Grow plants in sand

Gardening in Sandy Soil…the Fix is in the Mix

Gardening in sandy soil can be a challenge. When it rains, the water drains through immediately. When you water, you may as well aim your hose at a sieve full of marbles.

More About Soil

Facts About Soil

Improving Garden Soil

Changing Soil pH

Improving Clay Soil

The Soil Food Web

My sister is a Master Gardener in northern Michigan. She lives on a grass-covered sand hill. When she started her garden, she could leave a hose running under a shrub for an hour, without even a hint of a puddle. The soil stayed dry 6” away. If I tried that in unamended California clay, I’d have a pond for a couple of days.

We’ve worked out two fixes for gardening in sandy soil, but before getting into them, take a moment to consider some of the advantages of sandy soil.

Yes, sandy soil has some advantages:

    Root Crops—like carrots, beets, radishes, and other tap-rooted vegetables—perform much better in sandy soils than in clay soils. It takes a lot of work to bring clay soil up to the kind of tilth that favors root crops.

    Herbs, which need good drainage, often thrive in sandy soils.

    Root Rots that plague gardeners working in clay soil are almost non-existent in sandy soil. No Phytophthora for you.

So the first trick of gardening in sandy soil is to take advantage of the strengths of sandy soil: loose texture and good drainage. Choose fruit and vegetable plants that need fast drainage. Bramble berries, herbs, and root crops are all good choices.

Fix # 1: Create Microbial Habitat

If you try to adjust the soil texture by adding silt or clay to a sandy soil, you’ll see some improvement, but most of it will just flush through the soil. There’s not enough organic matter to keep these fine-textured soil components from washing out.

Increasing soil organic matter is the key to gardening in sandy soil. You have to make the soil more “sticky”, so water and nutrients don’t just flush through every time it rains.

You do this by making the soil more hospitable to bacteria and fungi. Bacteria and fungi will provide the glues to bind your sandy soil into something much better.

How do make sandy soil more hospitable to bacteria and fungi? By adding organic matter. The best type of organic matter to add? Compost. Bio-char. Coir.

Garden Compost is the Best Form of Organic Matter to Add

A Handful of Finished Compost
© Steve Masley…Click IMAGE to Enlarge

Bacteria need moisture and nutrients to multiply. Both are in short supply when gardening in sandy soil.

Good garden compost is loaded with diverse populations of active and dormant bacteria and beneficial fungi, as well as residual bacterial and fungal “glues” that help bind sand particles together, while soaking up and holding moisture.

You can add large amounts of good, balanced compost when gardening in sandy soil, up to 40% of the soil volume. This will give you a marked improvement in both water retention and crop yield in the first season, with continued improvement in subsequent seasons.

But compost alone is the slow way. There are a couple of accelerators–bio-char and coir–that can shave a few years off your soil improvement efforts.

Bio-Char Accelerates the Process

Bio-char is organic matter, usually wood or coconut husk, that’s burned at a low temperature, in a low-oxygen environment. The resulting “char” is ground into loose shavings that can be mixed into soil to soak up and hold moisture, and provide habitat for bacteria, fungi, and the soil food web.

1 tablespoon of bio-char has the surface area of a football field. This kind of surface area provides ample habitat for bacteria and fungi to work their magic, knitting a pile of tiny rocks (sandy soil) into soil that can sustain healthy, vigorous plants.

Bio-char holds nutrients, not just moisture, in the root zone of plants. I’ve always had healthy, vigorous gardens, but in 2015, in response to the California drought, I started mixing bio-char into the soil before planting vegetable beds.

Many of our gardens were facing 35% cutbacks in water, so we were looking for organic ways to retain moisture in the soil. We mixed Bio Char into the top layer of soil in every garden, and mulched heavily. Even with 35% cutbacks in water usage, we had almost no fall-off in productivity.

Bio Char is even more effective in sandy soil than it is in our heavy western clay soil. I wouldn’t think of starting a garden without it.

The best thing about bio-char: It lasts for decades in the soil, and only needs to be applied ONCE. So while you’re improving your soil dramatically, you’re also sequestering carbon in the soil.

