“Why does the water just run-off my yard?” It’s a question I hear a lot.
“When I water, it just creates puddles and then runs off. Why doesn’t it soak in?”
There are several reasons that your soil doesn’t allow water to infiltrate. Let’s take a look at a couple and then discuss remedies.
In lawns, the soil can be compacted, even if it is healthy, by heavy traffic. The constant pounding of feet can compress even the healthiest soil into a tight structure that resists water infiltration. I see this a lot in places where the shortest path from where the car is parked to the front door, leads across the lawn. People will almost always take the shortest path. The result is compacted soil.
I also see this a lot in backyards where one or more larger breed dogs are active. Dogs are creatures of habit as much as people. They develop patterns and will work those patterns around a lawn. You will notice the wear patterns in the turf along fences, around obstacles and near favorite resting places. Testing the soil in these areas usually reveals tightly compacted soil beneath the worn down turf.
Unfortunately, there isn’t much that can be done to remedy these situations. In the first, the easiest way to solve the problem is to install some pathways or walkways to take the traffic. In the case of the dogs, short of getting rid of the animal, there is no real way to break these kinds of habits. Dogs will be dogs and homeowners must learn to compromise between that lush, full thick lawn and one laced with worn down compacted pathways where the dogs habitually run.
Understanding Healthy Soil
Soil compaction can also occur when the soil is unhealthy. To understand why this happens, you must understand the mechanism that creates healthy fluffy soil that allows maximum soil infiltration.
Soil is made up of four basic parts; silt, clay, sand, and organic matter. When these parts are arranged into larger particles, called aggregates, the soil is said to have structure or tilth. Aggregates are composed of the primary parts of the soil, voids, and the exudates from micro-organisms active in the soil that bind the parts of the soil together. It is the voids in the aggregates that allow water to infiltrate, create that fluffy texture that we associate with healthy soil, and provide habitat for the thousands of micro and macro-organisms that inhabit healthy soil.
It Takes Life to be Healthy
To form soil aggregates, these microorganisms must be present. They are the source of the glue-like substances that bind the soil parts together to form the aggregates. Without these exudates, the soil structure begins to break down, and compaction begins to occur. The lack of aggregates is the reason that freshly tilled soil develops a hard crust that has a powdery texture after rain. The aggregates are destroyed by the tilling, and the rain removes the last of the exudates allowing the individual particles of sand, silt, and clay to close the voids and pack into a tight hard mass. If your lawn has been subjected to repeated spraying of herbicides, pesticides and synthetic fertilizers, more than likely you have no microorganisms in your soil beneath your turf. The lack of soil microorganisms leads to soil compaction. The result is water ponding and runoff. The same thing happens in large agricultural expanses, where there is no soil biome and the top layers of soil compact with the first rain or irrigation. The lack of aggregation leads to water runoff, which results in erosion.
The answer in turf is to bring back the soil biome.
The first step is to quit using synthetic fertilizers, pre-emergents, herbicides, and pesticides. All of these are harmful in one way or another to the soil biome. Unfortunately, just stopping your use of these products won’t magically cause the soil biome to regenerate. It is going to need some help.
If your soil and turf have a long history of repeated applications of these synthetic products, you may need to consider doing a soil remediation program like the one in our article “Fixing Damaged Soil.”
If you haven’t been regularly using synthetic products on your turf, all that may be required is to adopt an organic system to feed your soil and encourage the naturally occurring organisms to return. Guides to bringing your soil back to life can be found on our website in the article “Feed the Soil.”
There are many ways to test your soil to judge how damaged it may be. You can easily do a few tests on your own that will give you an idea of the state of your soil. These tests are outlined in our article “AssessingSoil Health” on our website.
I highly recommend that anyone seriously interested in adopting an organic system of gardening, landscape and turf management, invest in a small book called “A Soil Owners Manual – How to restore and maintain soil health.” It is written by Jon Stika and is available from Amazon here.
Another book that I believe everyone should read (or listen to since it is available as an audiobook) is titled “The Hidden Half of Nature – The Microbial Roots of Life and Health” by David R. Montgomery. It too can be found on Amazon here.
Keeping your soil healthy is the best way I know of eliminating problems with water runoff, lack of infiltration, and poor turf or plant growth. Your soil is or should be, a living organism itself, replete with a whole universe of organisms that work together to support all the rest of the life on earth.
Links and Resources
For more information about organic gardening, lifestyles, and living, visit our website at West Texas Organic Gardening.
If you found the information here helpful, you might also find these articles on our website of interest.
If you have more specific questions or problems, you can contact us using the contact form on our website. You can also post your question to our community forum at this page; West Texas Organic Gardening Community Forum.
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