Common soil problems

Understand the soil conditions in your garden before planting out with our quick guide to common soil problems.

Soil conditions for gardening


Water logging is a serious problem to gardeners, in extreme cases plants can drown if their roots are always water logged. More common a problem are wet areas that make gardening difficult, particularly affecting clay soils. Drainage can be improved by installing a network of pipes under the soil to carry excess water away, this is a very expensive solution only necessary in extreme circumstances. In most cases improvement can be made by breaking up the subsoil by deep digging, forking the ground to make drainage holes or adding coarse sand to open up the soil. Adding organic matter will also help to open up the soil and encourage worms to make natural drainage channels.


Plants will find it very difficult to push their roots through hard compacted soil, and water will be slower to drain away. Break up the compaction with a fork and add grit or bulky material to open up the soil. Avoid compaction by keeping off the soil whilst it is wet and use planks to walk on to spread your weight.


Dry areas of soil are usually found under large trees which draw the moisture out of the ground. In this situation there is not much you can do other than cutting down the tree. Light sandy soils also tend to dry out, adding organic matter will act as a sponge, storing water and nutrients until it is needed.

Poor growth

This could be caused by a number of problems, adding organic matter will help.

Acid soil

Certain plants will tolerate acidic soils but most prefer a neutral soil. You can buy a test kit to measure the pH levels of your soil. A pH of 7.5 is regarded as neutral, lower levels are acid and higher is alkaline. Acid soils can be corrected by adding lime or better calcified seaweed which also adds valuable nutrients and minerals to the soil.

Heavy clay

Clay soil is often difficult to work with, particularly if it is a really heavy blue clay type. Generous applications of organic material and coarse grit will improve it. There is a chemical process known as 'flocculation' that can be triggered by applying lime to the soil. This chemical reaction binds the small clay particles together into larger crumbs thus improving the soil structure. A similar effect can be achieved by using calcified seaweed, adding nutrients at the same time. Cropping with potatoes is a good treatment for heavy soils, the action of earthing up and digging out the potatoes helps break the soil down.

Cold wet soil

A cold, wet winter can make soils unworkable in early spring, to avoid this try not to leave the vegetable patch empty through the winter. Try planting a cover crop or green manure such as mustard. This green manure will use moisture in the ground and the roots will break the soil down. Another useful method is to use plastic sheeting to cover the soil, keeping it dry and allowing it to warm up. Black plastic will also smother weeds and attract the suns warmth more than clear plastic.

Reproduced courtesy of fertiplus.

Last modified: April 16, 2015

Written by 10:38 am Gardening