Sandy Soil

gardendawgie(5)September 27, 2010

What veggies might grow best in sandy soil. I can not water it all the time. Zone 5 for next year.

I am working on adding compost but it is a very sandy area and I want to know what might work well there. Maybe something with either a huge root system or a deep tap root is what I am thinking. Something that can dry out and rejuvenate with water. etc. Willing to consider unusual veggies.

I guess my question centers around what veggies might be OK with dry conditions.

I suspect that some squash might do OK.

I had to move to a new area and it takes time to build up the soil on all areas. So for awhile it would be good if I can plant in this sandy area while working on compost for a few years.

Thanks for the help.

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twc015(7b/8a SE Arkansas)

I think you'll find it hard to grow much of anything in the summer without watering on at least a weekly basis, and probably more in the peak of summer.

Watermelons and other vining plants have deep taproots, but the fruit can get blossom end rot if soil moisture fluctuates too much.

I doubt the plants will grow much in the summer if water is the limiting factor. They will be focused on survival and not production.

My soil is clay-based and it even dries out quickly in the summer, requiring at least weekly watering and often twice a week watering during the peak of summer.

Others who have sandy soil will probably have more advice and tips, but I would try to find a way to water the garden regularly, such as a time controlled system.

    Bookmark   September 27, 2010 at 11:08PM
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sandhill_farms(10 NV)

I live in the Southern Nevada Desert just north of Lake Mead. The area of the valley I live in is called the "Sand Hills" so that should tell you what the soil here is like. We purchased the land and home 12 years ago and since then I have been adding organic material to the soil/sand. At this point in time, (after adding literally tons of organic material), I have a wonderfully rich soil to grow in. Of course this is a never ending process, I'm glad that I have endless amounts of material to add to the soil. You can never have too much. Good luck in your endeavours.

Southern Nevada

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 12:17AM
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Well the town around here people put out bags of leaves for pickup. I plan on picking up a lot and trying to compost them inside a wire fence area. However, it takes a couple of years to get leaves to break down good if you do not turn them. I can not turn tons of leaves.

Anyway I hope to have great soil like greg in a couple of years. In the mean time I hope to find out what might work fairly well. I understand watering is important and I will do my best but I still hope to find out what might work fairly well.

In my old place I never watered. I had the compost so deep that it held the moisture all year for all the plants. The ground would absorbe the winter moisture and allow the plants to grow all summer. of course there were rains as usual. But the holding of winter ground moisture is important. Sand just does not hold the moisture. So I want to know what can operate best under dry conditions without dieing or becoming bitter or tough to eat etc.

I suspect that winter squash might be the best.

Deep growing carrots and daikon I think need more water than winter squash. Even lettuce has a tap root over 3 feet down. I am surprised someone must know what might work best in dry conditions. How about a chart on how much rain is needed to grow crops. see which one needs the least rain. well that might be a radish because it grows so fast. has to be rain per time.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 1:59AM
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Watermelon, pole beans, asparagus, are all indicated for sandy soil. Cucumber, melon, squash and tomato tolerate it better than pepper or eggplant, hopefully you won't have SVB or beetles. The greens are mostly no-nos, but collard (and lettuce, which grows in the more abundant spring rains) will be less worse than others. A lot depends on how acid things are. Sandy tends to be acid too, and so the long tap root of chard and beet goes to waste as it will not grow well. If your chard is pale, you have problems other than water.

Potato will give you something, and can be planted in piles of uncomposted leaves, all of the cucurbitae also can be planted in piles of leaves. Starting with asparagus in early May and ending with collard in December, this should give you a decent 7-months garden, plus all the squash and potatoes in the cellar.

You can also vastly speed up the leaves by adding nitrogenous material to them before winter hits. They really hold no water until they are significantly broken down. But you will need two feet of matted down leaves to significantly amend sandy soil. What you really need with sandy soil is drip irrigation besides the leaves.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 4:22AM
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Insert 3 or 4 sturdy poles in your piles of leaves. Then turn the poles in a circle pivoting on the bottom every time you are out there. Works almost as good as turning them and is much easier.

Nothing will grow without water, no matter what plant or what soil. Many plants will get blossom end rot from inconsistant water. If you can't water then set up some kind of drip irrigation.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 5:36AM
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laceyvail(6A, WV)

My soil is very sandy and extremely deficient in nitrogen and phosphate but high in potassium. I created permanent beds, not raised, that are always covered in hay, not straw. The paths are wood chips. I used no fertilizer, though I occasionally use some lime and I side dress as necessary with organic amendments. I have enough compost for only two rows, but since I rotate, every row eventually gets some. I plant in blocks. I can grow anything and never water except to bring up summer planted seed for fall crops.

