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Working With Your Sandy Soil

Sandy soil may seem like a gardener’s nightmare, but in many coastal areas and desert regions, this loose, well-draining soil is common and widespread. Fortunately, working with your sandy soil doesn’t have to be hopeless. With the right preparation, plant selection, and care, even the sandiest soil can still be nourishing for your landscape and garden.

About Sandy Soil

Sandy soil is composed of relatively large, coarse particles, ranging from .05-2 millimeters in size. This type of soil is typically rich in silica and quartz, may be high in salts, and is often very acidic. Many organic nutrients, however, wash out of the soil quickly with rain or irrigation, as it is extremely porous and holds water poorly. Sandy soil dries out quickly and can be prone to erosion.

On the other hand, there are very positive characteristics of sandy soil. It is typically lighter and easier to work than heavily clay soils, and it strongly resists compaction that can stunt root growth. This type of soil warms up quickly in the spring, allowing gardeners to extend the growing season.

To determine if you have sandy soil, take a handful of dirt and squeeze it into a ball. If the ball will not hold at all or falls apart very quickly, the soil has a high percentage of sand. If the soil shifts underneath your feet with simply walking across it, it is also very sandy.

Enriching Sandy Soil

Because sandy soil has very little organic material, it needs enrichment to add appropriate nutrients to nourish and support plants. Furthermore, adding organic material to sandy soil will help improve its water retention so it will not dry out as quickly and nutrients will not leach out as rapidly. There are several easy ways to enrich sandy soil…

  • Add 3-4 inches of well-ripened manure or finished compost to the top of the soil and till it in to the upper layer of the planting area before initial planting.
  • Use 3-4 inches of organic mulch such as bark, shredded leaves, or hay around established plants to protect the plants and gradually add more nutrients to the top of the soil.
  • Choose slow-release fertilizer formulas for regular applications throughout the growing season, opting for blends specially suited to the plant types you grow.

Over time, the soil’s composition will improve and its nutrient supplements may need adjusting. Regularly testing the soil will help keep it nutritionally balanced so it continues to help every plant thrive.

Watering in Sandy Soil

Sandy soil is very loose and porous, and water can run through it very quickly – too quickly for plants to take up as much water as they need. Furthermore, excess water can quickly rinse away nutrition so it is no longer available for plants, but instead may contaminate local waterways with too much nitrogen or phosphorous. Smart watering is essential when you are working with sandy soil.

  • Water deep and long, but at infrequent intervals, to encourage plants to develop broad, deep root systems that will reach out for as much water as possible.
  • Use 2-3 inches of mulch at the base of plants to help curb evaporation and keep moisture available.
  • Consider using soaker hoses, drip systems, or other slow watering systems rather than overloading soil with too much water all at once.

With care, it is possible to thoroughly water plants even in sandy soil or drought-ridden areas. Being water-wise can help gardeners best manage their sandy soil without making any plants go thirsty.

Plants That Thrive in Sand

Choosing the best plants to grow in sandy soil can be a challenge. The exact plants that do best in sandy areas will have fast-growing roots and a sturdy structures. They are often drought-tolerant and easy to grow. There are flowers, trees, herbs, and even fruits and vegetables that can all do well in sandy soil, including…

  • Azalea
  • Black-eyed Susan
  • Blanket flower
  • Blueberry
  • Butterfly bush
  • Carrot
  • Collard greens
  • Columbine
  • Corn
  • Cosmos
  • Crape myrtle
  • Daylily
  • Hosta
  • Lavender
  • Oregano
  • Parsnip
  • Phlox
  • Rosemary
  • Salvia
  • Sedum
  • Strawberry
  • Yarrow
  • Zucchini

These plants are just a few that can grow well in sandy soil, and it is best to visit your local garden center for more recommendations specifically for your area. The exact plants that will do best in any particular sandy patch also depends on more than just the quality and condition of the soil. Examine light levels, consider USDA hardiness recommendations, available moisture, and the length of the growing season to choose the very best plants to take advantage of your sandy soil’s natural qualities.

More Tips for Your Sandy Soil

No matter what you plant, there are other ways to make the most of every square inch of sandy soil in your yard, landscape, or garden.

  • Test your soil to monitor its pH, microbe activity, and other characteristics in addition to the soil’s structure. The more intimate knowledge you have about your soil, the better you will be able to work with it.
  • Dig and work with the soil in the cooler temperatures of late fall and/or early spring when it may be a bit stiffer and will hold holes and structure slightly better. This will also give any organic material you’ve added extra time to break down so plants can take it up more easily.
  • Water new plants more frequently until they become established, as they will not yet have deeper roots, but do water efficiently so they are encouraged to grow.
  • Select drought tolerant plants.
  • Use stakes or other supports to bolster young trees or any larger plantings until they become established and are firmly set in the sandy soil. Depending on the plant’s growth rate, the plants may need support for several years.

Sandy soil is no better or worse than any other type of soil, but the better you understand it, the better you will be able to work with sandy soil so your lawn, garden, flowerbeds, trees, and overall landscape look their very best and every plant will thrive.