Every home horticulturalist dreams of the perfect loamy soil. With its ideal mix of peat, clay, sand, and organic material, loam holds onto water and nutrients and drains at just the right speed. However, few of us are blessed with perfect loam. Most home lawns lean toward one type of soil, whether it’s clay or sand. If you live in a place with sandy soil—including coastal areas like Savannah and parts of the Carolinas—you may feel that you’ve been cursed. Sandy soil is well suited for perennial plants and many fruit trees, but it’s a different story for turfgrass. Grass needs access to water and nutrients, and sandy soil has a hard time holding onto those. But that doesn’t mean that growing grass in sandy soil is impossible. It just takes the right type of grass and a little extra work.
How to Improve Sandy Soil
While some grasses are more suited to sandy soil than others, the best thing you can do for your lawn is to improve the soil before you plant. Before you lay down sod, you can improve the soil by laying down a layer of high-quality topsoil. Don’t mix it into the sand. Just leave it where it is and grow the sod on top of it.
If you already have a grassy lawn, you can still improve the soil. Spread a layer of compost over the lawn each year in the fall, as the grass is going dormant. Over several years, the soil will become less sandy and a little loamier.
One crucial factor to be aware of when adding compost is the salt level in your soil. Compost can add salt, and if your sandy soil is near the ocean, it may already be high in salts. The best way to adjust for salt levels is to test your soil. You can also stick to plant-only compost that is lower in salt.
What is the Best Grass for Growing in Sandy Soil?
The most critical choice you can make to grow a lush green lawn in sandy soil is choosing the right turfgrass variety. If you select a turfgrass that isn’t suited for sandy soil, no amount of fertilizing and amending will get you a lush green carpet of grass. However, the right turfgrass varieties can adapt well to sandy soil, giving you the lawn of your dreams, even if your soil is far from ideal.
Bermuda grass is a fast-growing and drought-tolerant warm season grass. It spreads both above ground with stolons and below ground with rhizomes. But be careful with bermuda grass because its vigorous above-ground growth and invade flowerbeds and nearby landscaping. Its drought tolerance makes it well-suited for fast-draining, sandy soil. Its quick growth also means it withstands high-traffic and recovers from injury quickly, making it an excellent choice for families with children who play on the lawn or homeowners who like to host barbecues and get-togethers on the grass.
Bermuda grass needs much less water than many other varieties, especially many cool season grasses. In fact, it requires soil that drains well, which makes sandy soil a good fit. It can be planted from seed or sod, including the high-quality TifTuf Bermudagrass sod available from The Turfgrass Group. It does best when mowed at 0.75 to 1 inch, though uneven soil can make it difficult to mow that low. A reel mower is ideal, but a rotary mower with sharp blades can do nearly as well. However, if you have a rotary mower and your ground is not perfectly even, it is better to mow 1 to 2 inches to avoid damaging the grass.
Bermuda grass needs long hours of direct sunlight and doesn’t do well in shaded areas or cloudy climates. So if your lawn doesn’t get direct sunlight, you may want to pick a more shade-tolerant variety like zoysia grass.
Centipede grass grows as a thick sod with coarse leaves. It is typically slow-growing, so it is not ideal for areas with high foot traffic. Its name refers to the fact that it grows by stolons, creeping shoots that spread above ground, with an appearance similar to a many-legged centipede. Because it grows slowly, it requires less frequent mowing than a fast-growing grass like bermuda grass.
Although centipede grass grows slowly, it forms a thick mat once it is established, making it ideal for sandy soil. The intertwined web of stolons can sometimes lead to a thick layer of thatch, especially if it is heavily fertilized. You should remove the thatch layer every two to three years. However, be careful when dethatching not to remove the stolons, which could leave bare patches on your lawn.
Like bermuda grass, centipede grass needs long hours of direct sun. It is not recommended for a shady lawn.
When planting centipede grass, it is crucial to start with high-quality sod. Growing centipede from seed can take years because it is so slow-growing. Starting from sod ensures a better lawn from the start. TifBlair Centipede grass is the world’s only certified centipede grass, and it is available from The Turfgrass group.
Zoysia grass is a hardy warm season grass that does well in sandy soil. In fact, you may sometimes see zoysia grass growing wild in the sandy soil near beaches. It develops a deep root system that helps it thrive in quick-draining sandy soil.
Like bermuda grass, zoysia grass spreads by stolon and rhizomes, though it grows less quickly. The slower growth means it is less likely to overtake nearby flowerbeds or other places where you don’t want it. It forms a thick mat, which people often describe as feeling like “walking on a cushion. Unlike bermuda grass, zoysia grass is suitable for full sunlight or light shade. So if your lawn has a few trees, zoysia grass is a much better option.
Initially, there were only two cultivars of zoysia grass, Meyer and Emerald, and they were both slow-growing. Today, however, there are quite a few cultivars that grow more quickly, including the JaMur cultivar available from The Turfgrass Group.
Additional Tips for Growing Grass in Sandy Soil
In addition to selecting appropriate grass varieties for your sandy topsoil, a few added cultural practices will help keep your grass growing strong.
One crucial fact about sandy soil is that it doesn’t hold on to water and nutrients as efficiently as other soil types. So you need to provide more. That doesn’t mean you should be soaking your grass with every watering. Instead, break up the water that your grass needs into three waterings a week. That will allow your grass more access to water as it runs off in just a few days.
You may also need to apply more fertilizer than usual. In general, sandy soil needs up to 20% more nitrogen fertilizer than loamy soil. But the best way to determine your soil’s ideal fertilizer schedule is with a soil test. We recommend taking your sample to the local agricultural extension office for testing instead of buying a kit. The results will come with handy suggestions on amendments, and the experts at the extension are another great resource.
While looking at sandy topsoil may be intimidating, it’s not impossible to grow a healthy carpet of grass, even in sandy soil. It just takes the right kind of grass and cultural techniques. You can have a beautiful lawn, even on sandy soil.