Homepage 2019 » Forums » Plants, Climates and Soils » Sandy soil strategies

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    Richard Gorny

    First of all, I want to express my gratitude for The Instructors and for Regenerative Leadership Institute for creating such opportunity. Being able to ask questions and to learn by reading answers to them is a wonderful addition to the online PDC.

    My question is quite complex but directly related to the future project I’m planning to work on within the scope of the PDC certification.

    My property is mostly a sandy hill. Rain water sinks in the hill very fast, it must be a huge rain to see it flowing downhill really. The hill has only grass vegetation and a few scattered pines. Where the hill is the most steep, there is a bare sand. The property badly needs fencing, and due to its size and location (borders with nature preservation area) my preference would be to surround it with a hedge.

    Can you please advise me whether it makes sense to dig swales on countour on such sandy hill? My impression from lectures is, that such strategy is more appropriate at sites, where water does not sink but rather flows downhill and leaves the property.

    The purpose of swales would be to encourage hedge vegetation. My preference would be to plant a hedge along swales – be it blackthorn, siberian pea shrub, pears, Rosa rugosa, acacia, whatever thorny plant species that are hard to pass and are able to grow under such conditions. I would prefer to avoid using machinery, so the swales cannot be very deep or wide.

    Another question is what to use to fill the swale – I’ve figured that when filled with organic matter it will promote plant growth along the swale and will hold moisture better.

    I do not have a source of rich soil on site, all is sandy, so I’m wondering where to plant – the berm would be a poor sand (no good) – does planting directly in a swale will work? Sand under it still provides perfect drainage in my opinion, but I’m really not sure if it all makes any sense.

    I’m trying as much as possible to plan with on-site resources, but judging from first trials it seems to me that getting some good soil, compost, manure or other organic might become necessary in order to accomplish my tasks.

    Many thanks for your time for reading this and I’m looking forward to your answer.



    Hi Richard,
    If rain is sinking into the soil so fast, it seems that building swales is less important than building up your soil and soil structure. You could use swales to capture runoff, but based on what you said there isn’t much, so would having swales be of any benefit before you build your soils up? If it was me I’d start building up soil using the natural features of the site such as gullies and along the edge of the line between the hillslope and flat, to optimise capturing runoff and ground water that might be closer to the surface at these points. Can you mow, or cut the grass you have on site as a source of organic matter? If not you may need to import organic matter such as hay and manure to get you started. Once you’ve got some biomass you can start to progressively move “out” from these zones as your vegetation and water holding capacity improves. Cheers, Andy


    Richard Gorny

    Many thanks for your reply Andy.

    Unfortunately there are no gullies, and the border with the neighbor is on a hillslope, so no way to create an edge where it becomes flat.

    I do have ability to mow / cut grass, and (aside from pine needles/branches/wood) this is the only serious source of biomass that is available on site.



    Hi everyone

    Just wanted to say a very Big Thank-you to all the Institute Instructors this is a very helpful post and also to Larry ….I’m enjoying your lectures and taking notes. You have a warmth and gentle approach to permaculture that makes me smile.




    What about some foul for their soil building capacity? Or other poop producing creatures… what is the climate; wet? hot… dry?
    Is there enough grass to pasture a flock of chickens…or to rent a goat herd.


    Richard Gorny

    The climate is temperate-cold (Zone 5-6) with 550-600 mm of annual rain. I’m surrounded by forest, people living in vicinity no longer keep any animals, except dogs and cast. They have abandoned agriculture, so renting any grazing animals is not an option. For having my own, I would need to be on site permanently, currently I’m there only up to three days per week.



    I’m not an instructor but I have some ideas for you Richard, if you’ll have them. Let the plants do the work. If some forms of plant life are able to grow, promote them. Find more varieties that like sandy soil. If they take hold they will begin to impart their benefits to the soil. If it will support grasses, I would purchase a mixed wildgrass seed and spread it. Whatever you can get growing. The process of building could take some time. What about shrubs? Bush Clover-lespedeza thunbergii-kills to the ground in some areas in winter. It could potentially be a benefit to provide some of the organic matter you are lacking. If you are desiring a barrier to the neighboring property there are some thorny bushes that like sandy soils. You could run different species in a W pattern where there would be a plant at each point of your W.
    This may seem weird but a day or so after a rain you might dig a small hole and see how moist the soil is at 6″, 12″, and 18″. This will help you determine if the plants you need have to be drought tolerant. Meaning that, even though it may rain, if the soil doesn’t retain the water for availability to the plants they will need to tolerate times of dry soil. If the grade of the hill is extreme it will be more difficult to keep seed in place so you may need to find and purchase potted plants. Also remember that the more support you provide to individual plants the more support you will need keep providing. If one variety doesn’t take hold try something else. Don’t beat yourself up.



