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Water holding capacity is the amount of water a soil can hold for crops to use. Water is the most common limiting factor for many crops in Ohio. Too much water can also be a problem, leading to standing water, erosion, and nutrient loss. A soil with a low water holding capacity will have a narrow window between too much and not enough moisture. Both conditions lead to poor plant growth.
Increased soil organic matter enhances your soil's ability to absorb water, leading to less water stress during both dry and wet periods. This can be achieved by:
- Incorporate compost, manures, or other stable organic materials.
- Grow and incorporate a high biomass cover crop.
- Add a perennial crop to your rotation.
- Add a sod crop to your rotation.
- Reduce tillage to provide less disturbance to soil biota and structure.
Mulches are useful for retaining soil moisture under dry conditions. Common sources of mulches include hay, straw, cut forage, wood chips or shredded bark, or plastic. Mulches can provide additional benefits such as weed control or organic matter, but may also come with potential drawbacks. Several cover crop varieties can be interseeded and used as living mulches, but can also provide competition for limited water and nutrients. Mulches can also be expensive and/or time consuming to purchase, apply, and dispose of. Mulches with a high carbon-to-nitrogen ratio may tie up soil nitrogen supplies. If not carefully sourced, mulches may also introduce weed seeds and disease. Keep in mind that a mulch's ability to retain moisture and cool temperatures may not be welcomed year-round. Cooler soil temperature can slow germination or plant growth and soils prone to flooding or pooling will experience standing water more readily when mulched.