Gardeners coping with sandy soil daydream about sticky clay! Light, free-draining, quick to warm up... sounds like horticultural heaven, doesn’t it? But those of us who have actually had to work with sandy soil know better. Sand undoubtedly has its plus points, but it has its challenges, too.
Fortunately, there is a simple way to alleviate some of the problems it presents – namely, poor fertility and a tendency to dry out fast.
How to Tell if You Have Sandy Soil
To work out what kind of soil you have you need to perform a soil test.
Take a handful of soil, dampen it, then try rolling it into a sausage shape. Sandy soil will crumble and fall apart. You’ll be able to make out the individual grains. Clay soil will stick together easily and can be rubbed to a dull sheen.
Turn Sandy Soil into Sandy Loam
The next step requires a little more work. Sandy soils are less fertile than other soil types, and more prone to drying out, because they’re made up of relatively large particles. This means there are cavernous gaps between the particles, making it easy for water (and water-soluble nutrients) to filter down through the soil, out of the reach of plant roots. We need to partially plug up those gaps and help the soil to hold on to water and nutrients.
So here’s how to do it: Add organic manure (it really is that simple!)
Organic manure is a kind of cure-all in the garden. You can’t go wrong with organic manure. It will improve any soil type. Any organic matter will work to build soil structure and its ability to hold onto water. Compost and manure are preferred because they are rich in nutrients, which they drip-feed to your plants. Over time, they’ll also help to increase the pH of acidic sandy soils.
I won’t lie – sandy soils do need a lot of organic matter, frequently applied, to make a difference. The warmer your climate, the faster organic matter will break down, and the more often your soil will need replenishing. Start with at least two bucketfuls of organic matter per square meter once a year. Added to the soil surface as a mulch where it will help to protect the soil from scouring rain and winds.
Keep notes on how well your crops fare and, if you feel they’re underperforming, up the frequency to twice a year. You could also try three bucketsful, or four. It’s worth adding more in summer if you can too. Grass clippings are a free, regularly available resource that help to reduce evaporation, and they’ll provide a modest flush of nitrogen to boost plant growth too.
Improving your soil takes several seasons. But even with the best will in the world, it will always be sandy soil at heart. ‘Work with what you’ve got’ is good advice! So let’s take a look at which vegetables naturally grow well in sandy soil.
Root vegetables are sandy soil superstars. Motivated by thirst, plants with long taproots like carrots and radish are perfectly designed to reach down into the moister soil that lies several inches below the surface.
You might want to consider installing drip irrigation to gradually water and feed your plants.