Can Plants Grow in Sand?
About the author: Randy McLaughlin has a PhD. in Plant Pathology from the University of Wisconsin, has published many research articles and has practiced his craft at Texas A&M, Rutgers University and the USDA-Agricultural Research Service.
USDA-Soil Texture Triangle
Can plants grow in sand? You bet! While pure sand is not an ideal medium for growing plants, it can be used to successfully grow a number of different plant species. I remember going to my grandparents' homes during holidays and summers, where the soil was a very deep, loose sand. They both lived in the same county in Texas and both had large gardens where they grew all of the vegetables that are common in gardens in rural Texas, including watermelons, tomatoes, potatoes, corn, pinto beans and okra. These sandy gardens were very productive, but there are some practices good gardeners employ to successfully grow plants in these soils.
Several guidelines for growing plants in sandy soils are discussed below. A USDA-ARS chart is show to the right to show the variable types of soils, depending on the amount of sand, silt and clay. For a view of the relative sizes of these particles see a diagram in my article on how to water plants.
Sand As A Plant Growth Medium
Sand has disadvantages as a growth medium, like the inability to retain water and nutrients. Luckily, in nature it usually doesn't exist in the pure state, there is usually at least some percentage of silt particles which increases its ability to hold water and retain nutrients. Sand that is used for building purposes is washed to remove the smaller silt particles. A natural sand that has some silt and a little organic matter is best for growing plants. This type of soil is called either a sandy loam or a loamy sand, depending on the percentage of silt and sand.
If you are thinking of growing plants in sand, consider growing succulents like cacti, sedum, lamb's ears, purple coneflower, coreopsis, lavender or euphorbia species. There are also sand-loving trees and grasses to consider. An extensive list of drought-tolerant plants, including trees, vines, shrubs and container plants, are found on the Royal Horticultural Society site (listed as a reference below). These type of plants can withstand drying cycles easily and prefer a soil environment that does not retain excessive moisture. For these plants, growth in a clay-type soil would likely end in their death.
When to Amend Sandy Soil
Amending sandy soil is necessary in some cases to support plant growth. If you have an acidic (low pH) sandy soil and you wish to grow a plant that prefers a more alkaline (high pH) environment, adding lime is necessary. On the other hand, if you have an alkaline sandy soil and you want to grow a plant that prefers a neutral or acidic pH, an amendment with sulfur would be necessary. Have your soil tested to determine its pH by a lab or do it yourself using these instructions.
If you wish to grow plants that need more soil moisture, adding organic matter will help in that regard. Peat is a good addition as well as compost. Sometimes the battle for getting a plant established is the biggest obstacle. Once the plant has established a significant root system, pampering the plant with amendments and frequent watering may not be necessary. But, it pays to do your homework first as to what needs each of the plants has before you plant.
Sandy Soils and pH
pH strips are an easy and rapid means of testing soil pH.
Sand Hydroponic System
Sand Is An Ideal Medium for Hydroponics
Although many different types of media can be used to grow plants in hydroponics culture, sand is one of the cheapest materials. It is easy to recharge with nutrients and it can be washed easily. Some use a mixture of pea gravel and sand as a growth medium. You have to be careful though with what type of sand you have. In some regions, it may be more common to have a calcareous (calcium-based) sand particle. In that case, the calcium ions in this sand can rob copper from nutrient solutions, which is an essential micronutrient. With silica-based sands, micronutrient absorption is not a problem.
Hydroponics often use drip irrigation as a watering method to keep the sand moist. These watering solutions contain both macro- and micronutrients to provide a constant availability of all of the minerals necessary for plant growth.
1. Drought-tolerant plant list. Royal Horticultural Society.
2. Nutrient solutions for hydroponics in a greenhouse. Texas A&M University.