Trees, Shrubs & Vines for Sandy, Dry Conditions
by Don Janssen, Extension Educator
When the soil around your home or getaway place is less than ideal, you can fight it by planting trees and shrubs that aren't well adapted to the site, or you can select plants that do well in the conditions your landscape provides.
In the first case, you may get lucky and, through trial and error, eventually come up with a mix of plants that survive and even thrive. The other way is the shortcut. It saves time, effort and money, and it gets your grounds looking good much quicker.
Homeowners more often have soil with too much clay to deal with. Such soils are slow to dry in the spring, drain poorly and set up like concrete in dry weather.
Sand poses different problems. Water drains through it rapidly, so it's quick to dry in the spring, but it doesn't hold enough moisture for most plants in hot, dry weather. Sandy soil can be improved by adding large quantities of organic material year after year, but this is usually practical only for small areas, such as flower or vegetable gardens. For lawns and other large areas, it makes more sense to plant trees and shrubs that usually grow in sand or tolerate sandy conditions.
One of these is the eastern white pine (Pinus strobus). If you have room for a tree that will eventually reach well over 55 feet in height, this is a great tree. It will tolerate partial shade or full sun, so small trees can be planted where other plants or structures will protect them against damaging winter winds.
Red cedar (Juniperus virginiana) is smaller, reaching 40 feet at maturity. This needled evergreen is compact and upright, so it's better suited for smaller yards than the white pine. It does best in full sun. Avoid red cedar if there are hawthorn, crabapple or apple trees in your yard or nearby -- these plants share rust, a common disease that alternately affects the deciduous hosts and cedars.
Flowering crabapples tolerate sandy soils and offer a wide range of sizes (6 to 25 feet), shapes (upright to spreading to pendulous), and flower and fruit colors. Choose disease-resistant cultivars and plant in full sun.
Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba) is an ancient species that's survived virtually unchanged since the days of the dinosaurs. A slow grower, it eventually reaches a height of 40 feet and has fan-shaped leaves. Various cultivars range from umbrella-shaped to columnar. It has few if any disease or insect problems, and it tolerates a wide range of soil conditions, including sand.
A number of common shrubs withstand the dry conditions that come with sandy soil. Many of them -- such as Japanese barberry (Berberis thunbergi), Siberian peashrub (Caragana arborescens), flowering quince (Chaenomeles lagenaria), gray dogwood (Cornus ragemosa), common smoketree (Cotinus coggygria), common witchhazel (Hamamelis virginiana), privets (Ligustrum spp.) - have flowers and interesting or colorful fruits. Some ornamental vines also grow well in dry sites. These include trumpet vine (Campsis radicans), Oriental bittersweet (Celastrus orbiculatus), American bittersweet (Celastrus scandens), wintercreeper (Euonymus fortunei), Baltic English ivy (Hedera helix baltica), trumpet honeysuckle (Lonicera sempervirens), Hall's Japanese honeysuckle (Lonicera japonica halliana) and hardy grapes (Vitus spp.).
Sandy soil and the dry conditions that accompany it need not be an obstacle to a well landscaped, attractive yard. Choosing plants that are well adapted to dry conditions is the key. This doesn't mean that you shouldn't include other plants. But it's good to remind yourself that extra site preparation and time spent watering and fertilizing might be the price you pay. Planting species and cultivars that need special care together and preparing the site by incorporating organic matter for a year or two before planting will reduce the effort needed to establish and maintain these plants.
University of Nebraska-Lincoln Extension in Lancaster County is your on-line yard and garden educational resource. The information on this Web site is valid for residents of southeastern Nebraska. It may or may not apply in your area. If you live outside southeastern Nebraska, visit your local Extension office