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How to Plant in Marl Soil


Planting in marl soil is challenging and time consuming, but it may be the only way to have a garden. Taking the steps to plant properly in marl will save a lot of trouble in the future.

What is marl?

Marl soil is one of the two most predominant soils in South Florida. Marl looks something like cement mixed with shell, and is almost as hard. While it may seem impossible that anything could grow in this soil, that isn't so. With the proper amendments, most plants can grow quite well in the marl of South Florida.

South Florida sits on a base of limestone. Marl is a base soil that is mostly limestone, mixed with sand. Limestone + sand = concrete. Marl sets up very hard, like concrete, but it is not impermeable to water, making it the soil of choice for building up low lying lots.

Contractors usually only put a shallow layer of 3-6" of topsoil down to get the sod to grow, therefore, houses built after 1989 probably have mostly marl soil underneath the topsoil.

How to plant in marl soil

To plant in marl soil, you will need:
  • A strong shovel
  • A water hose
  • Dishwashing liquid (not Dawn)
  • Composted Manure
  • Organic Matter
  • Epsom Salts

When dealing with planting in marl, water is a necessity

To plant vegetables in marl, it is necessary to dig either a hole 18 inches in diameter or a trench 18 inches wide. Both of these should be at least 12 inches deep.

To plant ornamentals in marl, it's necessary to dig a hole 3 times the diameter of the container, that's a 24" diameter hole for a 1 gallon pot, and a 30" diameter hole for a 3 gallon pot. The depth of the hole should be 3" more than the height of the rootball.

This will allow the roots to have room to spread. If this is not done, the plant will begin to decline and die within a year when the roots hit the marl, because young plant roots cannot penetrate and draw nutrients from marl.

Digging in marl is a process

First, squirt dishwashing liquid on the ground, and sprinkle it with water until it starts soaking in. The dishwashing liquid acts as a surfactant, breaking the surface tension of the soil. Then it will be possible to dig a small hole, fill it with water, and let the water sink in. It will now be possible to dig out to where the water soaked into the marl. Why is this so? Because water breaks the chemical bonds between the limestone and the sand in the marl.

This is sort of a "rinse and repeat" operation. Every time a larger hole is dug, fill it with water, let it sink in, and repeat the process until the proper size hole is completed. Time consuming? Yes, but if the yard has been built up with marl, this is the only choice, other than having someone with a backhoe dig it.

Filling the hole

The marl will now go back into the hole, along with at least 50% organic matter added. This is done by layering. First, put three inches of composted manure into the bottom of the hole to feed the plant during the first four weeks when it is getting established. NEVER put non-organic granular fertilizer into a hole when planting, as it will burn the roots.

Then place the plant and layer the marl and organic matter in 2-inch layers. After every two layers, fill the hole with water to keep it from developing air pockets, and to also make sure the organic matter gets completely saturated. Stop when it is filled within 1" of the top of the hole. When planting ornamentals, the top of the root ball should be level with the top of the hole.

When the hole is filled to within 1 inch of the top of the hole, sprinkle epsom salts around the top of the hole (1/4 cup for 1 gallon or smaller, 1 cup for 3 gallon or larger) and water in. This helps the roots establish themselves better. Mulch the plant to retain moisture, and the planting is done.
If planted properly in marl soil, your plants will thrive in their new environment for years to come.

4 comments :

Unknown said...

Thanks, now I will try again with dish soap

Simply Deb said...

Thank you, James! I try to give the best information I have available to me, mostly drawing from my own experience or the University of Florida and IFAS sites. I'm glad you find it useful.

Anonymous said...

Hi, thank you so much. You’re the first person online with helpful information. Unfortunately I’ve already started planting a food forest when I discovered just what I was getting myself into. I’m in South Florida and now we’re in the rainy season and I’m having terrible terrible issues with water drainage. Can you give me any suggestions on who I can call to help me? A few of the trees have already drowned. I’ve begun digging trenches away from the trees, but the more I dig the more water comes from…I don’t even know where. I also have already put down mulch, because I was thinking I needed to start trying to build the soil. Unfortunately as you know, the mulch is holding water as well.

Simply Deb said...

Anonymous, welcome to FL, where the very first rule is to forget everything you ever knew about gardening, because you are in a whole different world. What you describe is a common mistake people moving from elsewhere have when they move down here, especially into the areas that was once swampland and is now developments. The soil they haul in to build these lots is horrible soil that will not drain well at all. It's not supposed to. It's supposed to compact to support your house. All I can tell you is to dig up the remaining trees and put them into containers until the dry season, then have a percolation test done by an expert. This will tell you what you need to do to fix your drainage problems. Drainage is not only important for plants, but if the water is running down or settling around your foundation, it can have a big impact on your home.