Growing better plants in the sand – 2020 soil trials

After 4 years and thousands of dollars lost, we are looking for a better way to grow plants in our sandy soil. The soil trials began in the spring of 2020.

The soil trials are based on the assumption that we can improve sandy soil by adding liquefied clay. A company in Sweden is working on improving the deserts of the world by adding liquefied nano-clay. Their data looks impressive and they are slowing trialing their methods around the globe. Maybe they will help us out one day, but for now, we are trying it on a smaller scale.

We have 6 study beds. Each bed is approximately 3’x7′ and is laid out in a sunny section at the edge of our prairie in the sand plains of Minnesota. Why the edge of the prairie?

  • The area grows very little plant material – it is dry and windswept
  • We are planting “fast growing” native prairie forbs in the trial and they will be encouraged to spread into the rest of the prairie
  • The area is around 100 feet from our beehives and the selected plants are “bee faves.” Since bees travel over a large distance, this spacing gives us a central location to assess bee activity.

This is how the beds were set out:

  1. Compost – spread 3 inches above original soil and sprayed with liquefied clay
  2. Topsoil – spread 3 inches above original soil and sprayed with liquefied clay
  3. Original sandy soil – sprayed with liquefied clay
  4. Compost – spread 3 inches above original soil
  5. Topsoil – spread 3 inches above original soil
  6. Original sandy soil

All beds were raked flat and sprinkled with an equal volume of a prepared native flower seed mix. The majority of the mix was anise hyssop and prairie coreopsis. We also included harebell, flowering spurge, and prairie blue sage.

We have planted hundreds of native seeds in our 12 acre prairie over the years. We have a wide variety of plants growing (approximately 30 to 40 species are actively growing.) Many more are still waiting to germinate? We created this particular seed mix to add variety to the existing prairie, to grow quickly (anise hyssop and coreopsis) and to serve as a pollinator check point.

Check out this article for more ways to improve sandy soil.

Here’s a reminder of how the beds looked at the beginning of the trial – March 2020

Basically – just empty soil. The ground was still frozen when we put down the soil and seeds. The seeds had at least 1.5-2 months of freezing temperatures and spring wetness.

Update #1: June 20, 2020

Compost + Clay
Top Soil + Clay
Sand + Clay
Top Soil

At the beginning of summer, it’s not looking very promising. But…this is not our first rodeo with native plants.

In the larger prairie, it took 3 years before we saw anise hyssop. And we are still waiting for prairie coreopsis (4% of our original seed mix!)

Just because it can bloom in its first year doesn’t mean it will. Plants have their own timeline.

The sand plots are definitely going to have more grass and yarrow competition because the ground wasn’t smothered by 4 inches of soil. Time will tell…

Update #2:

5 thoughts on “Growing better plants in the sand – 2020 soil trials

    • duffymeadows says:

      We do have some updates from this season that will be adds soon. I think we will have more usable data next year though when the plants have grown some and can distinguish themselves more.


  1. Tony says:

    Love to hear more about the clay if it works. I have tried the back to Eden method on my sandy soil and my vegetables only seem to just exist stay dormant nothing thrives or does real well I have only about 6 hours of direct sun due to large trees the rest of the day is either filtered or shade
    They are doing similar things with clay in Western and Southern Australia
    Thanks fot your efforts and sharing


    • duffymeadows says:

      Thank you. I agree with you on the back to eden method. We tried it in our clay garden many years ago and it stunted our plants PLUS increased the slug pressure.

      We are running the trials with prairie plants – they have the benefit of not requiring supplemental water but the downside of growing soooo slow. This year the results were inconclusive but we are taking photos of the plots at 3 times throughout the growing season and may eventually see a difference over the next few years. We are definitely playing the long game.

      If we do see differences, then we will do a larger trial in an irrigated area with shrubs (blueberriesp and currants, most likely) and herbs/flowers.

      Best of luck with your sandy soil and if you solve the mystery, come back and drop us some hints 😉


  2. Elisha Hartman says:

    Anything new on your trials. I live in sandy Southwest Florida, looking to see longer term solutions to improving my sandy soil. I have been experimenting with adding clay in the form of unused unscented cat litter, also been trying biochar.


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