How to Landscape with Different Soil Types

Two plants, exposed roots, different soil types.
Two plants, exposed roots, different soil types.
Darrin Klimek/Digital Vision/Getty Images

­If after a heavy rain, your yard holds enough water for Noah to float his ark, maybe it's time for some landscaping to improve drainage, beautify your home and maintain your land. This article covers the three basic soil types and irrigation, as well as the plants and erosion particular to each. Whether you are looking for ways to prevent flooding or you're worried about erosion, re­ad on to find out how to best landscape with your particular soil.

Before we dig in, let's look at soil types. You've got to know your soil before you can truly work with it. There are three basic types of soil: clay, sand and loam [source: Cox].


­Loam is a combination of clay, silt, sand and organic matter, and is the best and easiest soil to work with. It has the most diverse combination of materials, giving it the richest soil. Clay, ­which holds water too long, and sand, which doesn't hold water long enough, can impose limitations on how your yard can be landscaped. Because loam has both, it balances the soil out so it holds the proper amount of water, and the silt and organic matter don't hurt either. Clay and sand can be improved by adding the missing organic matter, which includes everything from yard clippings to barnyard materials such as straw and manure (once it has been composted, of course) [source: Cox]. The richer your soil is, the darker it will be. Next time you're driving through lots of farmland, see if you can spot soil that is almost black - that's loam, the most nutrient-rich, fertile and balanced soil.

Though you might not be lucky enough to house loam in your backyard, you aren't confined to a barren wasteland. Read on to discover how to irrigate your soil type so you can achieve some backyard greatness.


Soil Types and Landscape Irrigation

­Soil is a layer of earth made up of organic bits and air pockets. The size of these organic bits is what determines your soil type. Sandy soil i­s made of larger particles, clay soil is made of very small bits and the silt that combines with the two to form loam is considered a medium build. No matter what kind of soil you have or what you're growing, your lawn needs to be watered until there is no more runoff. This will take roughly two inches of water a week, or enough to penetrate 8 to 10 inches (20 to25 cm) into the soil [source: VanDerzanden]. If you have sandy soil, which drains quickly, you may need to water it more often to ensure that roots have been reached. Automatic sprinklers, which can run often for short periods, are a good option for this soil, as are drip-line systems, which deliver a steady amount of water and eliminate run-off. Adding organic material also helps soil retain moisture.

For clay soil, which holds water well but doesn't drain easily, you may need to space out your watering sessions. Hose watering allows you to control times and visually measure your soil's saturation, and the easy drip-line method makes timely watering a breeze. Be careful, however, not to overwater, as too much water keeps air from reaching the roots, ultimately drowning them. Working with clay soils can be tricky in this regard, so make sure to monitor your soil until you've established the best watering cycle and amount for your yard.


If you have developed your soil into a consistent loam base, you can play around with these watering methods. Consider an automatic sprinkler system or use a hose as needed, keeping in mind that different plants have different irrigation needs.

Read on for plant basics for each soil type.


Soil Types and Plant Growth

The best move you can make in landscaping is developing a good plan. By identifying your soil and watering needs, you're on your way. Then add plants and watch that plan bloom.

When you add flowers, shrubs or trees to your yard, you are beautifying the space and helping the soil maintain its moisture and nutritional value. Adding native plants, or those which are naturally occurring in a certain region, gives you more freedom as well, since native plants may require less maintenance than other flora [source: EPA]. As you pick your plants, keep in mind that root systems can thrive in some soils and flop in others. Here we offer a few proven plants for your soil type, but by contacting your state's extension office, you can always learn more about plants native to your region.


Sandy soils: Because this soil holds little water, evergreens like Adam's needle or bearberry do well in this landscape, and both thrive in full sun. Sumac, trumpet vine and Virginia creeper also enjoy the sandy soils, and they add an impressive mix of vines and shrub cover. If flowers are your passion, try planting grevilleas or daises. No matter what you bury in the sand, remember that adding compost will help retain moisture.