    Richard Gorny

    Hi Jaymie,
    Thanks a lot for your advice, I have already tried some of these and I will certainly try other – I like an idea of soil moisture test and I will look for bush clovers.
    I’m just starting my adventure with this land, and with permaculture as well. I’m trying many different things to see what works and what not. This spring I have sown plenty of seeds to see what grows on my soil. For a first few weeks some plants were growing, but they have all wilted early summer. As you have said, I have planted a variety of thorny bushes in March, they were doing fine until extremely hot August we had this year. These few which have survived were dig out by wild boars (boars find digging in such places easier, they are looking for grubs). This Autumn I have made a lot of seedballs with thorny bushes seeds of many species, we will see if this works in Spring.



    Hi Richard,
    Can you score a trailer load of clay from somewhere? Placing a funnel like wall downhill from your plant will catch the little water that does run off and direct it to the roots but also hold minerals. Sandy soils hold no/ not a lot of minerals and by incorporating clay, minerals get fixed. Often plants struggle not just from shortage of water, but from shortage of minerals too.



    Hi Richard, I’m not an instructor by any means but I’ve been gardening and improving soils where ever I wander for many years. If you have transportation there are many sources of organic materials that are available for the hauling.
    You have 2 problems. 1 is the slope which isn’t adjustable except superficially. Terracing would slow down the water runoff. Anything to impede the flow would help. Driving recycled pallet boards vertically will slow down the sinkage. Organic matter will build up against the verticals and hold water.The deeper you can include the organics the more water held and made available to plantings.
    2. The sand is a mixed blessing.Water moves thru it which is good. You need to slow down the rate by add whatever materials you can find. Try shredding cardboard from the grocery stores. Not the plastic coated boxes but plain untreates cardboard is just wood pulp. Newspapers are free for the asking.Tear them up, Work them in behind the verticals. Bags of leaves are left for the landfills and also help imensely. Work them into the soil above the verticals. Structure your problem spots and they will become the honey from your work as the bee. Farmers have moldy hay to get rid of. They can’t feed it to their stock. By working it in to your hillside you solve 2 problems. They need to get rid of it and you need it. You will also need to obtain some starter worms which will breed like crazy if fed and shetlered by the organics. Cover the buildind soil with sheets [opened boxes] of cardboard to prevent evaporation while the soil is building. Arange the sheets like shingles reversed so any rainfall enters the soil and doesn’t run off.
    If you alter the structure of your soil and control it’s activity, you will determine the usability of the virgin hillside. I applaud your industry and hope to hear of your sucessful efforts. Wish I were there and could help. It’s just the sort of project I’ve done proudly. Go Gaia!



    I have a similar issue, glacial till that doesn’t hold the water well.

    I’ve cut terraces into my hill. This creates edges all the way down the hill. It cuts down on the wind, affects sunlight, etc. This allowed me to get plants started with minimal watering. It was all rocks and sand.

    I planted grapes and tomatoes and surrounded them with nitrogen fixers. They grew well. I also planted corn but it did poorly.

    This year, I’m going to cover the terraces with clover and plant strawberries all over the slope.

    you can see a bit of my terraces in the following links…


    Richard Gorny

    Many thanks for your inspirational feedback, I find it very useful and encouraging Guys and Gals 🙂

    Petra, thanks but unfortunately adding clay is not an option, but in order to add minerals I’m using rock dust, I hope it helps.

    Betsy, big thanks, this is wonderful, I will surely try your suggestions! Instead of recycled pallets I might try to build a very low fences out of sticks and branches, that might really make a difference.

    Jeremey, unfortunately the links are missing, but thanks for your adice anyway. In my case there are no rocks whatsoever, only sand, so I have to find a way to keep it in place when cutting into a slope to make a terrace. I was hoping that sowing seeds just after earthworks will do the job, but it was nt the case.


    Larry Korn

    Wow. Seems like you all have it covered! You can’t change the texture of your soil by adding clay, but Richard’s idea of using clay to build surface catchment area is a good one. Don’t plant IN the swales if you do decide to build them. Plant on the downhill side embankment created by the material you dug to create the swale or just in front of it (downhill side). The best overall strategy, I think is Jayme’s…let the plants do the work of improving the soil by adding organic matter. If you can increase the amount of organic matter in the soil, all of your problems will be solved. The best way to do that is to keep a permanent soil-building ground cover going all the time.



    I am from the southwestern United states and if you pick up some books on plants out here you will find plenty that thrive in well drained soil. A few are cold tolerant. Planting forage for local wild life might also help.

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