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The Dirt on Dirt - Sand

Sandy soil

Contributors: Dr. Rick Schoellhorn

Sandy soil is often cursed by gardeners but sand can be a wonderful thing. The Dirt on Dirt - Sand will teach you about sandy soils, why you should love them, and how to make them even better.

Soil comes in a whole array of types.  The basic categories are clay, silt, loam and sand with constant variation within each of these classes.  If you have silt or loam soils you are sitting pretty, gardening will be easy and you will love your soil.  If you have clay or sandy soils it will take a bit more input from you before you love your soil.   Trust me, you can love your clay or sandy soil, it just takes a bit of knowledge and a bit of elbow grease.  So the question is:  how, exactly do you learn to love sandy soil?  Read on to learn more about what sandy soil is, why you should be glad you have it and how you can make it even better. 

First, things first, how do you know you have sandy soil?  Does water quickly drain through your soil with puddles a rarity even after hard rains?  Is it difficult to squeeze the soil into a ball?  It these things are true then you probably have sandy soil.  Sandy soils offer both benefits and disadvantages when compared to clay soils. They may require more water, more fertilizer and more amending, but they are much easier to work with and many plants prefer this type of soil.  If you have clay soils, click here to read about working with clay soils.

What is Sandy Soil?

What does it mean that you have sandy soil?   A sandy soil is composed of many irregular to rounded tiny grains of sand, as opposed to the many tiny plate-like soil particles that make up a clay soil. If you imagine a glass jar filled with ping pong balls, this is what a truly sandy soil looks like under magnification. If you imagine a jar filled with poker chips, this is more how a clay soil would appear when magnified. As you can imagine there is a lot more air space between the rounded sandy soil particles and this larger amount of air under the soil surface is what gives your soil the characteristic of being well-drained. This simply means that water moves quickly through the soil and air replaces it quickly.

Before we go into too much detail, a sandy soil will replace water with air more quickly, and this is why sandy soils dry out faster than clay soils. Is this bad? Well it all depends on your soil and what you are trying to grow, sandy soils are best for plants that like to have their roots dry out quickly, but it can also be adjusted to support plants that do not.  It is always hard to know which kind of soil you have without doing a soil test, but your local county extension service will help you in doing a basic soil test to let you know what particular type of clay soil you have.

What’s good about sandy soil & what’s bad about it?

Let’s take a look at what a sandy soil offers to gardeners, both the good and the bad.

The good parts: A sandy soil is so much easier to work with than clay soils, it is lighter weight, doesn’t compact, and in general is easy to dig in or amend with compost, and most flowering plants benefit from the fact that it is well drained. You will rarely have to worry about over-watering and root rot problems are less likely. Transplanted plants seem to establish a little bit faster in sandy soils as well, since it is easier for their roots to get a foothold in this looser type of soil. Sandy soils also tend to warm up a little faster in the spring when compared to clay soils, so if you are an impatient gardener having a sandy soil gives you a little bit of head start in spring.

A few bad things: Since sandy soils are made up of well…sand you will find that it doesn’t hold water or nutrients very well. Sand is composed of silica, usually quartz crystals, and these have relatively no ability to hold onto nutrients and little ability to hold on to water. Hopefully you are not gardening in pure sand, but even then there is hope. You just have to plan to use water more efficiently, and to water deeply, slow release types of fertilizer are better than liquid fertilizers, and you’ll want to spend a bit more time adding compost or other organic matter into your soil to beef it up. In these days of drought warnings and water restrictions sandy soils are getting a bad reputation, but like most bad reputations this is largely a misconception. A sandy soil has a lot of great qualities including that it is much more difficulty to compact a sandy soil, clay soils can be compacted by driving over them with lawn mowers, cars etc, and sandy soils are more resilient. .

How fertilize sandy soils most effectively – We all need to learn is how to avoid wasting fertilizers as they eventually run off into our lakes, streams and groundwater if we use them improperly. Nowhere is this more important than with sandy soils. Since sandy soils cannot hold either nutrients or water as well as clay type soils, they allow more water and nutrients to run through the soil, which means they end up somewhere else other than your garden.

Fertilizer manufacturers have come up with a type of fertilizer that mimics the way a clay soil adheres to and then releases fertilizer.  The name for these fertilizers that hold and slowly release fertilizer is “slow-release fertilizers”. There are two types and you may want to experiment with both to see what works best for you. Plastic coated or resin coated fertilizers (such as Osmocote®, Dynamite®, and Nutricote®) are marvels of technology with multiple layers of plastic surrounding the fertilizer, each layer of plastic has minute holes which allow fertilizer to leak out slowly where plants can grab it up before it moves through the soil.

Sulphur coated slow release fertilizer act in a similar way only using sulphur (itself a fertilizer) layers to restrict how quickly the fertilizer breaks down. In both cases you’ll get better results with the fertilizer mixed into the soil at planting rather than placed on top your mulch after you have finished planting. Mixing the fertilizer into the soil allows soil bacteria and underground moisture levels to help with uniform delivery of your fertilizer. Also a small percentage of fertilizer gets atomized back into the atmosphere unless it is covered with soil.

