Best Trees for Sandy Soil 2023 [Updated]

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List of the Best Trees for Sandy Soil 2023 [Updated]

Flowers growing in sandy soil
Sandy soil is often unsuitable for growing plants that aren’t drought-resistant. Image by Gabriele Lässer from Pixabay

Pure sand is the most porous of the general soil types as it is composed of large particles. This substrate can definitely be challenging to deal with as it is hardly water retentive. Instead, moisture readily seeps through the particles and drains very quickly. Just a few hours of sunshine after a rain shower can leave the top layers of sandy soil completely parched. Unless you intend to rear drought-resistant plants, you’ll find that sand can often be unsuitable for plant growth.

Rearing plants in sandy soil can be quite tricky, not just because of the low water retention capacity, but because it is usually nutrient deficient. Sand is unable to take up nutrients from the deeper layers via capillary transport. In contrast, finer substrates are more packed and tightly bind to water. These features allow them to keep a rich nutrient profile.

Sandy soil can be amended through the input of organic matter. This strategy would effectively increase both the nutrient profile and water-holding capacity of the soil. Unfortunately, it is not a sensible solution for large areas of sand. You should consider growing trees that can thrive in sandy conditions instead.

In general, these are low-maintenance species that are adapted to periodic bouts of dryness or nutrient-poor soils. Moreover, they produce deep root systems that reduce the need for constant irrigation. Those that favor high gas diffusion around their roots will also happily grow in sandy soil! Consult the list below for a few fantastic trees to consider.

1) White pine (Pinus strobus)

A tall white pine tree
Mature white pine trees can grow up to 3 feet (1 meter) every year! James St. John / CC BY 2.0

Native to eastern North America

One of the largest and tallest conifer trees in North America, Pinus strobus has a preference for sandy soil and good drainage. This gorgeous pine is well-adapted to conditions in mixed and hardwood forests. Some of the oldest individuals are highly treasured in the US, especially because they serve as habitats and food sources to a profusion of birds and mammals. These play a vital role in old-growth forests, with the tallest pre-colonial trees reaching heights north of 200 feet (61 meters)!

White pine was historically used as a source of lumber for colonial homes and ships in the 17th – 19th centuries. It is currently reared in plantation forests for contemporary uses such as timber framing, tar production, and as a source of vitamin C. It is also frequently cultivated as an ornamental tree. While most become prized specimens in gardens and parks, smaller ones are sometimes even used as Christmas trees! Harvested trees remain attractive for some time as the feathery needles stay attached to the branches.

When conditions are optimal, white pine can grow relatively quickly. A 6-foot (183 cm) tree can take 6 – 8 years to grow from infancy, but mature trees can grow up to 3 feet (1 meter) each year. Hardy to USDA zones 3 – 8, this species prefers slightly acidic soils and is partial to full sun exposure. It may do well in moist soil, but has a moderate tolerance for dryness once its roots have fully anchored the plant.

2) Red cedar (Juniperus virginiana)

Juniper berries on a red cedar tree
Red cedar trees produce juniper berries that are a vital source of food for many birds throughout winter. Keith Kanoti, Maine Forest Service, USA, CC BY 3.0 US, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to eastern North America

Contrary to its common name, this species is not exactly a true cedar tree (Cedrus genus). It is technically a juniper, as indicated by its scientific name. This evergreen tree is considered a pioneer species because it is often the first to re-establish populations in damaged biomes. Amazingly, they can live for hundreds of years, but can, unfortunately, become invasive and highly competitive. The red cedar canopy is wide and extends to the lower regions of the tree, blocking out light and preventing undergrowth from covering a large area.

This species is slow-growing, dense, and typically grows to just 5 – 20 meters (16 – 65 feet). Its growth rate is largely dependent on the quality of the soil. Although it can withstand poor soil, those reared in nutrient-deprived, sandy substrates may resemble a bush more than a tree. It produces indigo-colored seed cones and juniper berries that serve as a vital food source for many birds through winter. The birds eventually disperse the seeds.

