How to Improve Sandy Soil to Grow Healthier Plants

Three different sedum species growing in sandy soil.
My Garden Life
September 18, 2023
Table of Contents

Unlike other soil challenging soil conditions, such as heavy clay, compacted soil, or poorly drained soil, it’s relatively simple to improve sandy soil. Soil is considered sandy soil when it contains a high proportion of sand particles. A simple way to identify whether your soil is sandy is to compress a handful of soil in your fist. Sandy soil won’t hold its shape; it typically crumbles apart.

A hand holding a small scoop of sandy soil demonstrating how it still crumbles apart after being compressed in a fist.

On the positive side, sandy soil has excellent drainage properties, but on the downside, it has a gritty texture that has a low capacity for holding water. Understanding the properties and challenges associated with sandy soil can help you improve your overall growing conditions by developing soil that is better balanced in terms of organic materials and moisture retention.

Fortunately, there are several strategies that you can use to overcome the challenges of sandy soil.

Improve Sandy Soil by Adding Organic Matter

One way to improve sandy soil is to incorporate organic matter such as compost or well-rotted manure. This helps sandy soil improve its water-holding capacity by increasing its ability to retain moisture and nutrients.

Mulching also plays a crucial role in managing sandy soils. Applying a layer of organic mulch on top of the soil helps reduce evaporation rates by shielding the surface from direct sunlight and wind exposure. This helps conserve moisture while also providing additional organic matter to improve sandy soil as it breaks down over time.

Man wearing gardening gloves applying bark mulch around a hosta plant.

Vegetable gardeners with sandy soil can utilize cover crops to protect their valuable garden soil through the winter. In the spring the cover crops get tilled right into the soil to add nutrients and restore organic material to sandy soil.  

Enhance Water Retention in Sandy Soils

One of the main challenges faced with sandy soil is its tendency to dry out quickly. The large particles in sandy soil create air pockets that allow water to drain rapidly. As a result, plants grown in sandy soil often struggle to retain sufficient moisture for healthy growth. This can lead to drought stress, stunted growth, and reduced yields.

Inground irrigation systems are one means to combat dry soils. Automatic systems can be put on timers to apply water on specific days. This is a convenient, time-saving means to water large areas but it does have a few disadvantages. Installation and ongoing maintenance can be expensive. During periods of heavy rain, if you don’t turn off the system, you’ll waste water or even oversaturate your soil. The overhead sprinklers involved result in more evaporation into the air than water that is applied close to the soil surface.

A lavender plant in poor, sandy soil is irrigated with a drip hose system.

If you don’t have an inground watering system, it is possible to create a surface irrigation system using drip irrigation or soaker hoses. Either system will save you time over watering by hand, but they are best used in level areas. Sloping areas will result in uneven water distribution. Typically a hose or drip irrigation line won’t extend further than 200 feet without losing water pressure leading to reduced flow.

Balance Nutrient Levels to Improve Sandy Soil

Another challenge associated with sandy soil is its poor nutrient-holding capacity. The loose structure of sandy soil allows water and nutrients to leach out more easily compared to other types of soils. As a result, plants growing in sandy soil may suffer from nutrient deficiencies unless proper fertilization practices are implemented.

When choosing a fertilizer look for slow-release or granulated fertilizers that will be retained in the soil longer. Because of the enhanced drainage in sandy soil, liquid fertilizer is likely to get leached from soil much more quickly than a solid fertilizer.

Woman wearing garden gloves to apply granulated fertilizer to a rose plant to add nutrients that will improve sandy soil.

Applying compost or mulch is a good way to supplement nutrients in the soil as well as blend organic material with the sand to create a better-balanced soil texture. A two to three-inch layer is recommended for optimum moisture retention.

Improve the Structure and Texture of Soil High in Sand

It’s easiest to improve sandy soil before you plant a garden, bed, or other landscape plant installation. That’s the time when you can deeply incorporate soil amendments such as vermiculite, perlite, clay, or compost. Ideally you want to dig the soil six to twelve inches deep and mix the sand with your soil amendments before returning the mix to the area.