Coir

A Handful of Rehydrated Coir
© Steve Masley…Click IMAGE to Enlarge

Coir is dried, compressed coconut husk. A cheap and abundant byproduct of the coconut industry, it comes in brick-sized to suitcase-sized blocks.

Coir is an ideal soil amendment for gardening in sandy soil. When soaked in water, each block absorbs 5 times it’s weight in water, and triples or quadruples in volume.

Mixed into sandy soil, coir soaks up moisture, and holds it in the soil for a long time. It’s slightly acidic, just the right pH for most fruits and vegetables. Composed mostly of lignins, it breaks down very slowly, and can improve water retention when gardening in sandy soil for as long as 8 years.

The lignins in coir feed and sustain beneficial fungi, which work in conjunction with bacteria to bind sand grains into a sandy loam soil.

Why Use Coir Instead of Peat Moss?

Peat Moss is an alternative water-holding soil amendment, but it has some disadvantages, compared to coir:

  1. Dry peat moss is hydrophobic. Once it dries out, it actually repels water, as anyone who’s used it in a nursery mix knows. Coir is hydrophilic—it can soak up moisture even from the air, and is much easier to keep moist than peat.
  2. Peat moss is often extracted from peat bogs in an environmentally destructive way that damages wetlands.
  3. Peat moss is more acidic than coir. For acid-loving plants like blueberries, this is an advantage, but soil acidity is a problem for cruciferous vegetables, spinach, and lettuce.

If you keep adding compost every year, by the time this “scaffolding” has broken down, bacterial and fungal populations will be high enough to maintain soil structure without it. Instead of gardening in sandy soil, you’ll be gardening in loam.

Adding coir to sandy soil immediately increases it’s moisture-holding capacity. Populations of bacteria and beneficial fungi multiply, creating a virtuous cycle—bacteria create microaggregates that increase their habitat, and beneficial fungi thread their way through and around these microaggregates, increasing the water-holding capacity of the soil.

Better conditions allow more bacteria and fungi to grow, and more bacteria and fungi create more food for protozoa, nematodes, and other soil predators that drive the soil ecosystem. See The Soil Food Web for more information on how this feeds your plants.

To use Coir: Soak the block—or piece of a block, if you have a large one and aren’t using the whole thing—in a 5-gallon bucket of water. Be sure to drop the brick in so the long side faces up, especially if you’re soaking more than 1 brick. If you drop it in on end, it may swell against the sides of the bucket and you’ll have to hack it apart.

Use about 1 gallon of water per block. After 10-15 minutes, break up any dry chunks.

Mix coir into the planting hole for shrubs, trees, and perennial herbs. Use up to 20% of the soil volume removed from the hole. For established plants, apply a 2” (5 cm) layer to the surface and cultivate into the soil.

To improve water retention in flower and vegetable beds, apply a 1-2” (2.5-5 cm) layer of coir to the surface with compost and other organic soil amendments, and cultivate in before planting.

Municipal Compost, Animal Manures, and Other Kinds of Organic Matter

What if you don’t have access to “good” garden compost, but have ready access to municipal compost, animal manures, or other bulk soil amendments? Will these work for gardening in sandy soil?

Nitrate Depletion and High-Carbon Materials

A Nitrate Depletion Period ensues whenever high-carbon materials are mixed into vegetable garden soil. Soil bacteria multiply to assimilate the new carbon food source, sucking up soil nitrates to fuel the growth of their populations. This deprives your plants of the nitrogen they need to grow, and lasts for a few days to a few weeks, depending on temperature, soil moisture, and how much carbon was added.

Eventually, the bacteria use up the added carbon and start dying off. As they die or are eaten, the nitrogen bound up in their bodies is released back into the soil, where plants can use it. But the damage may already be done if your vegetables are stunted from lack of nitrogen at a critical time in their growth.

The answer is a qualified “yes”. Most animal manures will help retain moisture when gardening in sandy soil—especially if they’re well-composted, and had a lot of straw or bedding mixed in before composting.

Compost is trickier. Cheap compost and many municipal composts will help in the long term, but your vegetable yields might drop the first season, unless you take precautions. (See “Nitrate Depletion” Sidebar).

