What is Well-Drained Soil?

By P. Allen Smith

I keep reading about plants that need well drained soil. How can I tell if my soil fits that description?

When selecting a plant for your garden it is important to note not only the hardiness zones in which it will survive but also the growing conditions that it needs. Choosing plants that are best suited to the growing conditions that exist in your garden can mean the difference between success and failure. For instance, if you want to grow peonies you will need to provide them with fertile, humus rich, moist but well-drained soil and full sun to partial shade. The light requirements are pretty self-explanatory, but the soil descriptions can seem a bit vague, especially well-drained. After all how can you have moist soil that also drains well?

This term refers to more than just how water behaves in your garden. It is somewhat of a catchall for healthy soil. Well-drained soil has a loose structure that allows for rapid movement of water and air through the soil particles because along with moisture, plant roots need plenty of oxygen to survive.

I have heavy clay soil in my garden. Clay particles are tiny and pack together easily so my soil is very dense. Without amendments, my soil retains too much moisture and excludes the oxygen that both plants and beneficial micro-organisms need.

Alternatively some gardeners have sandy soil that does not retain any moisture. Both clay and sandy soil can be amended to improve its capacity to grow healthy plants.

An added benefit of well-draining soil is that it warms up faster than wet soil in the spring. This allows you to get a jump start on the growing season.