Clay soils: Trees do well in clay soils. Elm, maple, Cypress, birch and oak trees can thrive here, adding beneficial shade and durability. While perennials take some work, hardier varieties such as the aster, black-eyed Susan or the daylily do well in clay with extra compost. Not only do these plants look nice, they add a barrier against erosion, which we'll look at next.


Soil Types and Erosion

Even the tiniest raindrop can pound the earth like a hammer, say scientists at Vanderbilt University, who studied the effect of rain on erosion [source: Salisbury]. Erosion occurs when the earth wears away, by wind, ice, or most commonly, water. The m­ore sandy a soil is, the easier it is for any of the elements to make off with it. Clay soils, even with larger material particles, are also easily eroded by water, yet clay appears to be more durable against the wind. Whether it is rampant waters or wind, erosion is more than just disappearing dirt.

Chemicals and fertilizers can leach into other water sources and soil quality is depleted. This addition of pollutants into water sources and other areas is called non-point source pollution, and is virtually impossible to trace back to the main source. Adding organic materials such as mulch, compost, woodchips or jute to your land can help to prevent erosion as well as replenish the important nutrients and minerals that might otherwise leach out of your soil.


Now that you've tested your soil and picked plants with good ground cover, such as shrubs, or native plants with deep-reaching roots, add grass to this combo and you've got your ground covered -- literally.

Vetiver grass has become a global band-aid in the prevention of soil erosion because it will grow in most climates and soils [source: Farm Radio International]. It may take some time to pinpoint the source of erosion, but with these tips in mind, you can beautify your landscape and protect the environment at the same time.

So now you know the ins and outs of landscaping for different types of soil. For more information about landscaping in general, visit the links on the next page.


Lots More Information

Related HowStuffWorks Articles

More Great Links


  • "Building Healthy Soil." Gardener's Supply Company. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • Bauer, Erin. "Stormwater Management. Pesticide Use in Lawn and Garden."NebGuide. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • Cox, Jeff. "Determining Soil Type." Home and Garden Television. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • Dana, Michael N. "Landscape Plants for Sandy Soils." Department of Horticulture, Purdue University. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • "Don't Drown your Plants, Nurture Them." KPTV News. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • Erikson, Bill. "Plants for Clay Soils." Illinois Green Industry Association. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • Faust, Joan Lee. "Gardening; A New Approach to Design." The New York Times. 1988. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • Hofman, Vernon."Residue Management for Erosion Control." North Dakota State University. 1997. (accessed 11/24/08) 11/24/08)
  • Hunnings, Joseph R."Soil Sampling for the Home Gardener." Virginia Cooperative Extension. 06/02. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • "Landscaping with Native Plants." Environmental Protection Agency. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • "Lawn Care." University of Nebraska-Lincoln. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • Metzger, Sandy. "Raingardens- Practical and Beautiful." Sonoma County Master Gardeners. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • Nardozzi, Charlie. "Soil Common Sense." National Gardening Association. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • "Prevent Erosion with Vetiver Grass." Farm Radio International. 01/1997. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • "Reducing Soil Erosion with Compost Materials." Department of Environment and Conservation. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • Relf, Diane. "Creating a Waterwise Landscape." Virginia Cooperative Extension. 2004. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • Salisbury, David F. "Raindrop Research seeks to better understand soil erosion." Vanderbilt Register. 02/05/07. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • Sinclair, H.R. Soil Data for Wind Erosion System Prediction."Kansas State University. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • "Soil Erosion Causes and Effects." Ontario Ministry of Agriculture Food and Rural Affairs. 2003. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • "Soils and Fertilizers." Arizona Master Gardener Manual. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • VanDerzanden, H.R. "Conserving Water in the Garden." (accessed 11/24/08)
  • "WA Wildflowers." Better Homes and Gardens. 11/02. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • "Watering." University of California Davis. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • "Watering Lawns." Home and Garden Television.(accessed 11/24/08)
  • "What is Erosion?" Scholastic Teacher Resources. (accessed 11/24/08)
  • Wilson, C."Drip Irrigation for Home Gardens." Colorado State University. (accessed 11/24/08)