Sandy Loam, the Red Death
Have you ever wondered what that orangish, sandy dirt is that your home builders lay out before the closing of your home? That mushy when wet / concrete when dry substance is called Sandy Loam but us Master Gardeners refer to it as “Red Death”.
Quality is Everything
Sandy Loam is a super cheap dirt (notice I didn’t say soil) that is often used by builders and landscapers as bed fill and property grading. The reason it is cheap is obvious and that is because this type of red loam is pretty much good for nothing. Filling your raised beds with sandy loam is equivalent to adding bags of sand. We live a an alkaline environment with limestone and clay so while a little bit of sand can help break those down and retain moisture, too much sand is never a good thing unless you’re at the beach.
If you are trying to repair a yard already filled with sandy loam, my best suggestion is to purchase large amounts of compost and till it into your soil to integrate the two and allow them to break down the clay while adding nutrients. This allows the sand to act as drainage as it is intended, not to mention add much needed nutrients. Sandy Loam (unlike chocolate loam) is deficient in nutrients and in a soil with good drainage, sand does not hold water making plants planted require more, it is also a runoff nightmare.
Know the Difference
Sandy loam is made up of 60% sand, clay and silt. Now, as most of us in the Austin and surrounding areas have compaction and drainage issues, loam stays wet too long after a rain for native plants and dries like concrete in the heat. Chocolate loam is not much better unless it’s used beneath sod as it is a combination of top soil, 50% sand and clay. Again…we have clay and rocks in our soil already so how much clay and rock do plants need?
Top soil is a term meaning the top 12 or so inches of the native soil depending on where you live. That will be the darkest richest soil because it has the benefits from decomposition. To amend this top layer of soil, we need to find a good combination of soil, sand or mineral rock and compost, so where you purchase your materials can be a world of difference. Be sure to ask the right questions and look at the color of the soil you are purchasing. If the soil is dark, falls apart easily but not too sandy you are probably on the right track.
The first thing I do with every property I work on is to bring in yards and yards of compost. Even if it’s applied as a top layer it will integrate as plants and trees are installed. Eventually, as seasonal applications of compost and shredded mulch are made (and no chemicals are used), your soil will look like the picture above. When I hold my soil tightly in my fist it makes a ball but when I open my fist and touch the ball gently it falls right apart. This is the consistency you are seeking and it should look like a rich chocolate cake.
These are excellent tools for hand tilling without compaction. If you have inherited sandy loam from your builder or uneducated landscaper, simply add compost and mulch generously each spring and fall, then continue to add compost whenever you plant. If you are preparing new beds, never allow your landscaper or lawnscaper to add sandy loams to your beds. Insist on quality raised bed (with proper amounts of sand)or garden soil mixes and be willing to pay for it, or you’ll pay dearly later.
if you’d like more valuable information on how to care for your lawn, beds and plants, contact me for an educational consultation!
Lisa’s Landscape and Design
“Saving the Planet One Yard at a Time”
- Posted in: Gardening in Central Texas