Cheap bulk soil amendments and municipal composts often have too much carbon, relative to the amount of nitrogen they contain. Sandy soils have low nitrate levels to begin with, so nitrate depletion happens more quickly if you add a high-carbon soil amendment, and you’re gardening in sandy soil.

To avoid nitrate depletion, materials added to loam soil should have a C:N (Carbon-to-Nitrogen) ratio of 30:1 or less. At this level, most vegetable garden soil has enough nitrate available to accommodate a rise in soil bacteria without compromising your vegetables.

To avoid nitrate depletion when gardening in sandy soil, the ratio should be less than 25:1. Good garden compost usually has a C:N ratio in the range of 20:1. It provides a short-term nitrogen boost immediately, but it’s more durable humic acids break down slowly, acting as a sustained-release organic fertilizer throughout and well beyond the growing season.

If you’re unsure of the C:N ratio of municipal compost or any other bulk amendment, add some supplemental nitrogen, like composted chicken manure, or feather meal when you incorporate it into the soil.

See Improving Garden Soil for more information on C:N ratios and bulk soil amendments.

See the manure section of the fertilizer page for the npk values of animal manures.

Fix # 2: Mulch, Mulch, Mulch!

Mulching is the second fix for gardening in sandy soil, and it compliments the first fix, increasing soil organic matter.

Mulching is probably the most under-utilized tool in the gardener’s arsenal, but it’s one of the most important, for both sandy soil and clay soil.

A good layer of mulch reduces evaporation from the soil surface and is one of the best ways to retain water when gardening in sandy soil. It keeps the soil surface cool, brings the microbial life of the soil right up to the surface, and provides habitat for the surface shredders—microarthropods like oribatid mites and springtails—that are so critical to the soil food web.

Usually, UV, heat, and dryness nearly sterilize the top inch of soil, but mulch makes this layer warm and moist in summer, so the soil food web releases more nutrients for your garden.

What is “a good layer”? 3-4” (8-10 cm) is good around the drip line of shrubs and fruit trees (keep it a few inches away from the trunk, but cover the rest). Under vegetables, an inch or so of fine mulch will usually do the trick.

As an added bonus, mulching reduces weed problems, and when weeds do sprout, they’re spindly, weak, and come out of the soil with the slightest pull.

In Summary, the Best Practices for Gardening in Sandy Soil are:

    Amend the soil with garden compost, bio-char, and/or coir to increase moisture holding capacity and boost bacterial populations.

    Mulch the surface to retain moisture and increase the depth of biologically active soil.

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Facts About Soil | Improving Garden Soil
Changing Soil pH | Improving Clay Soil
Gardening in Sandy Soil | The Soil Food Web

Provided you manage the fertiliser carefully, healthy crops can be grown in sand.
Photo: Bill Kerr

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Sandy soil is often called ‘light soils’ because they are relatively ‘light’ or easy to work with when it comes to ploughing, planting and cultivating.

But they’re certainly not ‘light’ or easy to manage! These soils tend to dry out quickly. However, some sandy soils lie on a rocky layer and so can become waterlogged after a lot of rain. In this case, you’ll need drainage trenches.

Other sandy soils have a clay or loam base, which is only discovered when digging holes to determine the soil profile.

Such soils can be highly productive as the heavier soil below can trap leached nutrients and hold moisture. Sandy soils have very little clay to retain nutrients and so are not fertile.

Growing vegetables in sand is similar to farming with hydroponics, where the crops are planted in gravel or some other medium and all the nutrients are supplied via the irrigation water.

With hydroponic farming, however, the water containing the nutrients is circulated. In sandy soil, the nutrients are washed through the soil and mostly lost. To manage this, the golden rule is ‘less, more often’.

Because sand dries out quickly, apply less water more often. With fertiliser, too, give lighter, more frequent applications to allow the roots to take up the nutrients before these are lost.

Organic fertiliser, such as compost, helps with this process. This ‘holds’ any other fertilisers that you apply.

Then, as the compost decomposes, it gradually releases nutrients through the activity of soil organisms. This is called ‘mineralisation’, and it’s usually the most practical way to fertilise sandy soils.

In general, it’s difficult to build up the organic content of sandy soils, especially in warm areas. To achieve the best results, apply the golden rule: smaller quantities of organic matter more often.