It took several years for the soil to improve, but improve it did. Do not till sandy soil; it will just turn into a dust bowl.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 6:44AM
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Check my dry garden thread for some crop examples. Note that I have not been controlling weeds like I should this year. All the weeds should be pulled and serving as mulch, this makes a big difference in conserving moisture for the crops. Nice thing about sandy soil is weeds are easy to pull.

IME of ten years there growing things without irrigation in a light soil (not pure sand, but dries easily), squash is the worst candidate. One thing about dry gardens is you can forget about transplants - they must be irrigated until well established. Plants that germinate en situ do much better generally. I have occasionally had squash plants that produced ok, when there was sufficient summer rainfall and I fertilized heavily. There are more reliable crops for non-irrigated situations. Sweet potato, for one, if your climate has enough heat units.

I found that crops that have a timing such that they can get well established on spring moisture do well. Consequently crops that will naturalize are very good. Alternatively, you can try the Solomon method, where you give the crops huge space and keep the wide rows completely weed-free and dust-mulched. Basically how all crops were grown pre-war.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 7:59AM
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franktank232(z5 WI)

I have very sandy soil (think beach sand) since i live right by the river here. We do get a lot of rain, so that helps, but the best thing so far has been mulch, mostly wood chips. I've yet to find something that won't grow in the soil i've created (other then celery). I've build beds that are about a foot high filled with compost/woodchips/etc and that soil is outstanding after 5 years.

I'd mulch like crazy, and probably hit it with a N fertilizer. Do some research on how they do it in Israel or Egypt...they seem to grow hugh amts of food (for huge populations) in what is mainly rock and sand.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 12:29PM
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Mulch!! I've amended my raised beds with free town compost and used coffee grounds since I moved in a few years ago, but my soil is still pretty sandy. I use red plastic mulch for my peppers and tomatoes, and plan to use it on my squash and melons next year. Works great to keep moisture levels more consistent and soil from drying out. I actually have a nice unintended experiment going, I mulched about half my tomatoes but not the other half, and the difference is night and day. The ones on bare ground are still pretty pitiful, while the others are flourishing.

Honestly though, most of the stuff which isn't mulched has also done fine, even in our dry summer this year. Herbs, peas, and beans are happy, and some other things still yield, just less or smaller veggies. And I have hardly watered at ALL... no way to easily water other than overhead which practically guarantees disease, and too pregnant nowadays to lug a hose or watering can everywhere!

I have the most trouble with greens and cool weather crops... soil this sandy heats up fast, especially if you don't water, and you can end up with bitter lettuce and cole crops. Establishing direct-seeded crops can also be challenging because the seedlings will dry out so fast if you're not careful. I've had good luck with shade cloth, milk jug cloches, or elevated boards over direct-seeded areas while seeds are germinating.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 1:00PM
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jimster(z7a MA)

Cape Cod is basically a pile of sand. As Frank says, think beach sand. That's what I have to work with.

Your plan to make large quantities of compost is good. If you use a shredder/chipper or a mulching lawn mower to grind your leaves and yard waste, it will decompose much more quickly. I till it in even before it has completely broken down. In two or three years you will begin to have a sandy loam which is pleasant to work with and grows great vegetables.

For droughty conditions I highly recommend cowpeas (aka southern peas or field peas). Having grown them for several years I find cowpeas to be trouble free, drought tolerant, productive and very good eating. Learn how to harvest and cook them southern style. Visit the Bean Forum for more info.

Along with cowpeas you may find that other typically southern vegetables such as okra and collards are drought tolerant. I enjoy eating those too.


Here is a link that might be useful: Bean Forum

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 1:10PM
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sandhill_farms(10 NV)

gardendawgie -

You never mentioned why watering is a hardship but no matter what type of soil you have, or what you're growing, you're going to have to water. For your sandy soil conditions, (actually all soils), I would suggest putting-in a quality drip system. They're not all that hard to put in. You can also put this system on a timer so you don't have to be there to turn-on the water. A drip system will put the water exactly where you need it and will conserve water. It will also help with weed control as you're not watering everything. As far as what you can grow here's a partial list of the things I grow here in the Southern Nevada Desert:

Beans - Bush and pole
Brussesl Sprouts
Kale Kohlrabi

I also grow a variety of Herbs and other vegetables.

