Teaching Kids about Water and Soil Conditions

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A previous newsletter highlighted the impacts sunlight and wind have on the family garden and microclimate surroundings.

In this issue, the discussion will center upon the impacts of soil and water conditions in the garden. Teaching children to understand how water and soil conditions affect plant growth will help to better define how the family garden will grow, the location and development of the garden, and plant selection. garden, where we locate and develop our gardens, and why we may select certain types of plants for our gardens.

How Water Impacts the Garden

It’s obvious that plants need water, but how does water really impact the growth of our plants? Here are a few helpful tips that will help children understand what water does for plants; the cycle of water within the soil; how watering too much or too little affects plant growth; and finally how to determine if plants are in need of water.

Water does many things for plants. Most importantly, water helps draw and transport nutrients from the soil up into the plant. These nutrients are used to help the plant grow. In addition, water is stored within the plant cell tissues to help support the structure of the plant. Without enough water the plant’s tissue weakens, causing it to wilt.

When it rains, water penetrates the soil surface and begins to fill in any spaces between soil particles. Depending upon the amount of rain, eventually these spaces between the particles will be filled up. When the spaces within the soil are filled, any remaining water that continues to fall from the sky will flow across the surface of the ground as runoff. Runoff can also be a result of rain coming down too quickly for the water to penetrate the soil surface for absorption (consider the effects of a thunderstorm).

Depending on the characteristics of soils, water may easily penetrate and filter through the soil surface,such is the case with a sandy soil condition. Harder or more dense soils may have less water penetration and more runoff and many clay-type soils will appear sponge-like, as they may absorb and hold onto too much water. Clay-type soils are known for maintaining saturated soil conditions for lengthy periods of time. It often takes a plant that can thrive in these saturated soils for successful growing in these locations.

How do you identify a saturated soil condition? Saturated soils are very spongy and are obviously holding a lot of water. Press on the soil surface to determine if water oozes out from the soil. Inspect for saturated soils by simply standing or slowly walking on the surface and inspecting to see if water pools around the base of your shoes. Heavily saturated soils lose structure, they can cause roots to lose their grip and force trees and shrubs to tip over to one side. In northern climates, late season saturated soils may also freeze-up during the winter months and freeze-thaw cycles can heave up plantings.

Do not overwater and water the lawn only when necessary. In general, lawns only need about one inch of water per week, overwatering is wasteful. Children can easily help determine if the yard or grass is in need of watering by asking them to step on the lawn. If the grass blades quickly spring back up then avoid watering. If they remain flat, then it is time to water the lawn.

A proper balance of water and air in the soil is key to a plant’s survival. Too much water can cause your plant roots to rot due to lack of oxygen. Family gardeners can avoid some of these challenges by using raised garden beds which improve drainage and provide plants with a great balance of soil nutrients, water and oxygen to the root systems. If the soil conditions at home indicate a very heavy, dense and compacted soil, definitely consider developing a raised-garden bed.

There is a simple step to inspect whether or not garden plants need water. Check the soil moisture level by placing a finger to a depth of three inches, or at least past your knuckle. If you find that the top layer of your soil is completely dry, then it is time to water. If it is damp or saturated, don’t add any more water. If the soil is already saturated there’s not much you can do besides not adding more water and waiting for the soil to drain.

A proper balance of water in the soil is key when growing plants and developing a strong and healthy root structure for plant materials. Share these tips with your kids at home, your school garden or local community garden!

How Soil Impacts the Garden

Soil is one of the most significant elements that can impact the growth of your garden. Therefore, a dramatic method to improve the growth of your garden is to review and improve upon the soil conditions. A good healthy soil will produce plants less likely to be affected by disease or insect damage. Simply put, a healthy soil will produce a healthy gardenAs a family, review the garden’s soil conditions and make some simple improvements to elevate the overall quality.

What is soil? What is a good garden soil? Soil is a complex structure of many things including mineral particles, pebbles, rocks, air, water, dissolved nutrients, bits of un-decomposed organic matter(bits of leaves or other plants), well-decomposed organic matter(also called humus), and many organisms of various sizes.

What is the make-up of a garden soil? A good soil provides a balance of air and water so that roots can easily grow and establish while drawing upon nutritional characteristics of the soil structure. Basically, a good garden soil is made up of 50% organic material & particles, 25% air pockets, and 25% water.

The particles that make up a soil vary in their characteristics but are characterized as either sand, silt or clay. Clay is the smallest particle and is too small to see. The particle structure of silt is larger than clay, but still too small to see. And finally, the particle size of sand is large enough to see but still no more than 1/10th of an inch in size. Examine scoops of soil with your children and have them identify sand, silt, or clay-soil types. Here is a chart that will help explain the advantages and disadvantages of each soil type to children, either in the family or school garden.

Soil Type

Aeration & Water Infiltration

Nutrient & Water Capacity

 Ability to Work Soil













There are advantages and disadvantages to be compared between sand, silt and clay soils. A clay soil can have excellent nutritional quality, but poor infiltration and very bad workability. I recently installed a raised garden bed in Maryland where the clay soil was so bad it was as hard and dense as rock itself. Understanding the type of soil you have can be the key toward improving a garden’s soil conditions for the optimum health of the plants.

What can be done about poor soil conditions in the garden? If the soil is too clayey or sandy or lacking in nutritional qualities, a simple fix can be to add some organic matter or compost to it. Organic matter can help increase the filtration capabilities for a clay soil and also help a sandy soil to retain water and nutrients.

What is compost? Compost is best described as a mixture of different organic materials such as deteriorated leaves, grass clippings, kitchen scraps, and garden waste which has decayed over time into a dark crumbly structure filled with nutrients. Compost is readily available from local garden centers. You may also wish to consider making it yourself from decayed yard waste, leaves, and kitchen scraps. Learn how to create your own compost.

If your garden has decent soil, adding an inch of compost yearly will help maintain a healthy soil structure. Keep in mind that in warmer, humid climates, organic matter will break-down faster. If you garden in this type of environment consider applying one application of compost each year, but increase the amount of a compost application to two inches.

Ideally, garden soils would be evaluated during the planning stages, but a post-evaluation doesn’t always indicate colossal failure. Remember, if you find unsuitable soil conditions such as a difficult soil structure or poor drainage, adding and mixing additional compost can help change the quality of the soil and benefit the growth of garden plants—even good soils benefit from (at least) one application of compost every year!

Taking the time to work through soil and water challenges as a family can make your gardening experience more meaningful with a greater harvest. Use these simple steps to get the family gardening space on the right track.

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