Red cedar is notable for having fairly low water requirements. It is highly adaptable to dry, sandy, or loamy substrates. For this reason, wild populations tend to crop up along the edges of woodlands, farm fences, sunny plains and prairies, meadows, savannas, and pastures. Hardy to zones 2 – 9, it is tolerant of many ambient conditions and can even thrive in limestone-based or rocky soils.  

3) Ginkgo (Ginkgo biloba)

Ginkgo tree with bright yellow leaves
In the fall, the green fan-shaped leaves of the ginkgo tree turn into a deep shade of saffron yellow. Homoarborea, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to China

First cultivated in the Far East, the Ginkgo tree has a rich history and is culturally valued. This undeniably stunning species has a fossil record with extinct relations that go as far back as 290 million years! Now widely cultivated as an ornamental tree with both culinary and medical uses, Ginkgo biloba thrives in substrates with high drainage. Possibly the oldest extant tree on earth, this species holds a special place in the world of botany. It belongs to its own group of seed plants as it has no living relatives.

Ginkgo is also referred to as the maidenhair tree because its leaves resemble that of the maidenhair fern. Green through spring and summer, the fan-shaped leaves turn a deep shade of saffron yellow in fall. The trees are dioecious, which means they are either male or female. Male ginkgo trees produce small cones, whereas females do not. After pollination, the females produce fruit-like seeds that unfortunately smell rancid when opened.

Ginkgo biloba is drought-resistant and extremely long-lived. It thrives best under full sun, but tends to grow slowly regardless of ambient conditions and soil type. Hardy to USDA zones 3 – 8, years of cultivation can reward you in the form of a gorgeous canopy that filters just the right amount of light. Under proper maintenance, a single tree can live to witness 1,000 trips around the sun!

4) Silk tree (Albizia julibrissin)

Silk tree leaves and flowers
Every summer, silk trees produce exotic flowers that look like fireworks. Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay

Native to southwestern and eastern Asia

Also commonly called mimosa, the silk tree is a wonderful ornamental addition to gardens that tend to have semi-arid conditions. This species can tolerate short periods of drought and has water requirements similar to that of succulents. It favors hot summers, as long as its roots are deeply and occasionally watered. If it regularly rains, this tree will not require additional moisture.

The roots of A. julibrissin tend to grow long and outward, taking up a considerable amount of space underground. The true stars of the tree pop up far above the ground and grace the canopy. Each summer, exotic flowers come into bloom. These resemble tiny pink fireworks and attract a host of pollinators, including hummingbirds and bees.

Unfortunately, this stunning plant can easily become invasive, even in disturbed areas. Its rapid rate of growth and ability to produce large amounts of seeds allow it to compete with native species and often outgrow them. Dense patches of silk trees can block out sunlight and strip the land of nutrients, making it impossible for slow-growing plants to establish themselves. If you wish to cultivate this species, make sure to limit its spread to within your property.

5) Eucalyptus (Eucalyptus spp.)

Eucalyptus pauciflora tree
Some eucalyptus trees grow very fast (up to 10 feet every year), so you may want to select a species that has a slower growth rate, such as E. pauciflora (pictured). Carlinhos27, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to Tasmania and Australia

In their native range, eucalyptus trees grow in well-drained, gravelly substrates. Interestingly, the majority of their roots tend to occur in the top layers of soil. This adaptation is a result of having to exploit occasional rainfall in environments that are otherwise dry and nutrient-poor for long periods of time.

Many eucalyptus species have become naturalized in countries that don’t pose the same challenges as their native bush regions. In the fertile soils of the West, they can grow remarkably quickly and aren’t threatened by hungry kangaroos, koalas, and insects that can eat young trees to death! This is why a single eucalyptus tree can grow up to 10 feet (3 meters) a year when away from potential grazers and poor, shallow soils. You may have to select eucalyptus species that have slower growth rates: E. vernicosa and E. pauciflora.

Eucalyptus trees are a great addition to any sandy garden due to their attractive features. The aroma, sound of their rustling leaves, and colorful barks are a pleasure to the senses. Because they are evergreen trees, they maintain a winter interest and have longer annual growth periods than most trees. As long as the soil is regularly exposed to sufficient rainfall, eucalyptus trees should encounter no problems surviving in sandy soils.

