Here’s What Happens to Soil When It Dries Out

You may not realize that soil is a living, breathing thing that needs a lot of TLC to thrive. The ecosystems present in the soil need to be cultivated in order for plants living in the soil to bloom, so taking care of your soil is essential. So what do you do when you find your soil has dried out, and why is this happening?

When your soil dries out, several things happen. The overall density of the earth shrinks while it dries, making it more compact and much more challenging for the ecosystem to take in water. As a result, any water still present in the soil will be much much more difficult for a plant to extract. 

In the rest of this article, we’ll take a closer look at what happens to the soil when it dries out, how you can keep tabs on your soil’s overall moisture content, and how you can help the soil get back on its feet. By the end, you’ll be a soil moisture expert, so keep reading to find out more. 

What Happens When Soil Is Too Dry?

If soil moisture has depleted, it is usually due to an inconsistent watering schedule or too few active nutrients in the soil. If it’s an indoor plant, you’ve likely not been regularly watering it, so keeping a program is paramount to bringing the soil back to life. 

In an outdoor setting, the soil usually receives nutrients from the ground and its surroundings – but sometimes, it may need a little help, and if you haven’t been diligent enough, it could quickly dry out. 

In this instance, the soil might actually be repelling any nutrients brought in by water, leaving much of the water to run off the top of the soil rather than be absorbed. This is a common occurrence of dried-out soil and is usually coined hydrophobic soil.

Additionally, when the soil is very dry and compact, it makes it much more difficult for the plant residing in the soil to retrieve essential nutrients – making it far more likely that your plant won’t survive. This is because the nutrient-depleted earth is desperately trying to keep hold of any moisture still present. As such, dried-out soil can be seen as a survival mechanism. 

Some studies have suggested that, even when a soil’s moisture input changes just a little, this can have catastrophic consequences for the plants living within it. Minor adjustments to a regular routine can change how the soil’s microbes behave. As a gardener, you should be especially careful to keep watering as consistent and stable as possible. 

To learn more about whether you can still use dry potting soil for your plants, you can read my other article: Is Potting Soil Still Good if It Dries Out?

How To Measure Soil Moisture Content

Now that you know what happens when the soil dries out, you should be able to tell when soil is healthy and when it needs some TLC. Knowing the soil’s moisture content can help you decipher exactly what it needs to thrive. 

The soil moisture content is a phrase that describes how much water content is in the soil. Usually, the best method to test for moisture is just by touching the soil and running it through your hands to get a good idea of how healthy it is. 

This doesn’t mean that, if the soil is completely saturated, it is healthy. Instead, it’s best to have slightly moist soil rather than wet since too much water can kill the nutrients in the soil and the plant itself. A good balance is essential here. 

Additionally, sometimes it’s preferable to consider the potential of the soil rather than how wet it is. If the soil feels soft and isn’t too hard or compact, this means the earth has the potential to be well aerated, making it far more likely to be able to support plant life. On the other hand, if your soil is dry and clumps together too quickly, its potential to transfer nutrients to plant life is much more limited. 

However, if you’ve tested the soil with your hands and still aren’t quite sure, your best bet would be to purchase a soil moisture meter. Thankfully, these are relatively inexpensive and last a long time, so it’s a good investment.

What You Can Do About Dried Out Soil

If your soil has dried out, it can be a little frustrating. However, keeping tabs on your soil is essential to bring it back to life – and there are a few little things you can do to help the process along. 

  • Weed the soil regularly. Weeds tend to suck out essential moisture from the soil, so keeping the area free from weeds is a great way to ensure that all the water is going to the right place.
  • Give your soil a good mix every so often. Tilling the topsoil can allow a natural turnover of nutrients, giving plants access to essential microbes underneath the first layer of soil. 
  • Apply organic matter to the topsoil every so often. The nutrients present in organic matter (such as compost) can easily give sad, dried-out soil the boost it needs to thrive. 
  • Make sure the soil isn’t too compacted. If the earth is regularly walked on, you’ll need to loosen it up every so often to ensure all the nutrients can get to the plants and it remains well aerated. This will help along the natural processes that happen within the soil and keep plant life happy.
  • Stay away from NPK Fertilizers. These fertilizers can sometimes help the growth process along, but excessive use can be detrimental to plant life – and the life of the soil. Instead, allow the soil to create natural processes using organic matter and wood chips rather than synthetic fertilizers.
  • Don’t overwater your soil. Contrary to popular belief, overwatering can be even more detrimental than underwatering. Drowning your soil regularly will end in your soil drowning as well. Instead, water your soil so that the water penetrates deep, and do it less frequently for best results. 

Composting: The Best Medicine for Dry Soil

Composting sometimes gets a bit of a bad rap. Whether it’s because people think it doesn’t work, it makes the surrounding area smell bad, or because it’s not done correctly, composting is not too popular. However, using compost on dried-out soil can do wonders for its overall health and can quickly bring it back to life. 

Aside from the benefits to your soil, composting is also a great way to respect the environment. Instead of throwing away those empty egg boxes and vegetable peelings, you can reuse them for your garden. You can even throw paper into the compost as well!

To make good compost, follow the simple steps below:

  1. Get a really sturdy plastic bucket, preferably one with a lid. You’ll want to keep the smell inside the bucket! 
  2. Over time, gradually fill the container with scraps from the kitchen. You can use old eggshells, vegetable scraps, and other kitchen waste. You can also throw in old cardboard and wood chips
  3. Every time you fill up a full layer of kitchen scraps, throw some soil and a cup of water into the container and give everything a good mix. This will help the scraps decompose quicker and turn into that lovely mulch that will ultimately save your dried-out soil. 
  4. Over the course of a couple of months, you should have a really lovely soil mixture. All you need to do now is sprinkle the mixture over your soil beds and till it into the dry soil to loosen it up and create the perfect environment for your growing plants to thrive. 

If you’re worried about the smell, you can always throw the plastic container into your shed while the composting process is happening. It may smell a little for a while, but this will die down once the decomposing process has finished. While composting can be a messy job, your garden will look better than ever. 

Final Thoughts

It’s important to remember that soil is essentially an ecosystem, a world of its own where the balance between nutrients and moisture has to be perfect to provide a nice home for your plants. 

Be mindful of overwatering or underwatering – instead, use a mixture of organic matter and potting soil, and make sure you keep tabs on the moisture content. Knowing how your soil is doing on a regular basis allows you to predict how well it will do in the near future, and you’ll be prepared to fix it up before the soil dries out completely.

Alexander Picot

Alexander Picot is the principal creator of, a website dedicated to gardening tips. Inspired by his mother’s love of gardening, Alex has a passion for taking care of plants and turning backyards into feel-good places and loves to share his experience with the rest of the world.

Recent Posts