11 Reasons Your Garden Soil Doesn’t Absorb Water (with 18 fixes!)

By Kimberly


Do you water your plants regularly and still find them looking dehydrated? Don’t worry, it’s not you – it could very well be the soil’s fault. Perhaps it has stopped absorbing water adequately. There are many reasons why your garden soil doesn’t absorb water, and the earlier you recognize the signs, the faster your plants can heal.

In general, the main reasons soil doesn’t absorb as much water as it ought to include:

  1. Hydrophobic soil – the soil repels water instead of soaking it.
  2. Old, depleted soil – soil that’s been stripped of the right balance of nutrients or organic materials.
  3. Rootbound plants – when roots take over, there’s no soil for your plant to absorb moisture from.
  4. Peat moss – too much peat moss makes for hydrophobic soil or a bog.
  5. Ineffective compost – using the wrong type of compost can dry out your soil.
  6. Tilling often – over-tilling can disrupt the natural structure of your soil, which can affect how much moisture your soil can absorb.
  7. An abundance of clay – water can’t move through clay soil.
  8. Exposed soil – strong, direct sunlight can result in moisture evaporation from the soil.
  9. Excessive weeds – weeds are stealing all the nutrients in the soil, leaving your plants with hardly any.
  10. Waxy barriers – these will repel water (but can be broken down with the right agents).
  11. Not enough water – it’s important to water your plants regularly and effectively.

As useful as these tips may be, bear in mind that you will want more information on each so you can properly diagnose and fix the problem. Ready to find out more about your soil’s water retention? Keep reading, as we’ll uncover everything there is to know about what your soil needs for it to remain healthy and happy – and we’ll share 18 fixes that’ll make your plants happy, healthy, and watered just right.

A top view image of young seedlings in a transplanted soil.

How to fix soil that doesn’t absorb water (8 tips)

If you thought the list above was comprehensive, below are even more tips on how to fix your soil so that it absorbs water. Once you start to notice that your plant or crop is wilting, despite watering it regularly, prepare to take on one or more of the tips on this list.

Whether you just follow one of the tips or a combination of a few will depend on how your soil is looking, as well as the type of plant it carries. At the end of the day, you are best at gauging your soil’s health and finding the most effective way to troubleshoot the issue.

Tip #1: Check for hydrophobic soil

Hydrophobic soil repels water instead of soaking it, and it’s one of the biggest reasons for soil to stop absorbing water.

To check if your soil is hydrophobic, observe if any excess water drains out. If it quickly moves down the drainage hole, your soil is not soaking up the water.

Another way to check is by inserting a moisture probe into the soil, close to the center of the plant, which can tell how moist the soil is. When the soil remains dry even after watering, your soil is in trouble.

If your soil is mostly peat moss, it can be hydrophobic. Make sure you’re using a variety of organic materials as your compost. Variety is your key to healthy soil!

Tip #2: Change or upgrade the soil

Old soil can struggle to absorb water, especially when it has been used over several growing seasons without any renewal (usually via compost or mulch).

Plus, soil can dry out or become imbalanced over time. The longer it stays out of balance, the less effective it is in absorbing water.

Your best bet (and a quick fix) is to add some mulch or compost to the soil. If that quick fix doesn’t work, send a soil sample to your local agricultural school. They can analyze it and let you know which nutrients it needs – or if you’ve got too much of another.

Tip #3: Prime your soil

When your soil resists watering, it can be due to it having gotten crusted or hard-packed.

To fix it, you need to prime your soil. You do this by repeatedly sprinkling the surface lightly with water (source). It’s like priming a pump – but with soil.

Pro tip: ensure that there is no runoff by covering the surface with a mulch like straw, wood chips, or compost. After a while, the soil will soften up to allow water to be absorbed all the way through.

Pro tip #2: worms are your friend. If you don’t have any, add some. They’ll help naturally aerate your soil and keep things growing well.

