Most plants need at least an inch of water every week, but overdoing it can lead to irreversible damage in your garden. Though watering is essential for plant growth, it is good to let your soil get a little dry between waterings. But since “a little” isn’t something you can quantify, it can be tricky to determine how dry you should let your soil get.
You should let your soil dry out completely before re-watering. But if you’re having issues with compacted soil or the soil being bone-dry for extended periods, you may need to consider your watering habits.
In the rest of this article, I’ll answer common questions about drying out your soil. Additionally, I’ll talk about the dangers of over-watering your plants and discuss ways to figure out when your soil is ready for watering.
How Far Down Should Soil Be Dry Before Watering?
Soil should be dry up to 2 to 3 inches deep. The topsoil should be completely dried out up to this depth between watering sessions, but not too long that plants start wilting. Most plants can remain unwatered for a day as the soil completely dries and recovers, but that can vary with the species.
If plants look hot or burnt, you can mist them with water gently instead of pouring a can of water atop them and muddying the soil.
As long as there are no signs of drought or wilting leaves, it’s best to wait until you notice dryness on top of your plant’s soil before watering again. This can be difficult if you’re used to keeping a regular schedule for watering, but don’t worry! There are ways around this, such as utilizing your moisture meter or setting up a timed irrigation system.
How to Know When Your Soil Is Dry Enough for Subsequent Watering
There are two easy ways to check whether your garden soil has dried out enough to warrant subsequent watering:
Doing the Pencil Test
There are more methods than you think to help you test soil. According to the University of Wyoming, it’s really up to your preference what best tests your soil.
As you can imagine, farmers use all kinds of scientific and meticulously engineered methods to ensure that their soil gets the right water. Otherwise, their crops may suffer. But for your garden, you don’t need anything electric or expensive to test the soil. All you need is a pencil, a stick, or even your finger to determine how moist your soil is.
To do the “pencil test,” simply stick a pencil deep into your soil while avoiding any roots (doing this gently is best to ensure there is no damage). Next, pull the stick back up and observe how dirty it is.
If the stick is muddy or clean yet wet, your soil is plenty moist. If it’s a little dirty and damp, your soil is the right amount moist. If it comes up bone dry or has a hard time even getting through the soil, you may have a problem.
Coming up bone dry but still getting through the dirt indicates that your soil needs a little moisture. If you’ve tried to stick something into the soil and it had to break through to get in, this can be a sign of compaction.
Many things can cause soil compaction, but over-watering is a common cause. For this reason, don’t assume a dry stick during the pencil test means you need to water more. Sometimes it means you have watered too much for too long, and your soil is suffering.
Using a Moisture Meter to Test the Soil
If you want to eliminate the guesswork that comes with a pencil test, I highly recommend getting a moisture meter. I always suggest a moisture meter for all serious gardeners because these nifty tools measure more than just the moisture of your garden; they also measure pH, temperature, sunlight, and sometimes humidity.
Like the pencil test mentioned above, all you’ll need to do is stick the moisture meter into the dirt to get a reading. The moisture in the soil will react with the metal rod on your moisture meter and tell you how much moisture your plants are getting.
If your moisture meter indicates that the soil is dry, you should give the plants a good watering. It’s okay to be patient if the meter indicates there’s moisture in the soil unless you can physically see that your plants need some more water (if they’re wilted or burnt).
The Benefits of Letting Your Soil Dry Out Between Watering
Whether you’re looking for information on watering your plants or cultivating strong, healthy soil, the answer is the same: you should let your soil dry out a little between waterings.
Drying out your soil has numerous benefits. It can help prevent mold, disease, and waterlogging.
Letting the soil dry out between waterings is one of the most effective ways to prevent fungus, mold, and plant disease. This is because fungal spores become active when moisture reaches their threshold level in the soil. The more often you water your plants, the more likely that these spores will germinate and attack your plants’ roots.
Let your soil dry between watering sessions is also a great way to give it “a rest.” Drying soil out helps prevent compaction and improves the structure of your soil. It also allows time for oxygen to reach all parts of the soil, which can help with root growth and nutrient absorption.
Of course, this doesn’t mean you should plan on making your garden as dry as the desert. It’s important to ensure that your garden gets the water it needs without over-watering.
Gardening is all about striking a balance, and finding the right amount of water for your space is essential to healthy growth. As long as your garden isn’t dry for days on end, letting your soil get a break is fine.
The Dangers of Over-Watering Plants
Adding too much water to your garden can be detrimental in many ways. In some cases, it causes waterlogging and can make the habitat unlivable to helpful organisms. This is especially true if you’re planning on a garden in the future but don’t have any plants lying down right now.
Waterlogging is dangerous for plants and crops, and you may be at risk if you aren’t letting your soil dry out between waterings. It can cause flooding at the roots and their fragile stems, causing stress. Such plants will likely struggle to thrive.
Additionally, water logging can cause soil compaction. Compacted soil is soil that has, as the name implies, compacted together. It’s difficult to get anything through the soil, such as a stake or a new plant, and you can bet that the plants are also having trouble digging their roots deep down. Compacted soil also doesn’t have much life because there’s little oxygen for bugs or helpful pests.
Some of the common plant problems associated with over-watering are:
- Root rot. When the soil gets too wet for too long, it can start to break down and release toxins into the plant’s root system. This causes root rot and even death for many plants.
- Root damage. Over-watering can also cause the roots of your plants to become damaged by sucking up all their nutrients through excessive watering — a problem that can lead to stunted growth or even death if left unchecked.
- Fungus or mold growth on leaves. Too much water leads to dense foliage growth and an increase in humidity around these areas, which encourages mold and fungus growth on leaves, stems, and fruits (especially strawberries).
It’s usually a good rule of thumb to let the soil dry out between waterings, depending on your plants. Otherwise, you run the risk of over-watering. Overeating can create water logging issues, make plants more susceptible to mold, or drown their roots. Always check the watering preferences of your plants before deciding what’s appropriate. You can also use a moisture meter or the “pencil test” to determine what your plant needs.