If that’s more of a project than you have the time or enthusiasm for, you can still benefit your plants, especially those with shallower root systems, such as annual flowers and herbs or groundcover, by improving your sandy soil to a depth of three to six inches.

Man working compost into sandy soil using a garden rake.

You can improve your lawn’s soil by periodically applying a “top-dressing” of homemade or bagged compost, ½ to ¼ inch deep over the grass. Another option is not to bag grass clippings every time you mow. Leave some of the clippings to decompose and naturally add organic material and nutrients to the lawn.

Understanding the characteristics of sandy soil and its special challenges is the first step towards improving your sandy soil conditions. Healthy soil leads to healthier plants with increased flowering and improved vegetable garden harvests.

Minimize the Use of Lawn and Garden Chemicals

The use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides can have a detrimental effect on earthworms, ground-dwelling insects, and other soil microorganisms. All of these creatures benefit soil aeration as they migrate through the soil and their waste materials add organic matter which helps to enrich and improve sandy soil. 

Improve sandy soil to support beneficial soil creatures. An earthworm is crawling along the soil surface next to a grassy space.

Select Plants that Thrive in Sandy Soils

One way to reduce the need to amend sandy soil is to simply choose plants that don’t mind a little “sand between their toes”. Certain plants are better adapted to withstand the stress of drought, or adjust to soils that are sandy or gravelly and lose water quickly. Here is a list of ornamental and edible plants that are exceptionally tolerant of sandy soil conditions and will grow in most regions of North America.

Flowering Annuals for Sandy Soil

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

California Poppy (Eschscholzia californica)

This flower is so abundant and beloved in California that it was designated the State Flower. The beautiful, finely-textured foliage is incredibly heat and drought tolerant. Flowers have the interesting habit of closing at night and on cloudy days. Ideal choice for beds, borders, and cutting gardens. Wonderful for rock gardens and containers. Cut flowers are long-lasting in fresh bouquets.
Lantana (Lantana )

Lantana (Lantana )

Lantana are native to several tropical regions and popular as heat tolerant annuals for gardens and containers. Their clusters of tiny blooms come in a good range of colors and are loved by butterflies. They may be upright or trailing, depending on variety chosen, but all have nicely textured foliage and good drought tolerance. The perfect choice for beds and borders. Superb for baskets, containers and window boxes. Looks great in rock gardens.
Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus)

Cosmos (Cosmos bipinnatus)

Saucer-like blooms stand out against a backdrop of fine, airy leaves. Spanish missionaries gave it the name cosmos. Legend has it that the missionaries saw the symmetry of the petals as a symbol of the divinely ordered universe, the meaning of “cosmos” in Greek. Ideal choice for beds, borders, and cutting gardens. Cosmos look striking as a backing plant in mixed borders or filling out mixed plantings. Cut flowers are long-lasting in fresh bouquets.
Cleome, Spider Flower (Cleome hassleriana)

Cleome, Spider Flower (Cleome hassleriana)

Some plants have natural charisma and cleome is one of them. Spidery poufs of flower heads top tall stems in a striking display. The curious looking bloom clusters bring fragrance, soft color and lightness to gardens and large containers. Cleome plants bloom for months on end and provide hummingbirds with a season-long buffet. Ideal choice for beds, borders, and cutting gardens. Superb backing plant for mixed borders. Cut flowers are long-lasting in fresh bouquets.
Portulaca, Moss Rose (Portulaca grandiflora)

Portulaca, Moss Rose (Portulaca grandiflora)

The colorful blooms of a portulaca plant open when the sun shines bright and close at night or during periods of heavy cloud cover. The stems of succulent-like foliage may be upright or spreading, and the blooms single or double, depending on the variety. Portulaca offers carefree color for poor soil and hot, dry situations. Perfectly sized for rock gardens and border fronts. Superb for baskets, containers and window boxes either alone or used in combination with other plants.
Gazania (Gazania hybrid)

Gazania (Gazania hybrid)

Durable plants for poor conditions! Compact plants produce bright, daisy-like flowers held on short stems. The blooms close at night, or on heavily cloudy days, and reopen with the sunshine. Perfectly sized for rock gardens and border fronts. Superb for baskets, containers and window boxes. Wonderful for combination plantings.