Tip #4: Use soil wetting agents

Give your dry soil a little help by applying some soil wetting agents. These agents break down waxy barriers that form during the hot summer months from the build-up of compost and mulch.

When applied, it will penetrate the soil particles and absorb moisture when it gets watered. Soil wetting agents are easy to find – they can be bought from most nursery or gardening stores.

Pro tip: you may want to add lime to your compost pile to help serve as a natural agent to not only help in breaking down the compost faster but also to help work as a natural soil wetting agent whenever you apply the readied compost.

Tip #5: Soak a pot full of soil in water

An easy solution to hydrating your plant back to life is to soak it in a bucket full of water. Add liquid fertilizer into the mix and leave it to soak for 20 to 30 minutes. You can tell that your plant is dry by seeing if a lot of bubbles come up to the surface.

Okay, so this tip is mainly for potted plants. But it’s still a great tip – especially if you’re raising any herbs or other plants in containers.

Tip #6: Check if your plant is root bound

Root-bound plants are plants that have outgrown their pot. It’s normal for plants to grow roots that become too big for their container, however, this often means there’s a shortage of soil underneath the surface.

You can tell if your plant is root bound if it has symptoms of an under-watered plant. Without enough soil, there’s nothing to absorb the water.

Pro tip: Root-bound plants can also happen in your garden if you’ve got clay-heavy soil. This is one time it may be beneficial to till in some compost – to jumpstart your soil’s overall improvement. And it’ll help prevent root-bound garden plants.

Tip #7: Use an all-natural solution

When all else fails, sometimes the natural way is the best way. In fact, it can bring dead soil back to life. Natural ingredients, such as mushrooms, manure, worm castings, and bonemeal can be used to revive the soil. Just keep in mind that if you’re using animal-based products to improve soil, you may attract pests and rodents. This method makes a lot of sense, as the majority of soil is organic matter.

If you want to avoid pests, it’s best to use organic materials that won’t attract visitors. You can compost pretty much anything, but check out my post on composting cooked veggies for a great list of things you can use – and which you should avoid.

Tip #8: Repot it completely

Sometimes, the best chance of survival for your plant is to move it to a completely new home – complete with a new soil mix. Repotting is the best fix and an effective one at the first signs that you see your plant is dying of thirst. You can even change your current planter, but repotting normally prioritizes a new potting mix.

Depending on how actively your plants grow, you may need to repot every 12 to 18 months.

Again, this tip is mostly for potted plants. However, once a plant completely outgrows its pot, it may be best to plant it in the ground. Just make sure you’re following any local guidelines that may apply.

Where my family lives in Arizona, for example, we can only have potted citrus trees. They can’t be planted in the ground. I know – some codes are strange. But it’s to protect water usage, so in that sense the code makes sense. It does make root-bind more likely, though, unless you’re willing to repot the citrus tree pretty regularly.

How to make your soil retain more water (10 tips)

Now that you’ve fixed your major water retention issue, you may have to change or add something to your current gardening habits to maintain your soil’s health. There are various ways to make your soil keep more water going forward, and you may need to experiment a little to see what will work best for your soil and plants.

It may take a while to get used to new gardening methods, and some tips might go against your preferences (e.g., using a synthetic approach) or budget. So, take the time to study some of the ways you can make your soil retain more water that will suit your gardening style.

Tip #1: Add perlite

It’s not always hydrophobic soil that’s causing the issue. If it isn’t, consider adding perlite to your soil mix. Perlite is a type of volcanic glass in the form of small rocks or pebbles. Perlite is often the white stuff in most potting mixes.

Plant enthusiasts and gardeners alike will add this to potting mixes to help aerate the soil and with drainage. The stones create pockets of air, which will encourage water to move.

Tip #2: Use compost as mulch

In the spirit of sustainability, consider using compost as mulch to help your soil absorb water. Everyday things such as coffee grounds serve as an effective mulch (source) and compost ingredient. But take care not to let the espresso grounds dry out by breaking them up before sprinkling them on top of your soil.