Regardless of which type of fertilizer you choose a slow release fertilizer will usually allow you to fertilize about ¼ as often as regular granulated fertilizers or water soluble fertilizers. This can really make your life easier during the spring and summer. Most landscapes and gardens need a liquid fertilizer about every 2 weeks, OR a granular fertilizer about every month, OR a slow release fertilizer 2-3 x per season. Over fertilizing is simply wasting money and potentially harming the environment. You can actually cause more problems by fertilizing too much; over-fertilized plants tend to be more susceptible to insect and disease problems because they have been pushed so hard to make them grow that they are weakened and more likely to have problems. Click here for more information on fertilizer. 

How to water sandy soils most effectively – Watering is the biggest challenge most gardeners’ face and most people over-water their plants, it is the single biggest cause of plants dying.  Luckily if you have a sandy soil, you are not likely to be an over-watering statistic. The key to watering sandy soils is to water less frequently but for longer each time, this encourages deeper root systems on plants and also allows them to penetrate deeper into the soil where there is more water available than there is at the surface. Less frequent deeper watering will help develop deep root systems and frequent light watering encourage shallow roots which make plants less drought tolerant.  Check with your local county extension service to see what recommended watering rates are in your town.

The best way to water is deeply and infrequently (except for recently planted flowers and landscapes, these need water frequently to get established). If you have a sprinkler system, make sure to check and see that is not overwatering on a regular basis, plants get used to whatever watering cycle you give them, so plants that are regularly overwatered are more likely to collapse when the water isn’t there, on the contrary plants that have to work just a little bit in between watering are tougher and more likely to handle short dry periods.  For more on watering landscapes click here.

How to make sandy soils better:

Incorporating compost – For gardeners with sandy soils adding organic matter to the garden soil is simply a matter of survival. Luckily this type of soil is easy to dig in and a breeze for a rototiller. You want to add the same types of organic matter regardless of what soil type you have: compost, straw, shredded wood bark, etc) by adding these things to your soil you can help it to retain more water and fertilizer as well as providing additional nutrients as these organic bits decompose. For most sandy soils it may be better to use a slightly coarser material for your amendments because they break down so quickly in well drained soils, especially if local rains are heavy.

Sometimes adding large amounts of organic matter all at once can temporarily reduce the nutrient nitrogen, so when adding uncomposted materials, you may want to bump up your fertilizer levels until plants appear to be growing actively with no problems. The first sign of a nitrogen shortage is plants turning a yellowish green. The compost you add each year will also act as a slow release fertilizer and a as an additional way to hold water for your growing plants!   Click here for more information on compost.

Mulching – For sandy soils mulching is essential to get plants established. Because sandy soils have so much more air space than other types of soil, water evaporates from the surface of the soil at a much faster rate than clay soils. Applying a 2-3” layer of mulch composed of compost or other organic matter will stop water evaporation almost entirely. This helps keep the water where the plants need it, underground. A layer of mulch will also act to cool the soil during summer heat and extend the life of flowers and vegetables in the garden as well as reducing temperatures overall in the garden.

Having a sandy soil is actually a lot less work than clay IF you know how to handle it. They are easier to work with, less effort to dig in and easier to adjust if problems occur. The key to success in sandy soil is less frequent deeper watering, using slow release fertilizers to reduce the amount of fertilizer run off and environmental pollution, and adding as much organic matter as possible to the soil to help hold water, nutrients, and keep plant roots in place. Another key to success is selecting plants that do well in well drained soils, ask your local garden center or county cooperative extension service about what plants work best in your area.

486 Readers Rated This: 12345 (3.4)
Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 01/21/2019 - 5:55pm

Greetings from Brantford Ontario!

My backyard is a parking lot. We removed the top layer of tar but the soil is 4 feet deep of sand. How do I proceed to turn the soil into an organic garden with fruit trees, like golden plums, apples and pears? Much appreciated.

Stacey Hirvela's picture
Stacey Hirvela Thu, 02/07/2019 - 3:37pm

I'd get a big load of compost delivered, and work it into the soil to start off with. 

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 11/20/2018 - 6:06pm

I have a 30 foot diameter area where there once was a pool that a previous owner installed. I have been removing the sand in order to replace with a garden but I don't know how much sand to remove. I have already removed about 40 wheelbarrows full of sand and its a very wet area and looks like a pool. Before I add soil and mulch I want to be sure I remove the proper amount of sand. Would someone help please?

Rick Schoellhorn's picture
Rick Schoellhorn Fri, 11/23/2018 - 10:22am

Hi there -
Without knowing where in the country you are it is a bit difficult to say how much soil you need to remove from the planting area where the pool used to be (if you're in CA Arizona you might want to dig deeper to help overcome extremes of heat and drought, and if you live in the NE US or Canada, you wouldn't need to dig very deep because your soils are already generally fairly rich and a thin covering of top soil would be all the was needed.