Grass mulch also helps to fertilise the soil, as well as keeping it cool in hot weather and reducing weeds.

Loss of nutrients
Leaching of nitrogen can cause serious health problems for your plants, and should be addressed with organic fertiliser.

Loss of calcium can also produce poor results as it causes acid soils, especially in high-rainfall areas; apply agricultural lime to these soils from time to time.

Your fertiliser agent or extension officer can advise you on the quantity needed. Organic fertilisation also helps to produce better crops in acid soils.

Eelworm can be a problem in sandy soils, so it’s a good idea to rotate crops with crops that are not susceptible to this serious pest.

Despite these difficulties, all vegetables can be grown in sandy soil. In fact, this type of soil can be extremely productive if you use the right management methods.

Coming to terms with soil
Simply put, soil, the medium in which rooted plants grow, is a mixture of solids, water and air. The solids include minerals, tiny rock particles, organic matter from animals and plants, and minute living organisms.

As explained previously, there are three basic soil types – sandy, loam and clay. However, most lands have a variable mixture of these, such as ‘sandy loam’ – soil that’s part sand, part loam.

The ideal way to grow vegetables is to conduct market research to decide on what crops are in demand, then find a piece of land with the best possible soil for the crop.

In the real world, however, most farmers and gardeners have to learn to work with the soil they have and make the most of it.

Drainage ditches
The most efficient drainage system – one that allows you to drain the biggest area – is the fishbone pattern. As the name suggests, this consists of channels joining a central ditch at about a 45° angle.

The number of channels and the length of the ditch will be determined by the size of the area under cultivation. Make sure the channels and ditch are angled correctly to carry the water in the right direction.

The channels which guide the water into the central ditch and the ditch itself are filled with rocks, covered with plastic (old fertiliser bags can be used), and filled with soil.

This makes the system almost invisible and you can cultivate the land as normal, even over the channels. You can even build a dam to collect the water that flows out of the central drainage ditch.

Soil profile
If you dig a deep hole in your soil, you’ll notice various layers. These so-called ‘horizons’ differ in texture, structure, colour, ability to hold water and so on, and make up the soil profile.

The surface layer, which contains grass or plant life, is the ‘O’ horizon. The two layers immediately below this – the ‘A’ and ‘B’ horizons – are regarded as the ‘true soil’, as most of the chemical and biological activity that helps plants grow takes place there.

When we say dirt, we usually mean dust. But what does this feel like? Doesn’t it feel like soil? Why is soil always used for plantation? What exactly is soil? Let us find out below more below and know the types of soil.

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Introduction

The soil is one of the important resources of our country, as the fertile soil helps us in producing many crops. This serves the food requirements not only within the country but also in other parts of the world. Although it is not the same at every place on the earth. The types of soil of a place are determined by climate, landscape, and vegetation of that place. Soil also depends on the time of its formation.

Different types of soil are characteristics of their color, texture and chemical properties. The soil has particles of different sizes. The relative amounts of the size of various particles in the soil determine the texture of the soil.

Browse more Topics under Soil

  • Properties of Soil
  • Soil and Soil Profile
  • Soil Erosion

Soil Classification on the Based on Particles Size

1. Sandy soil

Sandy soil contains more than 60% sand and clay. It contains very little clay and silt, so it is porous. The size of soil particles in sandy soil is from 0.2mm to 2.0mm. The water building capacity of a sandy soil is very poor. Hence, there is a lot of air present in this type of soil.

  • Suitable Crops: Sandy soil is not good for plants. However, melon and coconut grow in sandy soil. If water is available for irrigation then crops such as maize, millets, barley can be grown in desert soil. Cactus also grows in this soil.

2. Clayey Soil

The clayey soil consists of very fine particles of clay. Its water holding capacity is very high. Wet clay soil is very sticky. It contains very little air. The size of soil particles in clay size is less than 0.2mm. Clayey soil is rich in organic matter.

Clayey Soil

  • Suitable Crops: It is also not good for many plants. It is only good for crops like paddy, which require a lot of water. Clay is used for making toys, pots, and many other purposes.