Now, not all of us drink coffee – so we can’t source our own coffee grounds. In those cases, you can offer to compost coffee grounds for any friends who do drink it. Or you can just use regular compost – sans any grounds. That’s what we do – and it works fairly well.

Tip #3: Remove excess peat moss

Peat moss is an amazing and organic material that comes from decomposing organisms in peat bogs. Their fibrous consistency makes it great for managing water and keeping nutrients intact, but it can be a tricky thing to use.

For all its beneficial uses, it becomes problematic when it dries out. Then it just becomes a hard, hot mess. So having too much dry peat moss makes for hydrophobic soil and it becomes difficult to re-wet (source).

If you can’t physically remove any excess peat moss, at least stop adding any more peat moss to the mix. You don’t need your own backyard bog. Instead, start adding other forms of compost to the mix. And you may want to consider tilling it in to help break up the clods of dried-out peat moss that you’ve already got.

Tip #4: Decrease the amount of clay

Clay soils can hold more water than sandy soils, due to their structure. However, once the clay holds water, it’s kind of stuck. It doesn’t drain – and any excess water just sits on the surface completely. It’s a muddy mess.

Certain plants thrive in clay more than other materials. But like with most things, clay will work better in moderation. Soils that have too much clay in them can make it difficult for water to move, as it’s too compact and waterlogged, depriving roots of oxygen.

If you can roll the moist soil into a smooth ball, it’s a sign that it contains clay. The smoother and tighter the ball, the more clay there is.

Our backyard is mostly clay. We live at the bottom of an ancient lakebed, after all. So we’re working on improving the soil quality by adding compost and mulch – and lowering the overall clay content. In the meantime, we also have to keep an eye on plants that get root-bound in the clay soil.

Pro tip: this may be one time that it’s okay to consider using occasional tilling to jumpstart the soil improvement process. Once things are improving naturally, you can transition to till-free methods.

Tip #5: Cover up your soil

Exposed soil can result in moisture evaporation, as well as an increase in weeds. While many backyard homesteaders or gardeners would use weed barriers like plastic mulch or landscape fabric, the latest literature I’ve seen from water conservationists and my local botanists is to never use weed barriers.

Pro tip: weed barriers kill what’s living below it, including the soil. Then, a new ecosystem (including weeds) grows on top of the weed barrier. You end up exactly where you started – but with worse soil. Never use weed barriers.

I know I’m bucking the trend here – but it follows with the latest data. So rather than telling you to buy a special weed barrier that’ll fix all of your troubles (and earn me a commission), I’m instead going to tell you the truth – for free (and not earn anything from it).

Use more accessible materials like pebbles, stones, mulch, or compost where you don’t want weeds growing. Combine that with a drip irrigation system to control what plants get watered. That way, you can improve the soil and your garden while keeping it free of weeds.

These natural barriers also prevent pests from settling into the soil just fine. Or if you’re noticing a lot of pests, plant something like lavender nearby. This will control the pest population naturally – and help you work on improving your soil.

This simple addition, which also works for indoor plants, will help with water retention immensely.

Pro tip: if you live in Utah, the Localscapes water-wise landscaping programs are worth checking out. They’re more focused on landscaping than gardening, but it’s full of great ideas for drip irrigation systems. They can also point you in the direction of various rebate programs currently going on.

If you don’t live in Utah, the rebate programs won’t be of much value to you. But the rest of the information? Still awesome and applicable. We’re currently using one of their front yard park strip plans to make our front yard more water-wise. You can check out Localscapes in a new window by clicking here.

Tip #6: Till less

Tilling is about turning over a few inches of soil before planting seeds to work manure, weeds and other matter deep into the soil. Simultaneously, this aerates and warms the soil in the short term. However, this can be detrimental in the long run as it actually compacts the soil.

Tilling less means that your soil will not be disturbed, keeping all the nutrients in its place. Maintain a good soil structure by resisting the temptation to till often and you’ll ensure that your soil will retain the water it needs.

