Sandy soil doesn’t retain moisture as effectively as loam or clay soil, so you need to manage it carefully. On the bright side, this means that you’re less likely to have problems with waterlogging or compaction in sandy regions, so all is not lost!
The best plants for sandy soil will be resilient wildflowers. You should choose native plants whenever possible and pick vegetables that aren’t too thirsty. You can improve your sandy soil by using compost, reducing tillage, and retaining water with mulch. Eventually, a thick spongy layer of humus will form, which will transform your sandy soil into something unrecognizable.
This article will give you ideas of the kinds of plants to grow in sandy soil and guidance on identifying and managing your garden more effectively. I hope you find it helpful!
Sandy Soil 101
What Exactly Is Sandy Soil?
There are three different sizes of particles that make up soil. Sand is the largest of these particles, followed by silt and then clay. Depending on the percentage of sand, silt, or clay, your soil will have different characteristics.
For example, moisture drains out of sandy soil very quickly because there is plenty of space for water to run between the sand particles. But clay soil frequently gets waterlogged and compacted.
The tiny particles lay close together in clay soil, and oxygen and moisture can’t always penetrate deep into the ground.
Most gardeners dream of a perfect ‘loam’ soil which is a combination of all soil particles. But no matter what soil you have, it’s always possible to grow plants if you’re determined.
Sandy Soil Characteristics
Sandy soil has unique characteristics. Depending on your climate and what you’re trying to grow, these might be helpful or a challenge!
Here are some of the key traits of sandy soil:
- Moisture drains quickly
- Not typically rich in nutrients
- Vulnerable to erosion (Loose soil can blow or wash away)
- Resistant to frost heave
- Easy for roots to move downwards
- Also easy for roots to get ripped out in a storm!
You can improve sandy soil by adding amendments or through appropriate management. I’ll give you some pointers about that a little later on!
How To Know If You Have Sandy Soil
You don’t need to be a soil scientist to work out your soil type. All you need to do is take a glass jar and fill it 30% up with your soil. You might want to take soil from a few different places in your yard or do a few different soil tests.
This can help make sure you’re getting a good overall picture of your soil type.
You fill the rest of the jar with water but leave a couple of inches of air space. Then pop the lid on the jar and give it a vigorous shake. Once you’ve thoroughly mixed your sample, you can put the jar on a flat surface and come back in 24 hours.
You’re going to see distinct layers in the settled material. Your bottom layer of sediment will be sand, the middle layer will be silt, and the top layer will be clay. You can measure each of them and work out the percentage of your sand using a simple online calculator.
Advantages of Sandy Soil
The good thing about sandy soil is you don’t have to worry about it getting compacted and waterlogged. This means that you are less likely to have any problems with mold or root rots.
Roots, oxygen, and moisture can all move through sandier soil without too much trouble, and they will constantly be working to improve and stabilize the ground once they get a foothold.
The open texture of sandy soil makes it easier for you to work with. You won’t have any backbreaking work to break the earth and plant your seedlings. Sandy soil gets warmer more quickly, so it can give your plants a head start in the springtime.
If you’re living in an already hot climate, you might try to cool down the ground with plenty of shading plants and mulches.
Disadvantages of Sandy Soil
There are also some disadvantages of sandy soil. In the warmer months, it can be tough to keep on top of the watering. Moisture will quickly evaporate or drain out of the ground, so your plants will be thirsty unless you manage the soil properly.
Sandy soil also tends to be lower in nutrients because the rain can wash the valuable topsoil away. You’ll have to use plenty of compost in veggie beds, but you don’t necessarily have to spread expensive fertilizers.
Improving Sandy Soil
You can improve any soil in the world. You will start seeing results in a single growing season, but these positive changes often compact over time and really take off after five years. Around year six is when most biological farmers report that nature takes over again. Suddenly, everything feels more effortless, and your sandy soil will be feeding itself!
Amendments For Sandy Soil
I’m all for adding amendments to sandy soil, but we don’t need to overcomplicate things. Many gardening companies will try and sell you all kinds of peats, fertilizers, and minerals to ‘fix’ your sandy soil. But I’m afraid that many of these inputs are not a long-term solution!
Training as a soil technician made me realize that the information about soil amendments is way out of date (though well-intentioned!). You can quickly end up shipping in tonnes of expensive inputs that get washed right away in bad weather.
That doesn’t mean that all amendments are worthless. But I encourage you to question your sources when they ask you to buy costly inputs if you don’t see a long-term improvement.
What you need in sandy soil is plenty of organic matter and healthy microorganisms. You’ll find both of these in fantastic quality compost.
Remember there is a difference between rotted down waste material and true garden compost. You want your compost to be thriving with life and rich in organic matter.
You can certainly include compost teas as part of your amendment regime, but compost is the most important amendment to sandy soil.
It’s going to help kick start a thriving community of microorganisms that will regenerate your soil for you. Just make sure you get out of nature’s way by avoiding tilling and minimizing chemical inputs. Soil is self-healing if we give it a chance!
Quick compost tips:
Here are a few quick tips to help make sure your chosen compost is doing more good than harm!
- It should not smell bad. It should have a slightly earthy, pleasant smell.
- It should not be hot to the touch or steaming. This means the composting process hasn’t finished yet.
