Mud pies may have been a blast in childhood, but your garden will appreciate it if you play elsewhere when the soil is wet.
Soil, silt and clay, mixed with water, creates a slick, slimy ooze that has been used to make adobe bricks, functional pottery, facial masks and exterior stucco. Mud also provides a nutrient-rich habitat to snails, clams and frogs. When your garden soil is muddy, however, it is time for patience. Muddy soil is easily compacted, making life difficult for young (and not so young) plant roots.
Too much of a good thing
All plants need water, but heavy rains and flooding are another story. As soil becomes saturated with water, oxygen is forced out of the ground. Plants need oxygen to survive. Even after the soil dries out, some plants may be stunted and production may be lower. If the soil stays too wet for too long, plants can die. Extended periods of wetness can actually drown the soil, creating a black, stinky mess.
Healthy soil has empty spaces between chunks. These pockets (called macropores and micropores, depending on their size) provide pathways for air, water and nutrients. Unless you live in Florida, where sand is predominant, walking on muddy soil can crush those pockets, reducing drainage. Walking on muddy ground can also damage delicate plant roots. Compacted soil requires aeration. Once compaction occurs, you must wait until the soil dries out before repairing that damage.
Mud over time
If there are places in your yard or garden that do not drain well, you can dig a shallow trench or install a rain garden nearby. In both cases, water is redirected away from plants. Then, try to determine the cause of your drainage problem. Is a slope causing water to converge on an area? Is more organic material needed? Is there a leaky pipe or sprinkler nearby? It may even be an overflowing septic system. In that case, your family's health could be at risk.
Reduce potential mud problems
In addition to creating a rain garden or swale, and eliminating water leaks, there are several other ways that gardeners can reduce the potential for problems caused by mud and poor drainage. Continue incorporating aged compost and other organic matter, once the soil is dry. Install moisture-loving trees, shrubs, and other plants in low areas. With all that moisture, slugs and snails will be out in force, carrying diseases and feeding, so putting in some extra time hand-picking these pests can keep plants healthier.
Rather than damaging your soil and your plants' roots, take advantage of muddy days and do something else: sharpen your tools, clean planter pots, or, my favorite, peruse seed catalogs!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!
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