All plants require water for growth but also require oxygen around their roots. If there is too much water then oxygen is pushed out of the soil. A balance of air and water produces the best plant growth and the best conditions for bacteria and other soil micro‐organism, which are important in the soil.

The three main states of soil water are gravitational water, water at field capacity and water at the permanent wilting point.


After very heavy rain a soil will become saturated. In this state all the pore spaces will be full of water and pools will form on the soil surface. Once the rain stops and the soil begins to dry out the surface water will be removed by evaporation. Some of the water will be drawn down through the soil by the force of gravity and this water is known as gravitational water.

Figure 1: Situation in saturated soil

Figure 2: Situation in the pore spaces of a saturated soil


Once the gravitational water has drained out of the soil, the water remaining is being held against the pull of gravity and the soil is said to be at field capacity. When a land is irrigated the object is to bring the soil to field capacity, with the soil full of water but not saturated. At this stage there is plenty of both air and water in the soil for maximum plant growth.

Figure 3: Situation in a soil at field capacity

Figure 4: Situation in the pore spaces of a soil at field capacity


If the soil is at field capacity and no further rain falls, the water is gradually used up by the plants until the point at which the plants wilt from lack of water. If it then rains, or the crop is irrigated, the plants will recover and continue to grow. If, no water is added to the soil, the plants will wilt further and die. This stage at which plants die through lack of water is called the permanent wilting point.

There is still some water in the soil but it is so tightly held by the soil particles that it is unavailable to the plant.

Figure 5: Situation in a soil at permanent wilting point

Figure 6: Situation in the pore spaces of a soil


Water moves through the soil by the following methods:

  • The run‐off of surface water. This should be controlled by using mechanical methods of soil conservation to prevent damage to the soil surface.
  • The percolation downwards of gravitational water. This depends on:
  1. The soil texture;
  2. The soil structure;
  3. The wetness of the soil and;
  4. The depth of the water table or drains.
  • Capillary water. The movement of both True Capillary Water and Apparent Capillary Water.
  • Hygroscopic Water. There is no movement of this water in the soil.


This is water which the soil cannot retain against the force of gravity and which percolates down through the soil either to the Water Table or into the drainage system if one exists.

This water moves through the large pore spaces and passages in the soil and moves rapidly; it moves more rapidly through sandy soils than clay soils.


This is the water held in the small pore spaces and the spaces inside the soil crumbs.

When a soil is at Field Capacity the water in the soil is known as the available soil water, because this is the water available to the plants for growth. This available soil water is capillary water and moves upwards, downwards, and sideways through the pore spaces of the soil by a process known as capillary attraction.

Sandy soils have few very fine capillary pores because the sand particles are large. These soils have a high water holding capacity and there is very little lateral movement, e.g. sideways, movement of water. Clay soils have many very small particles and so have many fine capillary pores. These soils have a high water‐holding capacity and there is much lateral movement of water.

Figure 7: Soil structure of sand and clay

The poor lateral movement of water in sandy soils is used in the water planting of tobacco seedlings. Water is added to the hole in the soil before the seedling is planted; this water does not move sideways but straight down through the soil to connect up with the water table.

Figure 8: Movement of water in sandy and clay soils

In a soil with a high water table the capillary water links the soil surface to the water table. Water is drawn upwards through the soil by capillary attraction and this movement of water is fairly rapid.

In a soil with a low water table, one that is 15 ‐ 20 metres below the surface, there is an area above the water table of true capillary water. When such a dry soil is rained upon it will fill up to field capacity to a certain depth, e.g. 2 metres. This water is known as apparent capillary water. Between this apparent capillary water and the true capillary water lower down there will be a dry zone. Movement of water into the dry zone will be very slow, 10 ‐ 12 centimetres per month.

Figure 9: Speed of movement of water through dry and wet soil

Plants growing on this type of soil and which have roots in the area of the apparent capillary water will be well supplied with water but will have to seek it out, e.g. ‘graze’ for it, especially as they use up the water and the root area dries out as this area is not being replenished from the water table.

A dry spell after planting tobacco or when maize plants have become established helps to develop a good root system by forcing the roots to extend themselves in their search for water.


Water is added to soils in the following ways:

  • Rainfall
    • Hail
    • Snow
    • Dew
    • Mist
    • Irrigation

Water is lost from soils by:

  • Evaporation from the soil surface and within the pore spaces in the top 12cm of the soil;
    • Transpiration; this occurs down to the root depth of the plant and;
    • Drainage, down through the soil.

Figure 10: Apparent capillary water and true capillary water