3. Loamy Soil

The loamy soil consists of sand, clay,, and silt. It also contains enough hummus. It has a good water-holding capacity. It has sufficient aeration. It is well suited for cultivation. Roots of plants get enough water, air, and space to grow.

  • Suitable Crops: Loamy soil is ideal for growing crops such as wheat, sugarcane, cotton, jute, pulses, and oilseeds. Vegetables also grow well in this soil.

Learn more about Formation of Soil and Soil Profile here.

Soil Classification on the Based on Color

1. Red soil

The red color of soil is due to the presence of iron oxide. It appears yellow when it contains less iron or more water. Red soil contains a mixture of clay and sand, antis not fertile. However, the soil can be fertile by adding manures and fertilizers.

  • Suitable Crops: It is suitable for growing groundnuts, pulses, millet, cotton and tobacco.

2. Black soil

Black soil is also known as black lava soil. This soil black in color. It is formed from lava rocks and is rich in clay.

  • Suitable Crops: It is ideal for growing crops such as cotton, sugarcane, tobacco, wheat, millets, and oilseeds.

Learn more about Soil Erosion here.

Question For You

Q. Write down the classification of soil.

Answer: On the basis of the color of soil there are two types of soil:

  • Red Soil
  • Black Soil

On the basis of texture:

  • Sandy Soil
  • Clayey Soil
  • Loamy Soil

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Growing profitable crops on sandy soils in SW NSW and results from a 17 year old tillage and rotation trial, Merriwagga NSW

Note: this presentation is a combination of results from two separate trials. The sandy soils results are listed below, and the long term tillage and rotation results are on the Ag Grow website listed at the bottom of this presentation.

Background

Sandy soils are typically classified as having greater than 75 per cent coarse particles (sand) in their texture. Many sands in south west New South Wales (SW NSW) exhibit both fine and coarse sand particles, in addition to very fine silt particles that often concentrate between larger sand particles and on top of compaction layers.

These sands are found commonly on Mallee country and are very rarely evenly spread across a paddock. This is because of the way they were originally formed during historic wind erosion events.

Sandy soils are scattered right throughout the SW NSW cropping belt, however they are very common between Ardlethan in the east and Cobar in the north west, and in this area can contribute up to 30 per cent of the cropping landscape.

Sandy soils continually underperform in this region, and hence the necessity for research in this area.

Management practices to maximise profitability and sustainability on sandy soils in SW NSW

Over the past 15-20 years, there has been a lot of effort researching better ways to grow crops on sands. In recent years, Ag Grow Agronomy along with many clients has undertaken more formal research evaluating various management factors that impact on crop performance on sandy soils. This has led to four main management factors that have been identified that make a difference to crop performance.

Importantly, any management practice that increases biomass (often measured by normalised difference vegetation index (NDVI)) increases yield. This is totally the opposite of what has been found on the heavier soils within this region.

Cultivation/ripping/spading

Over the past 20 years, the farming system has moved quickly to a zero or no till system, where cultivation has been either eliminated or minimised. Adoption has been rapid on sands in order to reduce erosion.

Many trials have evaluated the place for various forms of cultivation, including ripping deep with narrow points (leaving stubble intact), deep ripping to 50cm, full cultivation, and even spading.

In summary, any disturbance of the silty sub layer at 12-15cm by ripping and cultivation often results in an increase in crop performance, however it is not without its downside. The major hurdle is sand blasting of the following crop resulting in poor crop establishment, uneven soil finish, and wind and water erosion.

Trials in 2015 showed the value of cultivation, especially when it was coupled with manure or to a lesser extent lime. This trial was replicated three times, with plots 60m x 12m, and performed with commercial equipment. Treatments were performed on 2 April, and paddock sown 29 April. Results highlighted in Figure 1 show that adding a deep cultivation (20-30cm) increased yields by about 1t/ha. Deep ripping to 50-60cm gave no extra yield benefit. Adding 3t/ha lime and incorporating with a deep cultivation increased yields by an additional 1.6t/ha compared to the control, but amazingly adding 3t/ha chicken manure and incorporating with a deep cultivation increased yields by 3.1t/ha.

This result is much higher than what has been historically expected in previous trials evaluating similar cultivation and manure comparisons.

Figure 1: Effect of various soil disturbance and nutrition treatments on yield at Rankins Springs 2015.

