My tips for Gardening in Sandy Soils

So, a brief bit about gardening in sand, for that is really what our garden is built on. Very fine, grey, water repelling sand. As I have made note in other posts, I have found between the garden I had before (further down the street), the one we gardened before we moved into this house and the building up of the soil in this current house there are some things that worked well and others that didn’t.

In my experience – after literally trailer loads of the stuff – horse manure is not very efficient. Either for building up the soil or for keeping weeds down as it introduces many seeds. I suspect it is also liked by snails and slugs as we had them in plague proportions at the time along with little black bush flies. All of which I think were brought in as either eggs or larvae in the manure.

The weeds and grass don’t bother me too much as they can get turned in, but they are annoying if you wand to plant straight away. It can be managed if you mulch well over the top of the manure, using it instead as a base layer for building up the garden.

I have used truck-loads of grass clippings too and they were much appreciated at the time and worked very well in the chook yard keeping the smells down and building a wonder kind of compost as the chooks scratched around in it. It does have the potential of introducing a multitude of seeds, namely grass seeds depending on the time of year.

Straw, hay and pea-hay are all wonderful too and can also introduce seeds but all of which can be managed as with the horse manure by mulching over it with materials that are a bit more “innate” such as sugar-cane mulch or shredded paper. I have had great success with building up the soil with various hays and with well-soaked sheep manure. Soaking it to kill off the seeds it may contain (and softening it) before applying to the garden.

Most of the other media used will work for a time, but in this sandy soil it is still only a matter of time before the sand rises to the top. If I hadn’t seen this myself after the truckloads of manure and wood-chip mulch I had added to the garden I’m not sure that I would have fully understood how amazing this phenomena really is. It appears as though the sand is simply consuming the stuff.

Enter the number one favourite duo for building up the soil. It actually excites me this stuff because it is something that is plentiful if not prolific and is quite often free.

Newspaper & Cardboard.

The Batman & Robin of building the soil. In my experience these materials do the job and do it remarkably well for a number of reasons I believe. From my own observations these are:

  • They are good at retaining moisture. This to me as a critical part of the process. If you have a medium that holds moisture it will inevitably attract earthworms or compost worms. This is exactly what you are after for once the worms get in and start breaking it down the soil really begins to take on different properties.
  • Breaks down easily or can be applied to break down much slower. I have experimented with this quite a bit in different areas of our garden. In vege beds you may want the paper to break down quicker so that after a crop harvest the soil can be tilled at little and ready for the next crop. In other parts of our garden it is there in large thick layers to keep moisture in the soil above it and to create a home for the compost worms, bringing us to the next point.
  • Worms love newspaper. My observations are that they love the layers and I would say appear to love more specifically corrugated cardboard where they can actually enter in between the sheets to lay their cocoons. The cardboard keeps a nice moist environment and it is not uncommon for me to lift up sheets in the garden and find masses of worms in amongst it. Thick leaves of hay or straw do a similar job, but around here I have to pay for the stuff and newspaper is everywhere without having to spend a cent – and the worms don’t seem to mind either way.
  • Once the worms have broken down the newspaper it is present as a very dark, friable, rich soil that has the most wonderful water-retaining ability.
  • Newspaper can come in various forms. Sheets, thick wads of newsprint, shredded paper. It is also easily wet down and can be soaked before putting into the garden to fast-track the whole process. It is easily built up in layers. I sometimes but a layer down of a couple of sheets and a really thin scattering of straw or dirt and then more paper and a thin scattering of dirt. To my mind the dirt is introducing microbes into the paper layers and it makes for a quicker appearance of worms to set up their residence.
  • I have used cardboard, shredded paper and newsprint all with great success in setting up my micro-soaks around the garden. The basics of it is I dig a deep ditch of a half metre to a metre wide and about a half metre deep. Line it with newsprint or cardboard – or both – so that water will pool first for a while before it gradually seeps through the paper and into the soil. This slow release works well in dry areas of the garden. It brings in the worms and it sustains them in a micro-environment where there is always some presence of moisture. Variations on this are to put a plant pot in to the centre of the pit or even a clay pipe or 90 cm pvc plumbing tube, and fill the ditch surrounding it with weeds or grass clippings or other media that will break down over time. This supports the plant pot or pipe and you can tip water into the pot or pipe to direct it to the bottom of the ditch. It becomes more useful having a pot or pipe in position when the tossed weeds or green waste start to build up to ground level. At least then you know where the centre of the ditch is, but its not imperative.

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