Flowering Perennials for Sandy Soil

Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum)

Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum)

Tall stems topped by large purple flower clusters create a majestic display in late summer. The lightly fragrant, nectar-rich blooms are a magnet for an array of butterflies and bee species. The common name, Joe Pye Weed, results from the story of an 18th-century Native American medicine man in New England. It is said that Joe Pye used the leaves of this plant to make an infusion for treating fever. Makes a dependable mixed border plant. Perfectly suited to informal, naturalized settings. Especially nice in waterside gardens. Terrific plant for butterfly gardens.
Groundcover Sedum, Stonecrop (Sedum species)

Groundcover Sedum, Stonecrop (Sedum species)

The perfect groundcover solution for hot, sunny locations where most plants would wilt or die. Excellent for difficult small spaces bordered by pavement, such as parking lot plantings or areas between sidewalks and building foundations. There are an incredible array of foliage shapes, textures and colors among the low-growing Sedum species. All produce clusters of small flowers in summer. Expect lots of butterflies and bees to visit when the plants are in flower! Classic plants for rock gardens! Looks great filling in between rocks and spilling over container edges.
Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)

Anise Hyssop (Agastache foeniculum)

A versatile member of the mint family, Anise Hyssop produces licorice scented foliage and showy spikes of lavender blooms that are both edible and beautiful. This perennial plant is a magnet for bees and butterflies!Foliage can be used to flavor teas and the edible flowers are an attractive addition to salads. Dried flowers are perfect for potpourri. Plant near walkways, decks and patios where scent can be enjoyed.
Hosta, Plantain Lily ‘Assorted’ (Hosta hybrid)

Hosta, Plantain Lily ‘Assorted’ (Hosta hybrid)

Hosta are the go-to plant for many gardeners dealing with shade. They do well with morning sun in Northern zones, especially gold-leaved varieties, but are best in all day shade in areas such as the southern U.S. With thousands of named varieties available, you’ll find an abundance of options for plant sizes and colorful leaf combinations. Hosta are ideal for specimen, foundations, and mass plantings, and woodland gardens.
Bearded Iris, German Iris (Iris germanica)

Bearded Iris, German Iris (Iris germanica)

Large petals create a floral artistry of curves and color atop tall, sturdy stems. The germanica species does best in dry, sunny locations. A gorgeous choice for bringing a burst of drama to the garden or a vase. Ideal choice for beds, borders, and cutting gardens. Makes a dependable mixed border plant. Nice for larger patio containers. Cut flowers are long-lasting in fresh bouquets.
Daylily (Hemerocallis hybrid)

Daylily (Hemerocallis hybrid)

Daylilies are tough and adaptable, yet their form is elegant and refined. Each trumpet-like bloom of a daylily only lasts for one day. Most varieties offer up daily blooms for several weeks and some rebloom throughout the entire summer. Plant a mix of daylilies with different colors and bloom times to assure a colorful garden for months. Combines beautifully with ornamental grasses.