Nutrition

It is obvious that sands are less fertile and hence require more fertiliser for productive crop performance. The benefits of manure have been well explained above. Nitrogen (N) and phosphorous (P) fertilisers are also very important.

The sandy soil project evaluated various crop nutrition treatments as highlighted in Figure 2. In this trial MAP was applied with the seed, however all other treatments were either pre-drilled just prior to sowing or spread and incorporated by sowing (manure).

Generally, the higher the NDVI at flowering the higher the yield. This trial did highlight the sensitivity to higher rates of MAP with the seed, as shown by the lower NDVI and yield of 100kg MAP versus 50kg MAP. This was as a result of crop burn and is commonly observed on sands.

This trial also highlighted the value of N and P in conjunction with each other. It also showed no benefit from the application of either sulphur, potassium or zinc.

Manure was again a standout treatment, which would likely offer several years of increased yields.

Yields in this trial were limited by an extremely dry finish to the season.

Figure 2: Grain yield of various nutrition treatments in a trial at Rankins Springs 2015.

Variety and seeding rates

2015 was the first real varietal evaluation performed specifically on sands in the region.

As shown in Figure 3, there is a major difference between the performance of varieties on sands. This is most likely as a result of acid soil tolerance, however it is not the complete answer. Bellaroi is not tolerant of acidity, and as such performed very poorly. Suntop rates as moderately tolerant, however it was a standout performer in this trial. The higher rated varieties Corack, Ventura and EGA Gregory performed well, however they were well behind Suntop. All barley varieties (which are not usually tolerant of acid soils) performed exceptionally well.

The addition of 3-6t/ha lime did increase yield in Bellaroi, however it made no difference in Suntop, and in both cases would be deemed commercially unviable due to economics.

Seeding rates have been evaluated commercially for a few years using grower equipment, and there is a general agreement that NDVI and consequently yields increase with higher seeding rates.

In this trial yield increased consistently as seeding rate increased, which was a little unexpected. In recent farm trials, using seeding rates over 80kg/ha has tended to reduce yields due to the crop burning off. It is generally accepted that increasing seeding rates from the flats (average 20-40kg) to the sands is a no-brainer, however the rate that provides most reliable yields on sands needs further investigation.

Figure 3: Grain yield of various varieties, seeding rates and lime in a trial at Rankins Springs 2015.

Influence of herbicides on sands

Using herbicides on sandy soils has many issues. This is because sands are very low in microbial activity reducing their ability to break down herbicide residues. They are also free draining, allowing herbicides to enter the root zone of plants, and they are often sprayed regularly as a result of the way weeds germinate on minimal moisture.

A trial in 2015 measured the effect of various knockdown and pre-emergent herbicides on NDVI and yield on a sandy soil. The treatments were sprayed on 28 April, and incorporated by sowing using a commercial Morris contour drill on 30cm spacings into good soil moisture. Note: no weeds were present at the time of application.

All pre-emergent products were registered for this use. Two treatments containing the knockdown herbicide 2,4-D LV Ester and Glyphosate 540 were used at higher than label rates to test the concept that these products can be quite damaging to crop growth and yield on sands. This proved to be true, and while these results are due to a practice not recommended, this needs further investigation.

Some pre-emergent herbicides did have an impact on grain yields as shown in Figure 4. Two litre Triflur X, Boxer Gold at 2.5L IBS and Boxer Gold at 1.5L early post emergence (EPE)ɸ all reduced yield in this trial. This is commonly observed commercially, and fits within expected results. We did not evaluate 2.5L Boxer Gold EPE as previous trials highlighted yield reductions on sands. Note this trial was replicated three times, however not statistically randomised, and as such no statistical analysis was performed.

ɸEarly post emergence use is not on the label

Figure 4:Impact of pre-emergent herbicides on grain yields.

Logran unexpectedly had very little effect on yield. This is not the case with commercial observations, and as such this product should be avoided on sands.

Sakura seemed to provide a slight increase in yield, probably because it provided some control of brome grass, which was present at low levels in this trial.

Acknowledgement

Funding for this work was provided through the GRDC Project ‘Growing high yielding crops on sandy soils’ and their support is gratefully acknowledged.