If you need a quick, short-term jumpstart to improve your soil, then by all means consider tilling in some organic material (compost, mulch, etc.) to do that. But work on minimizing and/or eliminating tilling as soon as you can to keep your soil at peak performance.

Tip #7: Weed a garden bed

For your garden, weeds can benefit your soil when used correctly. While weeds tend to take up water that’s for your plants, the removed weeds that desiccate in the sun and become an impromptu mulch layer will add moisture back into the surrounding environment.

If you can’t stand the thought of using dead weeds as a mulch layer, then throw any pulled weeds that haven’t been seeded into your compost bin. If they’ve seeded, then the best bet is to throw them away. Let them compost in the city compost pile instead of your own. Those tend to get run and composted at a higher temperature to kill any seeds.

Tip #8: Try a synthetic approach

If you still are unable to get your soil to retain water, try using polymer moisture crystals. Water crystals, also known as hydrogels, are like tiny sponges that hold water almost 300 times its weight. Simply sprinkle some on the soil’s surface and let it absorb water. They will then slowly release their moisture, providing all-day moisture for your plants. These would be convenient if you’re away for a couple of days, as the crystals can keep your soil moist.

If you don’t want to use any polymer moisture crystals, you can use one of those slow-release, glass watering bulbs. Not only do they look cool, but they’re really doing your garden an awesome service by controlling slow-release watering.

Tip #9: Install a garden soaker hose

Consider installing an irrigation system for a generously-sized garden with various plants. Or if you don’t have an irrigation system, use a garden hose with a soaker.

A simple hook-up of a garden soaker hose ensures that your garden bed will get all the moisture at controlled amounts and frequency. Prior to installing it, make sure the layout is designed optimally for all the plants.

Tip #10: Keep your soil happy

In the end, the most effective way for the soil to retain water is to keep it healthy and happy. This includes tasks like watering your soil regularly and running good compost through your soil to keep waxy residues at bay.

Oh, and make sure you aren’t over-watering. It really doesn’t help your plants. In fact, it may be hurting them. Overwatering can also wash away vital nutrients like salts. So quit wasting water already. We’re trying to do our part to be more water-wise, too.

Keep checking your soil to make sure it has everything it needs, so you can move quickly if it needs some help.

An image of our garden, raspberry patch, and small fruit trees in the Starrs' backyard. Mulch is being spread around the trees as weed control.
An image of our garden, raspberry patch, and orchard. We’re using mulch, irrigation, and manual weeding techniques to improve the soil naturally.

Final Thoughts

Soil and water are the lifeblood of any garden. They are the foundation of all things gardening. It’s important to pay attention to its health to ensure that your plants are alive and thriving. It may not be as obvious to a plant wilting, but soil can easily dry out and die when it hasn’t been receiving the care it deserves.

We’re working on it, too. Our clay-heavy soil is taking years to improve. We till it on occasion – though we do try to minimize the amount of manual tilling we do. We’re also trying to phase it out completely. Our chickens are helping, by using their awesome scratching powers to help us till more naturally.

But by using a thick layer of mulch, irrigation lines, and smarter watering and gardening techniques, we’re making our soil richer, healthier, and perfect at retaining moisture (without being a hot clay mud mess like it used to be).

There are many ways to revive dead soil and treat soil that is repelling water. With various methods that are accessible to all budgets and levels of gardening experience, there should be no reason to let your soil dehydrate. It may take time to get it right, but the payoff will be worth it.

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Learning from your own experience is essential, but learning from others is also intelligent. These are the sources used in this article and our research to be more informed as homesteaders.

  • “Watering Hydrophobic Soil.” UC Master Gardeners, Santa Clara County, CA, http://mgsantaclara.ucanr.edu/garden-help/watering-hydrophobic-soil/
  • In-person and online classes at the USU & Ogden Botanical centers.
  • Online classes at Localscapes (they’re all free!)

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