Shrubs that Tolerate Sandy Soil

Blue Hibiscus (Alyogyne huegelii)

Blue Hibiscus (Alyogyne huegelii)

A gorgeous solution for challenging, dry locations. Blue hibiscus produces showy light blue flowers and attractive crinkled green foliage. It’s a fast-grower and blooms prolifically over a long period of time. Hardy and very easy to grow! The perfect choice for beds and borders. Nice for larger patio containers. Makes a breathtaking specimen plant. Excellent for planting along fences and walls.
Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)

Crape Myrtle (Lagerstroemia indica)

Crape myrtle is a versatile plant that can be grown as a small tree or large shrub. Displays decorative peeling bark, dark green leaves and long-lasting clusters of flowers over a long season. Easy to maintain and a fast grower available in a wide array of colors. Ideal for borders, hedges or as a specimen plant. Best planted in groups. Great for privacy screening on decks or blocking unsightly views.
California Lilac (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus)

California Lilac (Ceanothus thyrsiflorus)

A vigorous, upright species of Ceanothus with large clusters of blooms. Its beautifully arching stems and evergreen leaves bring beauty to the landscape long after the spring blooms have faded. A classic favorite for landscape focal points. Best used in groups and shrub borders. Great for privacy screening or blocking unsightly views. Excellent for planting along fences and walls.
Kinnikinick, Common Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Kinnikinick, Common Bearberry (Arctostaphylos uva-ursi)

Attractive, glossy evergreen foliage provides interest year ’round. Delicate blooms are followed by attractive red fruit. Display improves with each passing year. This slow grower is worth the wait! A reliable groundcover for any location. Tumbles beautifully over rocks, slopes, and banks. Provides dramatic color and form to autumn and winter landscapes.
Rose of Sharon, Althea (Hibiscus syriacus)

Rose of Sharon, Althea (Hibiscus syriacus)

Hibiscus syriacus brings a refreshing burst of tropical-looking blooms just when the garden needs a boost! Varieties are available with single or double flowers in a range of colors. Beautiful as a garden centerpiece, yet also effective as a casual hedge. A classic favorite for landscape focal points. An excellent specimen, foundation, or border plant. Nice for larger patio containers.
Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii)

Butterfly Bush (Buddleia davidii)

Highly fragrant flowers attract an assortment of butterflies to the garden! Offers a profusion of delightful summer blossoms, potential bloom colors include white, pink, lavender, yellow, or purple. An excellent specimen, foundation, or border plant. Outstanding for planting near walkways, decks and patios where scent can be enjoyed. Terrific plant for butterfly gardens.

Trees for Sandy Soils

Glossy Black Chokeberry ‘melanocarpa var. elata’ (Aronia melanocarpa)

Glossy Black Chokeberry ‘melanocarpa var. elata’ (Aronia melanocarpa)

An excellent chokeberry shrub for ornamental landscaping. The glossy, deep green foliage grows into a beautifully compact, rounded shrub. White blooms in late spring are followed by small shiny black fruits that persist through winter, providing an excellent food source for birds. Foliage turns shades of red to purple in autumn.
Ghost Gum (Eucalyptus papuana)

Ghost Gum (Eucalyptus papuana)

This Australian import is well-adapted to hot, dry conditions. The tree gets its name from the two-toned bark that is gray on the outside but peels away to reveal rusty-brown underneath. Produces attractive, puffy pink flowers over a long season. Ghost gum makes a good specimen, street tree, or planted as a border.
Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

Red Oak (Quercus rubra)

Mature trees form a round-topped, symmetrical crown of good size. This species has the potential to provide beautiful red autumn color. A fast grower for street landscapes, lawns, and commercialized settings. Excellent for use in difficult spots where nothing else can survive. A classic favorite for landscape focal points. Best used for large scale plantings.
Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus)

Eastern White Pine (Pinus strobus)

One of the most popular landscape trees for its versatility, low-maintenance, fast growth and evergreen beauty. Blue-green needles create a wonderful contrast when planted near other dark green or golden evergreens. Gorgeous in snowy winter landscapes. Excellent for use in difficult spots where nothing else can survive. Perfect for screens, windbreaks, mass planting or planted as a specimen.
Western Arborvitae, Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)

Western Arborvitae, Western Red Cedar (Thuja plicata)

Western red cedar is a tall, columnar species of Thuja. There are a number of popular named varieties within this species offering a a range of choices depending on your situation. You’ll find mature sizes to fit any landscape, as well as a range of colors from dark green to gold striped. Dense foliage makes a great informal hedge row or privacy screen. a good solution for narrow spaces.
Black, Yellow, White or Green Locust, False Acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia)

Black, Yellow, White or Green Locust, False Acacia (Robinia pseudoacacia)

Also known as common locust. By any name, it is a quick growing tree adaptable to most soil types and moisture levels. Named varieties have a neater appearance than the straight species and offer a range of bloom and foliage colors. Bees make a tasty honey from the fragrant blooms. A favorite for landscape focal points. Provides instant shade and structure to the landscape. Best used for large scale plantings.