- It should not have visible fuzzy mold (but long spaghetti strands of fungi can be very beneficial).
- Any manure should be fully decomposed. Pathogens and pests can make camp in the center of manure clumps.
- Your compost should look like rich chocolate. It shouldn’t be black, an indicator of reduced oxygen (and therefore pests and pathogens).
You can choose to mix your compost with sandy soil for potting or add a thick layer of compost above ground and plant directly into it. I would personally go for the latter.
Managing Sandy Soil
Managing your soil is going to be a trial and error process. But here are the two most useful approaches I have found when it comes to sandy ground.
A no-dig approach is typically best for sandy soil. If you do rotavate, dig, or turn your soil, you will be destroying all the structure that the plant roots and microorganisms have been working so hard to build.
Wet or windy weather will then take away your valuable topsoil, meaning the condition of your soil degrades every year. You can easily end up in a losing battle against mother nature.
There are a couple of different approaches to no-dig, but Charles Dowding is the king of this method. If you want to learn more about it, you’ll want to check out his best-selling book.
One of the best ways to avoid overworking your land is to grow perennial flowers. Once established, they will come back every year with minimal interference.
As sandy soil tends to drain water more quickly, you might need to adjust your gardening techniques. For example, I would avoid raised beds where possible, unless you’ve got a supply of fresh water on hand, such as a stream.
This is because raised beds are known for drying out quickly.
You can also help your sandy soil conserve moisture by applying mulch around the base of your plants. Something like straw would be ideal. This will keep the ground cool and prevent evaporation. It will also reduce your need for weeding and help build healthier soil.
You can also consider wood chips, but some of them are antibacterial, which can negatively impact your plants. So avoid pine, oak, and black walnut if you go down this root.
What Grows Best in Sandy Soil?
Wherever you are in the world, native plants are always going to do best. So instead of asking what plants do well in sandy soil generally, you might like to consider researching local fauna.
Some of the more obvious choices would be succulents or cacti, but you could also consider wildflowers and native grasses for your beds.
Of course, you can grow just about anything if you get creative. Syrian refugees are currently growing thriving vegetable gardens in abandoned mattresses in the desert! (Source)
But some plants are inevitably going to do better than others in sandy soil. I’ll give you some more suggestions below to get you started.
What Flowers Grow Best in Sandy Soil?
Wildflowers are generally hardier than ornamentals, and they are more nutritious for bees and butterflies.
Go for flowers that can grow in dry conditions such as:
- Salvia (also known as Russian Sage)
- Sweet Alyssum
- Giant Allium
What Vegetables Grow Best in Sandy Soil?
These veggies are particularly tolerant to sandy conditions:
- Zucchini (also known as courgette in my neck of the woods!)
- Tomatoes (Okay, yes, it’s technically a fruit).
When it comes to my garden, I have a no-dig approach with plenty of compost. This feeds the soil below while my seedlings are starting off.
The sandier your soil, the more compost you can use! This way, you can grow pretty much anything.
What Fruit Trees Grow Well in Sandy Soil?
You may struggle with fruit trees in sandy soil, as they need plenty of water. I highly recommend planting cover crops to help retain moisture and build the soil if you’ve got fruit tree aspirations!
These trees are known for doing well in sandy soil:
- Nectarine trees
- Mulberry trees
- Peach trees
- Apricot trees
- Cherry trees
What Herbs Do Well in Sandy Soil?
The following herbs will be fine in most sandy soil:
But if you want to broaden your repertoire, don’t hesitate to create some raised herb beds with richer topsoil or compost.
What Ground Covers Grow Best in Sandy Soil?
Ground cover will help stabilize your sandy soil, so don’t hold back! You might consider plants like:
- Dwarf Pink Lamb’s Ear
- Liriope Variegated
- Saponaria ocymoides (known as Soapwort)
Where Is Sandy Soil Typically Found?
Sandy soil is typically found in areas with low rainfall. In 2019, sandy soil made up around 900 million hectares of the globe. (Source). But land degradation and desertification are spreading at a pretty alarming rate. (Source).
The good news is that proper land and water management can reverse this process. We already have all the technology that we need to regenerate land, and the outcomes are positive for humans and the environment!
Does Sandy Soil Drain Well?
Sandy soil drains very well, which can be a problem in some situations. If you’re living in a dry region with little rainfall, you would probably prefer for your soil to hold on to all the moisture it can get.
The best way to increase water retention is to feed the soil with organic matter. Humus is like a sponge. It holds up to 90% of its weight in water, and it can transform your land’s resilience and productivity. (To clarify, humus is an even later decomposition stage of compost.)
Rather than buying humus, I would recommend making or buying a good local compost. Over time, this will become humus. (Better to make more of this valuable substance than extract it from somewhere else!)
Gardening takes just as much creativity as it does science. So please don’t feel disheartened if your soil isn’t a perfect loam.
There is always a way to produce food and flowers if you want to, whether you live in an apartment block or in the middle of the desert!
Just remember to respect your soil by avoiding digging and planting plenty of ground cover. Avoid chemical inputs to encourage healthy microorganisms that will do the hard work for you.
I hope you found this article helpful, and I wish you the best of luck with your sandy soil!