Garden Views: Sand or clay? Dealing with the soil in the Beach

A raised bed can solve clay soil’s drainage problems. Build the beds two or even three boards high. Photo: Submitted.


My very first job in Toronto was working in Eaton’s flower shop. One of my co-workers was so good at getting people to buy that my boss often said, “She could sell dirt!” I’ve often laughed ironically to myself since then. Sell dirt? Heck, everyone does that.

But plain old dirt has always had a bad reputation. Cheap as dirt. Dirty dog. Dirty movies. One professional gardener I know often tells people who talk about “dirt” to say “soil” instead.

But I kind of like playing in the dirt. (Who plays in the soil, anyway?) And Canadian author and poet Margaret Atwood sides with me. “In the spring, at the end of the day, you should smell like dirt” is one of her most famous quotes.

Sand or clay?

Whether you call it dirt or soil, it’s where a garden begins.

Here in the Beach, we seem to go from one extreme to the other – either dry sand or dense clay (generally in patches north of Kingston Road). Both have their benefits, believe it or not – but both are, on the whole, a pain in the back to deal with.

First, the good news. If you have sandy soil, bulbs will do well for you. Sand drains quickly, so bulbs won’t rot from too much water. You also won’t have to worry about mosquitoes laying eggs in puddles in your yard. And sandy soil is easy to dig.

Clay soil, on the other hand, is fairly fertile, so you don’t have to add much artificial fertilizer. It holds water, of course, so you can plant things that like to have their feet wet.

And now, the bad stuff. Water drains through sand as soon as it hits the surface. Whatever nutrients the soil has also drain away quickly, so you have to work extra hard to keep replenishing fertility. Plus, you have to take special care to make sure your newly planted treasures are watered often during their first growing season.

Clay is hard – literally – to dig. When it dries out, it cracks and crumbles on the surface, and it can be difficult to get water down to the roots of a plant. Bringing clay soil back from the dead takes a lot of time and patience.

How to make it better

But whether you’re coping with sand or clay, there are some things you can do to make your sad dirt better.

• Soil scientists now say the best solution for both sand and clay is mulching with chipped tree limbs – wood and leaves together. Fungi in the top layer of soil gradually break this down to make looser, more plant-friendly dirt. Current research says not to till in sand, gravel or any other things, because that destroys those helpful fungi.

• To restore nutrients to sandy soil, several local gardeners I know spread composted manure all over their gardens in the spring. You can find it bagged in garden centres or have a load of it delivered if have you space. Google “composted manure Toronto” to find a bulk source.

• Another Beacher with an incredibly gorgeous front and back yard nurtures her sandy soil by spreading two giant bags of worm castings (worm poo) over her garden every year. She has a big garden, so those bags hold at least a cubic yard of the stuff, but smaller bags are also available. Google “worm castings Toronto” to find it.

• Spreading compost (decomposed plant/vegetable bits) is an easy way to improve sandy soil. You can buy it ready-made or make it yourself in a compost bin or pile. It’s not hard to do – chop everything finely before you put it in, throw in a bit of earth, keep the pile moist but not soggy and mix it up every now and then.

• The easiest thing to do is simply mulch your dry soil to keep moisture from evaporating. Chopped/shredded leaves are great for this – just go over fallen leaves with a lawn mower – and so are the chipped tree parts mentioned above. (Don’t use bark chips. Any water coming down on them won’t get through to plant roots).

• Sadly, clay isn’t as easy to work with as sand is. Chipped tree material does improve it, but it’s slow to work. If you want quick and easy, just put in plants that like heavy soil. Here’s one source for information: and enter “plants for clay soil” in the search box. Look for plants that are hardy in zones 5 or below.

• If you’re stuck with clay soil and you have the time, energy and money, build some raised beds filled with good soil. Raised Bed Revolution, by Toronto author Tara Nolan, is one book that tells you all you need to know.

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