Contact details

Barry Haskins

Ag Grow Agronomy Website
Barry Haskin’s Twitter

Selecting Plants For Sandy Soil – Learn About Sand Tolerant Plants

Whether wishing to grow a beautiful flower garden or create a lush vegetable patch, the process of building and maintaining soil health can be quite the undertaking. Depending upon where you live, growers may encounter a wide range of soil conditions and types. While some soil types can prove problematic for differing reasons, sandy soil can be especially frustrating. Luckily, there are ways to manage sandy soil and, surprisingly, a number of sandy soil plants can even thrive in these conditions.

Problems with Plants That Grow in Sand

Sandy soils are especially troublesome to gardeners for many reasons. While well draining and able to prevent root rot in sensitive plants, this free-draining soil has great difficulty in retaining moisture and valuable nutrients in the garden. This is especially true in climates that receive hot summer temperatures. Sandy soil may also become more acidic, requiring balanced applications of lime to correct the pH levels of the soil.

Although it is possible to the correct the concerns of growing in sandy soils, garden plants that grow in sand will need consistent fertilization and irrigation throughout the growing season. This can be done on a small scale for flower beds and vegetable gardens, but for those wishing to create lush landscapes, you may have more success by choosing sandy soil crops and other naturally sand tolerant plants.

Sandy Soil Plants

Choosing plants for sandy soil may initially feel somewhat limited, but gardeners can enhance their landscapes through the incorporation of hardy native plants. In general, plants that grow in the sand will require less maintenance from homeowners as they become established and naturalize in the landscape. Here are just a few examples of trees and flowers adapted to growth in sandy soil:

  • Red cedar trees
  • Flowering crabapple trees
  • Gray dogwood trees
  • Mulberry
  • Succulents
  • Desert cacti
  • Lavender
  • Cosmos
  • Hibiscus
  • Rosemary
  • Rudbeckia

Turning Sand into Soil

This article was one of four winning entries in a writing contest sponsored by the New York State Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative (GLCI). GLCI is led by a Steering Committee of farmers and agricultural professionals to promote the wise use of private grazing lands, and is funded by the USDA-Natural Resources Conservation Service.
By Anne Lincoln
It was sand……sand everywhere. It was like beach sand that filled the house when the windows were open on a windy day. I had to wear “goggles” over my contact lenses to keep the grit out when I walked in the yard. Some neighbors said “you can’t grow anything on that sand”, but this is what my husband, Dave, wanted to use for pasture for beef cows! The neighbors didn’t know, though, that this was like setting down a challenge to Dave.

July 2004. We started with sandy soils and thin, nutrient-poor grass.

I saw what Dave was capable of long before he decided to raise beef on our 25 tillable acres in Willsboro, NY. We had moved there in 1998 after learning we did not enjoy the sounds of close neighbors while living in town. We had both been dairy farmers in previous lives before we met in 1992 and we both still loved growing crops and animals in a quiet country setting. My first surprise occurred when Dave had spent the day leveling off a piece of land near the woods. He said he was going to build a shed for his equipment. Well, I kind of humored him, thinking to myself “that’s too big a project; he will never finish it”. I found I had a lot to learn about Dave. Not only did he build the shed, but over the next two years, built it bigger and bigger, even adding an enclosed workshop with a cement floor.
I was obviously worried when he started talking about building a fence that “you can see through” around the fields, especially the field in front of the house. Well, that came true too! In 2004, when we had decided it was time to start getting some cattle, we looked around for someone to build a fence for us. The contractors seemed to all be too busy or too expensive, so Dave bought a post-pounder, ordered a tractor-trailer load of fence posts and went to work building a six-strand high tensile fence.
OK, well, now we had a shed and a fence. What about grass? Remember, you can’t grow anything on that sand! There was some wispy blue grass that was struggling to grow on the nutrient poor soil, so at least we had something to start with. However, the spark to really get things started was our neighbor, Michael Davis, who worked for Cornell. He introduced Dave to some books about grazing, including Quality Pasture by Allan Nation, Management-Intensive Grazing by Jim Gerrish, and Salad Bar Beef by Joel Salatin. Dave ate these books up almost as fast as our steers eat new grass. Dave was now full of ideas on how to grow beef on the sand. Managed grazing would allow us to watch our beef grow on lush green grass instead of what we had growing in the sandy fields.
We started grazing in 2005 with a handful of Herefords, putting them in paddocks separated with temporary fencing, and moving them a few times a day. It was a start, but we had a long way to go to raise good healthy beef on that soil. Dave continued his grass education by attending many pasture walks throughout the Northeast. He went to seminars about grazing and beef cattle presented by the Cornell Cooperative Extension and other organizations. Dave was especially impressed with Darrell Emmick’s presentation at “Hoof to Rail” about what was termed the “Law of Least Effort Grazing”. Darrell said that it was important to relate the animal behavior to how they graze and react to each other and their surroundings. There seemed to be an emphasis in many presentations and books on observing the pastures and the animals and this has become a key in our cattle grazing philosophy.
One book also mentioned it would take five years to really see an improvement in the pastures and suggested that many people got discouraged and gave up before they got to this five year mark. Well, it did take five years of grazing with about 30 Hereford and Angus cattle, moving them 2-5 times a day through small paddocks. We saw small improvements each year, but it was around year five when we really saw the results of managed grazing.