6) Black locust (Robinia pseudoacacia)

Black locust tree in bloom with white flowers
Black locust is a flowering tree that’s known for attracting bees. Andreas Rockstein / CC BY-SA 2.0

Native to the US

If you’re after a tree that’s known for thriving in all sorts of conditions and is generally easy to cultivate, you should definitely get your hands on a black locust sapling. This species can thrive in sandy, poor soil and can tolerate droughts for short periods of time. Capable of fixing nitrogen from its surroundings, it grows best in well-draining soil and under full sun. Do be aware of its root suckers and capacity for self-seeding, which allow the tree to spread quickly.

Also known as false acacia, black locust is a flowering tree. Its fragrant, showy blooms appear from May to June each year and are known for attracting bees. The petals, which are white and delicate, can stay firm for up to 10 days at a time. Pea pod-like fruits, each containing up to 8 seeds, develop after pollination. The tree’s leaves are composed of paired leaflets (with a single one at the end of each leaf).

Due to its rapid rate of growth and spread, black locust is a noxious weed in some Midwestern states. Unless you are able to maintain or restrict its underground suckers to a single area, your tree may disrupt other gardens. Admittedly, it isn’t the most ideal species for prime garden space as it is more useful for disturbed or difficult areas where most plants refuse to grow. 


7) Flowering crabapple trees (Malus spp.)

Purple prince crabapple tree
Flowering crabapple trees grow best in meadow-like or riparian landscapes with slightly acidic substrates. Bruce Marlin, CC BY 3.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Native to the Northern Hemisphere

Flowering crabapples are close relatives of the world-famous orchard apple tree. In fact, they belong to the same genus of short deciduous trees, Malus. Most species tend to do well in sandy soil as they prefer proper drainage, but may require frequent watering sessions to keep the soil moist. If located in the US, search for the following native species: Malus angustifolia, M. coronaria, and M. fusca. If located in Europe, you may have better luck with the European crab apple (M. sylvestris).

Of the aforementioned crabapple species, M. angustifolia or southern crabapple is most frequently cultivated as an ornamental plant. It produces fragrant pink blooms in spring. When pollinated by an assortment of insects, it produces sour-tasting fruits that are great for producing jellies, jams, and preserves! A small orchard grove of these trees is great for encouraging wildlife to visit your property.

Crabapples grow best in meadow-like or riparian landscapes with slightly acidic substrates. Their woody branches should receive at least 6 hours of full sun daily to grow to a full height of 20 – 30 feet (6 – 9 meters). In 2020, one tree reached a height of 45 feet (13.7 meters) and is now included in the US National Register of Champion Trees. Given proper conditions, a tree can begin to yield considerable crops after just 4 – 6 years of care. Keep in mind that it may require at least 12 feet (3.6 meters) of space to prevent its roots from being obstructed over time.

8) Northern red oak (Quercus rubra)

Acorns on a northern red oak tree
Northern red oak trees produce acorns that attract many birds and furry mammals. Image by WikimediaImages from Pixabay

Native to North America

The hardy northern red oak is notable for its deep taproot system. This robust species produces tall, thick trunks that raise flourishing canopies far above the ground. This species can grow to more than 100 feet (30 meters) tall and can reportedly live up to 400 years!

No less than impressive, the northern red oak is definitely easy to identify as its bark is marked by ridges that appear to shine. Its leaves, which can extend to 10 inches (25 cm) and have gradually tapering lobes, turn a stunning shade of red or brown in fall.

This species produces acorns that attract a variety of birds and furry mammals. The acorns are also favored by some moth species, Cydia splendana and C. fagiglandana, in Europe. In the woodland reserves of western and central Europe, this tree has unfortunately become invasive. Its high value as an ornamental tree and source of timber has encouraged its swift influx into many parts of the world.

A northern red oak tree can grow to 20 feet (6.1 meters) in as little as 10 years. It can tolerate being cultivated in practically all types of soil, but will grow best in sandy loam as the roots prefer porous, slightly acidic substrates. It can withstand bouts of dryness and exposure to air pollution. These tolerances make it a great candidate for urban gardens, sidewalks, and recreational parks.

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