Vegetables and Herbs for Sandy Soil

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Rosemary (Rosmarinus officinalis)

Rosemary is most popular as a culinary herb but it’s also a lovely ornamental plant. The silvery, finely-textured foliage creates a great contrast planted among garden flowers. Use the needles, but not the woody stems for cooking. An excellent drought-tolerant choice for sunny locations. Looks beautiful in the garden as a clipped dwarf hedge. An excellent subject for topiary standards and containers. Leaves are popular for seasoning meats, stews, and sauces.
Radish (Raphanus sativus)

Radish (Raphanus sativus)

Radishes are one of the oldest cultivated plants on earth. Radishes are easy to grow, very nutritious, they’re available in a variety of colors with subtly different flavors, and best of all they grow super-fast. A fun selection for a child’s garden! Eat fresh for a delicious and nutritious snack. Wonderful whole or sliced for slaws and salads. Serve with dip on a vegetable tray.
Carrot (Daucus carota)

Carrot (Daucus carota)

Carrots are fun and easy to grow and they don’t require a lot of garden space. They are available in a variety of colors and shapes beyond the traditional long, orange roots most often sold commercially. Different varieties offer different advantages in terms of harvest time, adaptability to soil types, and disease resistance. Do a little research to find the varieties best suited to your location and growing season. Carrots keep well if stored in a cool, dry location.
White Seed Potato (Solanum tuberosum)

White Seed Potato (Solanum tuberosum)

Growing delicious potatoes is fun and easy! Plant seed potatoes in early spring as soon as the chance of frost is past and the soil is easy to work. In 2-4 months you’ll be rewarded with an abundant harvest of your very own home-grown potatoes! Whether boiled, fried, mashed or baked, white potatoes are a versatile choice for any recipe that calls for potatoes. Wash fruits, vegetables and herbs thoroughly before eating.
Asparagus ‘Jersey’ (Asparagus officinalis)

Asparagus ‘Jersey’ (Asparagus officinalis)

Asparagus plants are either male or female. While both produce delicious spears, it is the male plant that produces the most stalks because the female plant expends some energy on seed production. ‘Jersey’ is an all-male hybrid so the gardener can expect a large spear harvest compared to other varieties. Stalks are medium to large in diameter with great flavor. Asparagus plants are perennial. Delicious when lightly steamed and covered with cheese sauce or melted butter. May be canned or frozen for later use.
Italian Oregano (Origanum onites)

Italian Oregano (Origanum onites)

Italian Oregano is native to the Mediterranean region where it is popular for flavoring meat and fish dishes. The pleasantly scented leaves and flowers are also nice for drying and adding to potpourri and herb pillows. Try adding fresh leaves to marinades or using them as a homemade pizza topping. This selection is very nice for massing in beds or growing in containers on patios or decks where its delightful aroma can be enjoyed. Use leaves fresh, or dry and keep in an airtight container.

Ornamental Grasses and Sandy Soil

Most ornamental grasses have deep roots, making them exceptionally adaptable to sandy soil conditions. They’re especially useful if you want a low-maintenance landscape or have sloping areas that are hard to mow or maintain. Ornamental grasses add beauty and a relaxed feel in the landscape. To learn more about different grasses and which species might be appropriate for your situation, see our article: Ornamental Grasses: Selection, Design Ideas and Care.

Ornamental grasses-fountain grass and calamagrostis-growing in a row along a wall.

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