What were some of our results from managed grazing?

    • The soil was able to hold a lot more moisture. Prior to managed grazing, the water ran off the fields in small rivers when it rained. Now the small rivers no longer appear, even after a heavy rain. The grasses help the soil to absorb and retain moisture and keep the soil moister when the weather is warm and dry. The soil has a lot more organic matter and earthworms are plentiful.
    • The grass species have become more diverse and there are almost no weeds. We started with a wispy blue grass that dies out early in the summer. Without doing any seeding, the pastures now have a large variety of grasses, including orchard grass, quack grass and clover. This diversity helps keep the pasture lush and green throughout the grazing season.
    • The manure breaks down rapidly. Around the fourth year of grazing, Dave was walking the pasture and kicked a manure patty, something he often does to help the manure to break down faster. This manure patty was only a few days old and all crusty on the top. When he kicked it, the top flew off and there was almost nothing left underneath except a few strands and a lot of dung beetles. The patties get dung beetle holes in them now within hours after they are dropped by the cows. The dung beetles are much more active partly because we do not need to worm the cattle.

First time through May 4, 2010. The grass is just getting started for the season

  • The number of grazings and the thickness of the grass increased dramatically over the five year period. By not allowing the cattle to graze too long, they don’t eat the grass down to the dirt or the new shoots, thus allowing the grass to recover and develop new growth much more rapidly. Leaving four to six inches of grass in the pasture also helps to keep the animals from acquiring worm infections.

In 2010, we were able to grow more animals and rotate them through the pastures more times than in any other year. The winter of 2010-2011 was long and snowy, but the pastures last spring were green and growing fast, so we are looking forward to an even better growing season in 2012!

For more information on the Grazing Lands Conservation Initiative please contact Karen Hoffman at 607-334-4632 x116 or [email protected] For assistance with planning or starting up a grazing system contact your local USDA-NRCS or county Soil and Water Conservation District.

We have a flat, sandy lot at the cottage. Is there any vegetation that will grow in very sandy soil? I’d love to see my vacuum bag empty of the pounds and pounds of sand being tracked inside.—Cheryl Rowan, via e-mail

That much sand can’t be good for the vacuum. And that much vacuuming can’t be good for your tan! But don’t worry: Lots of vegetation will grow in sand. First, do some recon. “Look to see what’s growing well in the natural areas around your cottage,” says Lorraine Johnson, author of 100 Easy-to-Grow Native Plants. In general, for exposed sandy areas that get a lot of sun, she recommends a spreading ground cover, such as juniper, native wild strawberry, pearly everlasting, or prairie smoke. These plants should all help hold the sand in place.

Also, check with a local native-plant nursery. Karen Landman, an associate professor of landscape architecture at the University of Guelph, suggests Grand Moraine Growers in Alma, Ont., which has an online catalogue that lists plants suitable for many types of soil conditions, habitats, or purposes.

Unfortunately, ground cover isn’t great to walk on, says Johnson, so also consider installing a boardwalk or a path with concrete pads or flagstones.

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