Quite a bit of reading has suggested that capacitive FDR (Frequency-Domain Reflectometry) and TDR (Time-Domain Reflectometry) approaches are going to be impractical when very low cost is a requirement. Resistive continues to look pretty unattractive, so I think TDT (Time-Domain Transmissive) is going to be the approach I focus on.
All this would be much easier if the abundant prior work on this topic weren't locked away behind expensive journal paywalls or commercial secrecy agreements. The few people who seem to have done it for hobby purposes mostly show up asking questions on forums and mailing lists; they never seem to write their results up. Needless to say, I'm frustrated, but I'm going to try to do something about it.
So: In TDT, capacitance is measured by sending a pulse or wave down an insulated loop or line through the soil. The capacitance in the line is altered by the amount of water surrounding the line. As the capacitance of a conductor alters the time it takes for a pulse to propagate through the wire, the capacitance can be measured by timing how long a high pulse takes to propagate through the line.