Here are some basics:
1. Most plants live and die in the top 12-24" of soil, so you don't need to dig down more than 24" in almost any case.
2. Trees and shrubs (some perennial flowers) can be very deep rooted, but in most cases those deep roots are there for support, most plants feed only in the top 24" of the soil.
3. If the soil around your ex-pool seems fairly fertile and things grow well, then I would say you you don't need to go any deeper than 1 foot to start building your new soil. If your replanting with a lawn, 12" deep if fine.
4. If however you live in a very dry climate, or the soil is very poor, you might want to remove another 12" of soil and have your new top soil be deeper to help plants survive in harsher conditions.

I hope this helps!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 05/18/2017 - 12:24pm


I'm about to plant a clay strawberry planter with some Ozark bare roots. Every youtube video I see recommends sandy soil. What brand should I use or should I just make a mixture based on a certain ratio of soil/compost/sand/mulch etc???

Any advice is greatly appreciated!!!

Rick Schoellhorn's picture
Rick Schoellhorn Sat, 05/27/2017 - 12:05pm

Hi there!
OK so any potting soil will work fine for the strawberries, if you want a heavier mix (so those little openings in the pot don't dry out so fast, try adding 1/3 sand to 2/3 any good potting mix and mix well then use just as you would the potting soil.
Hope this helps and happy gardening!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 04/13/2017 - 4:41pm

I've never really understood mulching, until I read most of this article. My husband has been thinking about using mulch for part of our backyard, but I told him that I didn't want to use it til I knew how it worked. I'll have to do a little more research, but I think that I'll be figure things out soon.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 10/17/2016 - 7:43am

Thank you for the very helpful information. I love gardening and have very sandy soil, don't need a soil test to verify this. You have reinforced what I already knew, but wanted to be sure I am doing this correctly. I will continue to amend, amend, and amend and use slow release fertilizer. Haven't been mulching much and will work on that.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sun, 04/17/2016 - 5:45pm

Is it OK to sandbox sand into a 6 x 12 above ground garden we are building. So far cardboard and mulch is in the garden box at this time. I have 50 40lbs of black topsoil and would like to get rid of sandbox and it's content.

Rick Schoellhorn's picture
Rick Schoellhorn Wed, 04/20/2016 - 10:37am

Well that's funny, I keep meaning to dump my granddaughter's turtle sandbox and shift it over to a wading pool, so at first thought this email was for me

Playbox sand is perfectly fine to use to use in the bottom of the raised bed! Just spread it out so it forms a thin layer, or mix it in while adding the top soil. Given the choice I would mix it in since that will tend to help drainage.

Happy Gardening!!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 04/06/2016 - 10:53am

I've been checking out how I can manage the sand in my garden. I didn't even think about the fact that sandy soil is a lot easier to dig in! Not to mention it's well drained, which is fantastic for the plants. Thanks for sharing!

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 12/12/2014 - 10:02am

This article was very helpful. I live in Arizona - my soil is very sandy and full of caliche. We did quite a bit of amending to the lawn the first time we planted and over the years it has reverted back to the original sandy soil with caliche not too far below. If we water too deeply the soil gets too wet and becomes VERY lumpy and uneven for some strange reason. It almost looks like the worms have crawled out of it and let little mounds all over. If we water less the soil dries out too quickly. After a good application of fertilizer (ammonium phosphate granules) it seems to level out but after 2 or 3 weeks it starts doing the weird bumpy wet thing again. At this point we would have to take out a lot of dirt, replace it with amended soil and start over but it's just too time intensive for now. My dear husband feels like fertilizing every 2 or 3 weeks is too much but it seems to need it. Has anyone else had this particular weird bumpy, too wet or too dry soil problem?

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Fri, 05/15/2015 - 6:49am

For this issue posted about the sandy soil getting lumpy every 3 weeks or so, I would try a soil conditioner that help balance soil microbes and other nutrients. It can work wonders. Something like Soil Doctor or along those lines. My understanding is it can help balance out whatever causes soil to clump together like that, which is why such conditioners are also listed as aerators.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Wed, 03/19/2014 - 6:47pm

Concise and easy to understand. I've been dealing with really sandy soil and had figured out the slow deep watering. But didn't know about the slow-release fertilizers or nitrogen shortage for heavy organic fertilized soils. Thank you! I'll attack from a slow-release angle this year.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 03/01/2014 - 4:56am

It was nice to know that I could also add sand to make heavy work into light work.

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Tue, 01/07/2014 - 9:33pm

I am doing a science fair research paper about soils and this is really helpful

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Sat, 08/11/2012 - 12:19pm

excellent - very informative.
found very helpful - thankyou!

Kelly Geoghegan's picture
Kelly Geoghegan Wed, 04/09/2014 - 5:52pm

We're glad this could help!

Kelly Geoghegan PW

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Thu, 10/03/2013 - 9:18pm

i agree

Anonymous's picture
Anonymous Mon, 09/15/2014 - 6:40pm

Id have to say very helpful! I have lots of soil to amend not to mention a huge tree that was shredded on the yard before I bought this house. I'm tryingto grow grass in this bark infested yard and it's been a huge chore. Any suggestions on how much mulch is too much? I can't rake anymore an pouring large amounts of compost is not feasible right now. Thanks in advance!

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