Southern Nevada

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 4:43PM
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You don't necessarily have to compost the leaves first. I've been gathering as many bags of leaves as I possibly can in the fall and again in early spring (a lot of people don't clean up leaves here until the spring), and using them to deep mulch gardens and beds.

It makes a big difference in terms of moisture retention during dry periods. The plants and beds that got 6 to 8 inches of leaves last fall showed much less drought stress this summer than those that didn't.

The only down sides -- certain things are hard to grow through really deep mulch -- most root crops would have trouble getting started, for example, but you could do them in narrow blocks and mulch deeply on each side. And, it does give a place for voles to hide, so be prepared to deal with those if you have them in your region as I do.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 4:50PM
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sandhill_farms(10 NV)

Another thing that I just thought of that you can do right away to help with evaporation and conserving water in your sandy soil is to use straw as a mulch. Here's a Photo of one of my growing areas that I use straw in, you can see the drip line in the Photo:

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 5:04PM
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solidago1(6 / Oregon)


Does your garden result in very sizable water bills, given your location? I'm curious.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 7:17PM
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jimster(z7a MA)

Greg, it is true that, with irrigation, anything can be grown in sandy soil or desert conditions. I have to disagree with the assertion that "no matter what type of soil you have, or what you're growing, you're going to have to water."

There are differences in water requirements of various crops. There are regions where dry land farming of certain crops is feasible. Perhaps all crops require irrigation in the desert. But, in other regions, certain crops can be successful in droughty soil conditions. The original poster is seeking such crops and I have suggested some, none of which are on the list of things you grow.

BTW, cowpeas are an excellent green manure crop.


    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 9:39PM
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sandhill_farms(10 NV)

Solidago - I guess that depends on what one would consider sizeable. I have two acres and have trees and bushes around the property as well as my vegetable growing areas. I've seen our monthly bill as low as $35.00 and as high as our recent one that was $160. However our last one was due to me doing a lot of watering and forgetting and leaving the water running all night a couple of times. The other problem we have here is that no matter what we do to conserve the water company keeps raising the rates. People all over the Las Vegas area are getting laid-off and losing their jobs and homes but our water company hasn't laid-off any of their people. I do all I can to conserve using drip systems - timers - and mulch.

Southern Nevada

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 10:54PM
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sandhill_farms(10 NV)

Well, jimster living in MA you obviously know more about growing in "sandy" and "dry" conditions than I so I'll just bow-out of this discussion. I will say this, however, it's very "sandy" and "dry" here and I grow, and have grown, every one of those vegetables on the list above plus more. It's true that some of them require more water than others but they all require water. Some of the Herbs I grow require less. Now if you're growing native plants you can stick them in the ground and water them if you think about it and they'll do fine.

Southern Nevada

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 11:22PM
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Lots of good advice. Thank you to everyone who responded. Please keep responding.

Israel invented drip irrigation to help grow in the desert. They use extensive irrigation.

My original question is not about growing everything in the sandy area. Just what is going to work better. The cowpeas sound good. I will avoid greens like lettuce. I think the citron a type of watermelon grows wild in very dry areas out west.

Asparagus is out because I will be building up the soil.

I like the idea of growing potatoes on top of the soil with deep leaves.

I collected 20 or 30 huge paper bags of leaves but they get wet and fall apart. So it becomes ever harder to move the leaves as time goes by. I want to dump them in the fall and hopefully leave them. the idea of rotating a stick to get air down deep sounds good it if works good.

I do not have a mulcher like a lawn mower. But I will try for one by spring.

Greg your water bill at $160 for one month is astronomical. You must be rich to afford that kind of water bill. It is very expensive here also. Maybe more expensive than what you pay for the same amount of water. No one will give me the costs. the water department and the billing department will not tell me either.

I simply want to avoid a discussion of running water to the area. It is just not part of the question. Of course I intend to get as much water there as possible but I have 3 areas. And this question is reserved for the sandy area which I could ignore or try to add to the other two areas. So to add this area I am thinking of what might be best there. Besides if I say I have unlimited water then the question is mute.

the posting by glib answered the question best. Very practical posting. I did not know that beet and chard had a good tap root. so I can try those along with potatoes etc.

