 inches above the apex, so by simply tilting your containers after you water, you can trick a large fraction of the unwanted perched water to exit the container. Sometimes it helps to have a drain hole on the bottom outside edge of the pot, but not always. Only when the location of the hole is above the natural level of the PWT when the pot has been tilted does it affect how much additional water might have been removed.

On the forums, Iíve often talked about wicks, so Iíll just touch on them lightly. If you push a wick through the drain hole and allow it to dangle several inches below the bottom of your container immediately after watering, the wick will ífoolí the perched water into behaving as though the container was deeper than it actually is. The water will move down the wick, seeking the bottom of the container and will then be pushed off the end of the wick by the additional water moving down behind it.

A variation of the wick, is the pot-in-pot technique, in which you place/nest one container inside another container with several inches of the same soil in the bottom and fill in around the sides. Leaving the drain hole of the top container open allows an unobstructed soil bridge between containers. Water will move downward through the soil bridge from the top container into the bottom container seeking its natural level; so all of the perched water the soil is capable of holding ends up in the bottom container, leaving you with much better aeration in your growing container.

The immediately above example employs the soil in the lower container as a wick, but you can achieve the same results by partially burying containers in the yard or garden, essentially employing the earth as a giant wick. These techniques change the physical dynamics of water movement and retention from the way water normally behaves in containers to the way water behaves in the earth. Essentially, you have turned your containers into mini raised beds, from the perspective of hydrology.

What I shared doesnít mean itís a good thing to use water retentive soils, simply because you have tricks to help you deal with them. For years, Iíve been using highly aerated soils and biting the Ďwater more oftení bullet because Iíve seen the considerable difference these durable and highly aerated soils make when it comes to plant growth and vitality. Many others have come to the same realization and are freely sharing their thoughts and encouragement all across the forums, so I wonít go into detail about soils here.

It should also be noted that roots are the heart of the plant, and it is impossible to maximize the health and vitality of above-ground parts without first maximizing the health and vitality of roots. Healthy roots also reduce the incidence of disease and insect predation by keeping metabolisms and vitality high so the plant can maximize the production of bio-compounds essential to defense.

The soil/medium is the foundation of every conventional container planting, and plantings are not unlike buildings in that you cannot build much on a weak foundation. A good soil is much easier to grow in, and offers a much wider margin for error for growers across the board, no matter their level of experience. But regardless of what soils you choose, I hope the outline here provides you with some useful strategies if you DO find yourself having to deal with a heavy soil.


Morgantown, WV

Good info. This spring I plan on planting in pots outside. I will be putting most of them on the ground. Should I use a wick? Dottie

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

Whether or not you should use a wick to help you drain excess water depends on your choice of soil. If you feel you can't flush the soil each time you water w/o risking root rot, you should use a wick to help rid the soil of sogginess. If you have a soil bridge between the soil in the pot and the soil under the pot (the earth), the entire earth is your wick and will effectively pull any excess water from the soil, except in the worst of cases. Partially burying the pots can also be helpful because of the wicking action and the fact that it will help ameliorate soil temperature fluctuation. Hydrologically speaking, partially burying the pots turns them into mini raised beds, causing water to behave like it does in the garden instead of containers.

Good luck, Dottie!


Norridgewock, ME(Zone 5a)

Al, always good to hear from you and your information here is very helpful.

Bay City, MI(Zone 6a)

Thanks! I actually posted this to help a poster over at Beginner's Houseplants. I figured it might do some good here, too - at least I hope so.


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