Planning for Spring, Thinking About Sandy Soil

Reader Contribution by Colleen Vanderlinden
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It’s called “Kalkaska Sand.”

It’s the official soil of the great state of Michigan. And I’ll be honest with you: it’s a challenge. Maybe it’s the drastic change. I spent all of my gardening life before now growing in the heavy, nutrient-rich clay in the near-suburbs of Detroit. It was heavy, and wet, and would turn into something like cement, cracking in the hot sun. 

And now? My soil is more like what you find at the beach. Literally. I can dig into it with my hands. It’s fast-draining, warms up quick in the spring (which is great since our growing season is so short) and planting has never been easier.


There’s always a but.

All of that lovely lightness does come with a few drawbacks. It drains very, very quickly and doesn’t retain water well at all. It’s also fairly devoid of nutrients. So since we started gardening here a little over two years ago now, our focus has been on not only digging new beds, but in amending the soil in those beds so our plants will be as productive as we want them to be. Here’s what we’ve been doing.

Improving Sandy Soil

Honestly, it’s all about amending this soil, just as it was with our heavy Detroit clay. We’re adding as much manure, and topsoil, and leaf mold and compost and chopped leaves as we possibly can. We have a small flock of hens now and their composted manure is just a beautiful thing for the garden.

But it’s not a quick fix. Maybe if we only had one small bed and focused on that, all of this would happen faster. Or if we had a larger budget to purchase truckloads of compost and manure. But we’re doing this on a budget and relying partially on what we can buy as far as soil amendments while doing as much as we can to find and make free soil amendments.

Which means compost. So much compost. I loved composting before because it’s so good for my plants, but it’s become even more of a necessity here. In addition to the aforementioned chicken manure and bedding, we compost:

fall leaves
food scraps
used coffee grounds
grass clippings (even though we’re on ten acres, we still find it worth it at this point to mow some of it with a regular walk-behind bagger mower, just so we can collect the grass clippings easily)
pine needles (we have so many pine trees…)
wood shavings from my husband’s woodworking business
shredded paper (not glossy)
and nearly anything else that we can possibly add to a compost pile

In addition to composting, mulch has been integral in helping our quick-draining soil retain some of its moisture longer. It also helps the plants’ roots stay a bit cooler since sand heats up fast — which is great in spring when you’re impatient to get a garden in, but not so great when you’re in the middle of a drought and heat wave. 

And after a couple of seasons, we’re starting to see a difference in the first couple of beds we made and started amending. There were very few earthworms in our soil before, and we saw them regularly during our most recent growing season. The soil is holding moisture longer. It’s still not perfect. But it’s getting there.

And that’s a lot of what gardening is about. It’s more about the long game than the immediate payoff. Of course, we want tomatoes and lettuce and sunflowers. But every year, we work and we improve so that we can grow even better next year. 

It’s a good philosophy to have, not just in gardening, but in the rest of our lives as well. 

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