I composted some leaves a few years back. I did apply nitrogen on a very frequent basis to help them break down. But there was little oxygen down deep and they were very slow to break down. After 4 years they appeared to hardly get started breaking down. I turned the leaves at that time and that speeded up the process incredibly. I also mixed in some soil to help roots to grow down. It turned the pile around to useful. I was shocked how poorly things grew on top of the leaves after 2 and 3 years of sitting. I put a few inches of good soil on top. but it seemed the roots were not growing into the leaves and the plants needed constant watering.

Anyway I am thinking of putting in some 1 foot high raised beds to hold the leaves and just pile them in this fall. I am thinking of dumping some horse manure on top to help speed the process. I am also thinking of putting up a 4 foot tall wire fence and fill it with leaves. let it sit and later move it out of that deep pile.

Lots of ideas. I have to make decisions soon because the leaves are going to start falling within 2 weeks. well they have started slowly right now. but in 2 weeks we might get the major fall that usually comes after a freeze and then a heavy rain brings them down.

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 11:32PM
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franktank232(z5 WI)


Have you seen this?

I'd rather be able to garden in a dry climate. Too much disease/pest issues up here where it rains nonstop.

Here is a link that might be useful: Lake Mead is going empty

    Bookmark   September 28, 2010 at 11:48PM
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Just an addendum that asparagus should not be out. Its crown moves up every year, so that one can keep adding organic matter. I do add about 2 inches a year (of wood chips and wood ash), which decay down to 1/4 of an inch, and the plants look very good. In about 5 years I will have to stop but by then the crown will be up two inches too, from their original planting spot. Yes, with leaves the shoots have problems because they mat, but if you can get, say, locust or apple leaves which are small, they will be perfect for asparagus.

    Bookmark   September 29, 2010 at 12:10AM
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sandhill_farms(10 NV)

franktank232 - No I haven't seen that particular site but I do see the lake on a regular basis. Back when there was water in the lake we could see it when we were sitting on our front porch. It's so low that it's exposed to old town of St. Thomas and the foundations of the old buildings are visible. It's really a pity but some day it will be back up to where it was. I hope that I'm still living then...

Southern Nevada

    Bookmark   September 29, 2010 at 12:19AM
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jimster(z7a MA)


I think I did't get my point across. I don't question your statement that all the vegetables on your list require irrigation when grown in sandy soil. My point is that there are some vegetables not on that list which can do very well under droughty conditions. I think that is what the original post was asking for.

In addition, although I don't believe it has been mentioned, amount of rainfall is part of the equation. It is possible I believe to grow many crops in sandy soil without irrigation if there is frequent rain. I don't know about rainfall in gardendawgie's location. In the desert you have the double whammy of sandy soil and dry climate. My soil is excessively well drained and the climate is moderately moist. The vegetables on your list require some irrigaion for best results here, so I water everything. But I believe cowpeas, for example, would be productive without irrigation.


I have to wonder about your decision to grow potatoes if you plan to grow them without irrigation. Potatoes really need a steady supply of moisture.


    Bookmark   September 29, 2010 at 12:07PM
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jordanz(8A (Mojave Desert))

Hey sandhill, what type of melons have you grown? I live in the mojave desert, but have similar climate to you guys. I thought it'd be too hot to grow melons here...just curious what you were successfull with.

    Bookmark   September 29, 2010 at 2:23PM
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I'll take the bait, Greg: your unqualified statement about that list of vegetables is incorrect. I know that because I have grown many of them without a drop of artificial irrigation of any kind, year after year.

What you left out of your statement is a qualifier about climate. It's been pointed out many a time, and I'm pointing it out again, that climate is the most powerful of all factors that a gardener contends with.

    Bookmark   September 29, 2010 at 4:16PM
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I guess potatoes are out. The chard and beets are still in.

This is turning into a good thread with lots of comments.

Well the spring around here usually has enough moisture. But later in mid summer it gets dry. Then toward the fall it rains once again. We are now into the rain once again.

The soil should get moisture in the winter. Then hopefully hold as much as possible in the spring for the early germinations. But July and Aug are almost always dry and hot. well more or less hot. relatively hot. but we get little real rain in July and Aug. Rains come back in Sept & Oct.

    Bookmark   September 29, 2010 at 7:50PM
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Your climate sounds a lot like mine, so potatoes aren't out. I grow them every year without irrigation. Since they start early they can get most of their vegetative growth on while the soil is moist.

    Bookmark   September 29, 2010 at 9:00PM
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