Any gardener knows that plants need healthy soil, sunlight, and water at the bare minimum to thrive. If you’ve found that your plants aren’t getting any water and barely penetrating the soil, you may be pulling your hair to figure out how to fix it. Luckily, this is a common problem, and we have quite a few go-to ideas.
To fix soil that does not absorb any water, you can:
1. Ensure proper drainage or irrigation
2. Compost or mulch to add microorganisms
3. Reduce the amount of peat moss (and increase other materials)
4. Use an aerator
5. Attempt watering from below (bottom watering).
First, let’s talk about the reason your soil is not absorbing any water, as this may guide your next steps. Then, we will go in-depth about each fix and give you some DIY strategies to help your plants get the hydration they need.
Why Your Soil Isn’t Absorbing Any Water
Soil is supposed to absorb water and provide it to your plant’s roots. You may be shocked that your last garden shower left puddles in your soil or that none of the water seems to be getting through to your plant. Four main issues can cause this:
- Soil compaction
- Soil or nutrient issues.
Soil compaction happens when your soil has been compacted down into such a tight squeeze that no water or roots can grow freely. Plant soil is supposed to be somewhat loose and porous—you should imagine that your plant roots and tiny microorganisms have no trouble pushing or pulling themselves through your garden.
However, if you have compact soil, everything is squeezed so tightly together that nothing can penetrate, not even water. This compaction prevents proper root growth and can inhibit your plant’s ability to grow.
A few things can cause soil compaction. It can often be caused by people stepping or walking through your garden (animals included), too much watering, or heavy traffic.
Hydrophobia is another common reason for plants being resistant to watering. If we break down the word Hydrophobia, it tells you what it means. Hydrophobic soil is resistant to water. Not only is it resistant, but it is ‘phobic’ or repellent to water.
A tell-tale sign is water going through the drainage hole, but your soil is not absorbing any of it. Repellent soil will essentially clothe your plant roots in a raincoat-like layer of water, leaving all moisture to escape.
Another tell-tale sign of hydrophobic soil is water accumulating on the surface of your soil or running through the spaces in the sides.
Soil mixes heavy in clay may cause soil to become hydrophobic, as the particles will compact closer together and protect anything within it from absorbing water. Hydrophobic soil is often also heavy in peat moss, which can become hydrophobic when it dries out.
Waterlogging is more common in farms and crops but can happen quickly in your garden. This water problem is caused by overwatering your plants or adding too much water to the soil that can not absorb healthily.
Waterlogging is demonstrated in this video if you need a visual:
You will notice standing water, muddy plants, and flowers wilting though there’s water all around them. Having a garden bed with little to no drainage, adding too much water at a time, or having a shallow bed may be what caused your water logging issues.
Soil or Nutrient Issues
As mentioned above, trouble with soil content can sometimes cause hydrophobia. Additionally, soil and nutrient issues can cause your soil not to absorb water very well. If you aren’t noticing any waterlogging but are seeing wilt in your plants for no apparent reason, it may be that the pH is off, causing nutrients not to be absorbed by your plants.
This situation has less to do with water absorption and more to do with nutrient absorption.
Additionally, frequent flooding or waterlogging can change the soil’s reduction potential. So, the more your garden is flooded or waterlogged, the less resilience it will have the next time an issue arises.
Soil permeability is key to plants receiving the water and nutrients they need to grow. You can provide the nutrients, the organisms, and the water, but if they can not get down into the soil, there’s very little that your plants can do.
Having compact or impermeable soil, or soil that is hard to re-wet after drying out (like peat moss) in excess in your garden, creates hydration issues. If water seems to be gathering at the bottom rather than at the top, this might be an indicator that soil composition is your issue.
1. Ensure Proper Drainage or Irrigation
If flooding, waterlogging, or an overflowing garden are your issue, then the drainage fix is what you need.
Ensuring proper drainage or irrigation in your garden is a bug fix for protecting your crops from waterlogging and flooding. This scenario is especially true if you allow your garden to absorb rainwater or water from snow during the wet season. Because you can not control how much water comes from the sky, you should aim to control how much water stays in your garden.
There are tons of garden irrigation systems, and no one is necessarily better than the other. Some prefer the french drain, and some prefer full-on irrigation systems. You can DIY many of these systems yourself or contact a gardening professional. This video gives a step by step guide on how to make your irrigation system:
Pots usually have holes in the bottom of them so that water that is not used can drain right out. This system works on the same principle as your houseplants in pots. Some of the stylish pots you find at big box stores may not have this drainage system built in them, so you will have to make one yourself.
Many houseplant gardeners suggest using a small number of pebbles or volcano rock.
Another solution for this issue in your indoor plants is to know how much to water and the only water that amount. You can buy a moisture meter and test your plants to see how much water they are getting and compare it to the amount they should be getting.
Some plants prefer to dry out before they get watered again, which should also be considered. We cannot stress enough how important it is to look at the care details for any of the plants you purchase because they give insightful information on moisture and soil needs.
If you’ve found that your plants are just getting too much water and have stopped absorbing water altogether, at least you will know your plants are not dehydrated. Take a step back from the watering can and see what’s possible for garden drainage, whether in your water bed or a pot.
2. Compost or Much to Add Microorganisms
If you think that hydrophobic soil or nutrient issues are your problems, then adding compost or more biological life to your garden may be your fix. Compost can be beneficial for soils that are “droughty.” They help with water absorption and increase the water-holding capacity of your plants. Through drilling their tiny tunnels, microorganisms can also help with water flow.
