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Jul 12, 2010 12:33 PM

Moisture meter

I'm not sure how much to water my plants. I have clay soil, and I didn't water for awhile because it was raining. I had to break up the soil which is a pain in the ****. Then, I watered a lot over 4 days or so. When it rained I watered one last time in addition to the rain. I thought I was supposed to water if I saw any dryness in the soil. Now the soil is wet all the time for like 3 days. I put some wood chips on top of the soil and the wood chips seemed to absorb a little water.

So what's a good moisture meter, and is one worth it for a noob with clay soil? Is there any other tools I might need?

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  1. You'll have a very difficult time growing anything with success in clay soil, moisture meter or no. Improve the soil with amendments like shredded leaves, compost, anything organic that will loosen and improve the soil structure. Clay soils have little space among the soil particles for air and water to circulate, so these soils are often waterlogged and poorly drained. This robs plants of oxygen and causes them to rot, and the soils are dense and hard for the roots to penetrate. Amending the soil with plant matter to improve the soil structure is probably what you need; check with your local extension agent for advice.

    6 Replies
    1. re: janniecooks

      I haven't talked to my extension agent yet. I've called a few times but I'm supposed to call around 11 am which is kind of hard for me right now. I bought a Maser Lee brand soil master for $10 + tax. Measures moisture, light, and ph. I'm going to try it out soon. I did double dig my two of my three garden beds for better drainage and to soften the soil. I don't really want to spend a ton of money dumbing amenities into the soil.

      1. re: Bottomless_Pit

        BP, the moisture meter is an exercise in futility. The root cause is the soil structure. From "You can have all the best plants, the best tools and all the Miracle-Gro in the world, but it won't mean a thing if you have clay heavy soil." If you can't get through to your extension agent, or even if/when you do, check out some sources on the internet - there's a wealth of knowledge there and there's too much to this topic to discuss on this board. Here's a couple of links you might want to check out:

        Double digging without adding soil conditioners and amendments doesn't really improve the soil structure at all. There's really no option to adding amendments, but you don't have to spend a lot of money - buy bales of (seed-free) straw, use grass clippings, shredded leaves in the fall, other organic matter you collect in your yard, etc. etc. Some communities offer compost created from leaves collected in the fall, or you might check your neighborhood for people putting leaves out for collection. Those are all free but for the effort.

        1. re: janniecooks

          My dad has been adding organic matter for years. Also we dumped the entire compost heap of 10 years+ worth of compost into the beds this spring. My plants are growing and growing, in fact my tomato plants are little too big. I'll post another vid of my garden soon.

          Hmm, my dad never used cover crops. I'll make sure to do that in the colder months. I wonder if harvestable crops like lettuce count as a cover crop.

          1. re: Bottomless_Pit

            Cover crops have root systems that grow deep in the soil and help break up the clay while adding nitrogen and other elements back in. They are then tilled into the earth, not removed from it. Buckwheat, borage, and comfrey are examples of cover crops. Fava beans are used for cover cropping as well and you might be able to harvest the mature dry beans as well as tilling the plants back into the soil. Lettuce, unfortunately doesn't qualify.

            In addition to all the good advice jannie lists, we also add clean play sand when we till in amendments. We have heavy clay soil (BOY! do we have heavy clay soil) and there's no quick fix, it's an ongoing project. We add and till in amendments at the beginning and end of a growing season, and after we harvest one crop and before we replant another in it's place during the growing season. After two years of doing this our beds are now beginning to have that beautiful, dark, loamy, look that good growing soil is supposed to have. That doesn't mean we stop adding amendments. The soil must be maintained to be productive.

            My husband bought one of those fancy-ass moisture meters too. He's an engineer and loves those kind of gadgets. It's now sitting on a shelf in the shed gathering dust.

            1. re: morwen

              I've been using the moisture meter a lot. I think a moisture meter is very useful for a noob and almost useless for an expert. I used to just water all my pots at once. Giving more water to the bigger pots. Now I use the moisture meter and see that some pots retain water better than others. Its hard to compare pots and even garden beds because the soil is a slightly different texture. Many of the pots have commercial top soil and always look black/dark brown which I might skip over thinking the dark color is dampness.

              Btw, I managed to fix my tomato plants. I made a tomato teepee, working good, but the flowers seemed to have fallen off my tomatoes from the strain of falling over.

              1. re: Bottomless_Pit

                I use a moisture meter too. I love it. It takes the guess work out of which soils are holding water. I think it matters which meter you buy. I've used some of the cheaper ones and they don't really tell you anything. They have really bad accuracy. If you spend more then $10 you can get something that will give you some reliable information. I have one of these meters: and I really like it. It gives temperature and light too, but the important part is that it gives really accurate moisture readings. Do what you want, but I'm sticking with my meter.

    2. Moisture meters did not work for me. As far as I can figure it out, it actually measures the amount of ions in the soil, not water itself. I placed mine in a cup of pure tap water, and it measured almost zero moisture. After adding salt to the water, the reading jumped through the roof.

      The amount of ions in your soil would affect your moisture reading.