Drought-Tolerant Heroes: Plants for Sandy Soils

What is it about human nature that always wants what they don’t have? Last weekend my friend, Mary, was complaining about her sandy soil garden. None of her favourite flamboyant colourful flowers could grow in her small sunny front garden. If only she had rich loamy soil, her gardening problems would be over.

Complaining about “crappy” soil is a familiar lament, but let me interject here with age-old question. What’s wrong with working with what Nature has supplied us?


Selecting plants adapted to the conditions (soil, exposure and climate) is ultimate goal in sustainable gardening. And in the case of sandy soil, we don’t have to compromise style or colour.


Sure sandy soil isn’t the easiest soil to work with: it’s low in fertility (low in organic matter) and dry (because water quickly drains away).


But sandy soil has its advantages:

  • Good drainage
  • Warms up quickly in spring
  • Pulling out weeds is a cinch.


First we need to identify colourful flowering plants that thrive in meagre, sharply drained soil with plenty of summer sun. And if we want to keep our water bills down, they are drought-tolerant plants. Since Mary lives in Toronto, the plants also need to be hardy to Zone 5. It’s a tall order, but not impossible!


I’ve selected a few plants for a small sunny garden (roughly 15 by 15 feet). The list below is far from being comprehensive; and I’ve purposely left out larger shrubs and trees, which are better suited to a larger property.





California poppy (Eschscholzia californica).  In addition to the showy paper-thin golden-orange native California poppy, Renee’s Garden carry other scrumptious colourful California poppies including:

Tequila Sunrise: mandarin-red blooms splashed with gold and warm soft cream; and attractive ferny grey-green foliage.

Tropical Sunset: flowers that are rich deep red, carmine-rose, vanilla, ruffled flame or tangerine bicolour.

Dusky Rose: Silky, rose-tinted iridescent blossoms with feathery grey-green foliage.


Nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus). From its humble orange sherbet beginnings, breeding programs have created a variety of different flower colours, from rosy-red flowers to creamy vanilla and everything in between. And nasturtiums flowers more in poor soil than rich fertile soil.


Portulaca or Moss Rose (Portulaca grandiflora) Covered with tiny colourful rose-like flowers, in orange, rose, yellow or white flowers, portulacas make a lovely annual ground cover. With their tiny succulent leaves, portulacas are extremely drought tolerant.




Yarrow (Achillea spp.) What can I say about yarrows? Great drought-tolerant plants with ferny leaves. Again yarrows have expanded beyond the canary-yellow lacy-top blooms. Today’s yarrow flower colours include apricot, soft pinks, ruby-red and terra-cotta. Heritage Perennials carry 36 cultivars of yarrows.  Zones 3to 9


Blanket Flower (Gaillardia x grandiflora) Gorgeous two tone daisy-like flowers in hot vivid colours make this perennial a must in any flower-filled garden. And it blooms from early summer to early fall, an asset in a small garden.  Zones 3 to 9.


Russian Sage (Perovskia atriplicifolia) Light mauve spires with ferny silvery-green foliage acts as a buffer allowing you to combine hot and cool colours in perennial borders. Usually grows to 1m (3 ft).  Zones 4 to 9


Purple Coneflower (Echinacea purpurea). Bright colours and large flowers make coneflowers a must in colourful gardens. At one time, purple was the only colour, but the ease of breeding coneflowers has exploded the number of cultivars and colours available. Heritage Perennials website describes 62 Echinacea cultivars. Colours range from white to scintillating red.  Zones 4 to 9


Grasses.  Some grasses grow extremely well in sandy soil, particularly fescues (Festucas spp. ) and blue oat grass (Helictotrichon sempervirens ).   Take a look at Bluestem Nursery’s comparison chart for the best conditions of each grass species. Zones 4 to 9.





Thyme (Thymus spp.) Tiny little evergreen leaves, in silver, green, yellow or grey-green, forms a low mat-forming drought tolerant groundcover. Zones 4 to 9


Stonecrop (Sedum spurium) Low mat-forming groundcover that tolerates light foot traffic. Heritage Perennials carry 8 varieties. Zones 4 to 9


Hens and Chicks (Sempervivum montanum) Heritage perennials claim that “hen-and-chicks tolerate heat, drought and neglect with style.” And there are so many different varieties to choose from. Heritage Perennials lists 70 different cultivars. Zones 2 to 9.





Southwood (Artemisia abrotanum, Zones 2-9)) and Wormwood (Artemisa arborascens) both grow well amongst perennials. The lacy silvery foliage acts a foil for colourful flowers. Approximately 1 metre high and wide (3ft) Zones 2 to 9


Potentilla (Potentilla fruticosa) Small white, orange or yellow flowers above tiny green leaves. 1.2 m Zones 2 to 9.


Butterfly bush (Buddleia davidii). Mary loves lilacs, but they didn’t grow well in her sandy soil site. Instead of lilac, consider growing Buddleias. The large plumes of flowers are either white, pink red or purple. Unlike Lilacs that bloom in early spring, Buddleias flowers in late summer. Grows 1.8 to 3.6m (6′-12′) tall and have a spread of 1.2 to 4.5 m spread (4′-15′) depending on the cultivar. Zones 5 to 10





Flowering crabapples (Malus x atrosanguinea, M. floribunda, M. sargentii) all do very well in sandy soil. Crabapples are very attractive trees (lovely flowers, fruit and red fall colour), but select only disease-resistant cultivars. 7.6m (25 ft) Zones 4 to 8.




Crocuses and tulips both do very well in sandy soil. Spring-blooming bulbs add much needed colour in the spring. Highly recommend it. And if you live in a squirrel-infested area (as I do) sprinkle the top of the soil with hen manure and/or blood meal. It really does work.




A vibrant thriving flower garden is possible in sandy soil. By selecting plants suited to sandy soil, you will save time, money, water, fertilizer and keep your sanity. So, no more excuses: go out there and create the flamboyant garden of your dreams.




Landscapes Plants for Sandy Soils. Purdue University Cooperative Extension Service.


Top 10 plants for Sandy Soils. Birds & Blooms


Written by Cristina da Silva
Thursday, February 23, 2012 in Plants & Soils

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  1. Terese says:

    We live on sandy soil as well, and draining is a big plus. With a regular 12-12-12 fertilizer, my vegetable garden has produced very well. Initially we thought we needed topsoil for our garden, but it’s going just fine. It’s like you said, nothing wrong with it the way it is naturally. Some plants prefer poor soil, potatoes is one of them.
    Nice blog, love your header!

    • Cristina says:

      Thanks, Terese. Yes, we can work with sandy soils. Nothing wrong with them at all. But if we are growing vegetables (which tend to require more nutrients), adding organic matter over the years will increase the fertility of sandy soils.

  2. Julie says:

    Thanks for the tips. I have 12 x 12 area that had a pool on it. The soil is heavy sand, so with the addition of some organic material and the suggested plants, I hope to have a beautiful area for birds and butterflys.

  3. Corinne says:

    Greetings! I’ve been reading your blog for some time now and finally got the bravery to go ahead
    and give you a shout out from Porter Tx! Just
    wanted to tell you keep up the good job!

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  5. Elitehort says:

    Hi there, Great tips by the way and thank you. I did have a question though.
    I’m hoping you can answer it for me since you seem to be pretty knowledgeable
    about gardening. In a garden, how can you kill
    unwanted plants (e.g. weeds) without hurting other plants?
    If you had some insight I would greatly appreciate it.

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