Compost is a mixture of different things that can help to fertilize your soil. It often includes worms, fungus, leftover food, organic materials, and other diverse scraps to help increase the nutrients in your soil.
You can purchase compost at a gardening supply store or begin making your own, which has tremendous benefits for the environment. Adding compost to your garden is as simple as sprinkling it over the top layer. This compost should help absorb excess water and treat your garden soil to a nutritious meal.
If standing water is an issue, you can use a mulch to help soak up some of the excesses. Using mulch might seem counterintuitive for helping your plants absorb water, as it just adds more to the garden and soaks up the water and takes it away from plants.
However, the mulch absorption keeps your plants from drowning when waterlogging or droughty soil is the issue.
Microorganisms are essential in healthy soil to absorb water and play a huge role in water absorption. Also, Adding worms or bugs to an outside garden may help with water absorption. Mulch and compost tend to have tons of nutrients.
3. Reduce the Amount of Peat Moss (and Increase Other Materials)
If you think hydrophobic soil is your issue, you may want to double-check what materials are in your garden or houseplant.
Peat moss is excellent for lots of things but can tend to dry out and increase hydrophobia in your plants if not overseen. If you’re a beginning gardener, you may have grabbed the first bag of soil you could find, which may have been heavy in peat moss that later dried out.
This dehydration can make it hydrophobic, making the waterfall right off your plant. It can be nearly impossible to re-wet.
Some suggest the bottom watering method discussed below for peat moss that needs re-wetting. You should also ensure that your plant soil is rich in other nutrients to prevent this issue from ever occurring.
Soil needs to have a diverse range of organic materials to ensure permeability. Permeability helps water and microorganisms penetrate the soil and support your plant roots.
To solve this problem, you can avoid plant mixes that are too heavy in peat moss or clay soils. Try to give your plants a wide range of different materials, and use bottom watering methods if you find that your peat moss is having difficulty rehydrating.
It’s easy to say “avoid the issue” rather than give supportive solutions, but keep this in mind next time you purchase soil for your plants. You want something with permeability, and peat moss is okay, but just not wholly filling your garden.
4. Use an Aerator
If you think that your plants suffer from flooding or compact soil, aerating your plants may be the solution.
Plants need oxygen to survive. If your plants are waterlogged or drowning, they could probably use aeration support. It’s more commonly used on large growth areas, like a lawn, but can be used in your garden. Aeration helps water get down into the soil and hydrate your plant roots if it seems that no hydration is happening.
You can use a plug or spike aerator for your garden. This process may be as simple as using a fork for your houseplants if you need to aerate something smaller. All you are doing is displacing the soil that has become compact and allowing for oxygen to flow more freely into the soil, which will, in turn, allow water to flow more freely.
This video shows how you may achieve this process with small plants in your home with just chopsticks:
You can also use the sticks on your moisture or pH meter. You will want to be careful around your plant’s roots when you are aerating, as a wrong strike by the tool can cause plant roots to be cut from its plant.
Aerating should be used as a last-ditch effort for drainage in your smaller house plants, and you should try repotting before aerating. Sometimes, it’s an issue with the soil’s nutrients and an indicator that your soil is very nutrient-poor.
However, if you cannot replant (as compaction tends to make it), aerating may be the only way. You can aerate your house plants, remove old soil, and replace it with healthy new soil little by little. This solution should help prevent hydrophobia and help your plants absorb more water.
5. Attempt Watering From Below (Bottom Watering)
If nothing above seems to be helping, you may consider bottom watering your plant. This solution is helpful for plants that have become hydrophobic or plants that have old soil.
Ideally, you will want to repot your plants if the soil has become so old and aired that water is not being absorbed. Understandably, repotting is not always possible. We aren’t all gardening experts, and removing a massive tree from its home pot may be a risk you aren’t willing to take.
Potting mixes usually become water repellant over time, so the tree you have in the same pot it’s been in for five years will likely have smaller particles for your water to come through.
This situation is where bottom watering comes in. Not only does it hydrate your plants from the roots up, but it’ll also add water to any air pockets that are drying out your plant.
You will notice your plant, at first, may float because there is so much air in it. Eventually, the air will be displaced as you hold it down, and the plant will begin to float.
This video shows what bottom watering looks like:
The gardener adds a few other things to the mix in the video above. First, you will add water to a large container. Once your container is filled, you will “dunk” your plant inside the water container. This process is an option for the bottom watering process, but a wetting agent will help with hydrophobia more effectively than just water.
You will notice bubbles coming out, which means air pockets are being disturbed, which is excellent! These bubbles mean your plant is getting water in places where only air is. You may dunk your plant a few times and then hold it above the water to drain it.
You can also leave your plant in the container for up to twenty minutes if it does not seem to be getting moist—as long as you keep checking on it.
Other Common Problems
If you’ve found that none of the above are helping your garden absorb water, water may not be your issue at all. Poor soil composition, from soil that has been dried out or re-used repeatedly, can deplete your plant of nutrients.
Additionally, a high or low soil pH may make some nutrients unavailable to your plants. Though water is an excellent go-to, you should consider all possibilities before tossing your plant.
A garden that will not absorb any water may be the opposite of what you expected the problem to be. Your garden plants may have absorbed too much water, leaving flooding or waterlogging when they received too much water.
Or, you may be dealing with hydrophobic soil, which lets the water roll past your roots like it’s a protective raincoat. You may need some additional nutrients, support of a mulch or compost, or need to figure out a drainage system to support your garden. Find the source of your water absorption issues, and then proceed.