Amending sandy soil and fertilizing for apples

andyphillySeptember 10, 2009


I will soon be planting apple trees in the Chincoteague, VA area, Zone 7, in very sandy soil was formerly farmed for soybeans or corn. The trees will largely be on their own since I live elsewhere except for periodic pruning fertilizing and crisis watering, if needed. Can you help with these questions:

1. I assume I should be amending the soil when I plant. If I'm correct, what do you suggest I amend with?

2. I want fruit growth but not necessarily perfect fruits. Should I use the spikes to fertilize and if so when? The manure most readily available is chicken manure but I can get horse manure too.

3. Anything else I should be aware of.

Any suggestions would be very appreciated!


Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

No amendments. Amending planting holes often actually slows establishment, by adversely affecting how water moves through the amended zone. You could amend the entire field or bed, but this will last only until the amendments have decomposed completely and leached away. On a lean, sandy soil in a hot climate this can happen as soon as one year later. What then?

No spikes. You pay extra to have fertilizer compacted into an inefficient spike. If you already have spikes, and a need for them is presented, break them up into a powder and scatter this over the root zone.

Sample the soil and have it analyzed to get an idea what fertilization might be called for.

Here is a link that might be useful: Planting Fact Sheet PDF

    Bookmark   September 11, 2009 at 12:26AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
alan haigh

I like sandy soil for fruit- leads to intense flavor and high brix. Amending can be useful- but don't dump compost in the holes. Mix compost or forest humus into the top 6-9 inches of soil in at least a 6' circle before planting a tree. Keep the top soil on top when planting. Make sure the compost is completey mixed with native soil and use a lot- a minimum of a quarter yard per tree. Don't worry that plots will be somewhat raised- that's a good thing, even in sandy soil.

Soil testing is always a good idea, the most important issue being soil pH. The lab should make specific recommendations for the trees you are planting. I use my cooperative extension for this.

Before you plant the trees have a tree care company dump a big load of free woodchips at the site and you can use that for a mulch. A couple handfulls of a high nitrogen (N) fertilizer will be adequate to compensate for whatever N the wood pulls out of the soil. If the chips can sit over winter- all the better. Use 4-8 cubic feet of chips per tree and watering needs will be greatly reduced. Pull the chips away from the trunks in the fall and bait or trap out voles.

I am very tired about the cliche that amending the soil is always futile when planting trees. Dumping soggy compost around the roots of a tree is what causes damage. You also don't want to create a different texture of soil right around the roots than that of the surrounding soil. If the soil around the roots is finer it will stay excessively soggy- coarser, and it will dry out too soon. Has to do with cappilary pull.

It is forest sized trees that can seldom benefit from any amending because it would require too much input on such large trees to affect outcomes.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2009 at 8:49AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
theaceofspades(7 Long Island)

In back yard plantings you should not amend 'normal' soil. When planting in a wild open field you definitely need to amend for water retention. You want to dig up soil in a wide 6' diameter area to remove competitive roots. Digging down as deep as you can work in chicken and horse manure. Plant tree and seasonally add 6" thick of horse manure mulch over 6' diameter area. Horse manure prevents the soil from drying out chicken maure is a great fertilizer.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2009 at 9:06AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
brandon7 TN_zone(7)

I agree 100% with bboy.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2009 at 10:28AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX

Andy: I wouldn't read too much into the fact that the surface is sandy. Any soil that was used for corn and soybeans(both of which root 4-6ft deep) is not pure sand that deep. There is likely loamy or sandy clay soil no more than 12 inches deep. Corn is much more drought susceptible than fruit trees. Apples on M111 (which I'd recommend) will root much deeper than those field crops unless there is a water table. If there is a water table and it is at least 3ft deep(6ft better) your trees will be OK and the water table will supply all the water your trees need.

This soil will have plenty of P and K because a lot is applied to corn and soybeans and it lasts a long time in the soil. You can tell the current nitrogen status by looking at the current vegetation. If it's small, sparse, and light green color, nitrogen is low. If it's tall and growing well there is plenty of everything.

I fertilize my trees by how they are growing. If you get 2-4 ft growth on young trees and 12 inches on mature trees, they don't need more nitrogen.

It won't hurt to apply well rotted compost in the planting hole, just not very much. Surface compost or mulch is a good idea. I've put the black porous weed barrier around mine and like that. What will kill a newly planted tree is placing a high salt index fertilizer, like ammonium sulfate, in the soil placed around the roots.

Weed control is important. Weed barrier, mulch, or roundup can all help.

Deer will kill your trees if not fenced out. Don't skimp there.

Corn and soybean farmers push water and fertilizer because their yield is proportional to the amount of vegetative growth. Smart fruit growers know that highest fruit quality comes with moderate vigor and a bit of water stress. Don't push your trees like a corn farmer.

The Fruitnut

    Bookmark   September 11, 2009 at 1:01PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
brandon7 TN_zone(7)

Fruitnut brings up a very important point about the use of surface compost and/or mulch. That is one of the best things you can do for your tree. There are numerous benefits, some of which are:

-improves soil fertility and texture as it breaks down,
-prevents germination of many weed seeds,
-reduces competition for food and water from grass and weeds,
-reduces erosion,
-helps to maintain soil moisture during dry periods,
-often aids drainage by preventing surface crusting and sealing,
-can keep roots cooler during hot summer weather,
-can help to moderate soil temperature fluctuations,
-reduces frost-heaving,
-reduces certain soil-borne diseases by preventing soil and fungi from splashing onto foliage,
-prevents damage from mowers and trimmers,
-and improves the look of the landscape.

He also brought up many more good points. One thing I disagree with is the recommendation to use a weed barrier. I personally avoid the black porous weed barrier like the plague. If there is one good thing about it, it's that people end up paying me a lot to remove it once weeds grow through it from above and make a mess that they can no longer easily handle. I have never found any advantage to it whatsoever when used under a mulch. If you need something to kill the grass initially, just use glyphosate or even newspaper. The fabric/porous plastic barriers will do little to nothing to prevent new weeds from becoming established. It makes weed removal much more challenging.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2009 at 1:46PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
brandon7 TN_zone(7)

Oh yeah, here's a link to a planting guide that might be of some use:

Here is a link that might be useful: Planting a Tree or Shrub

    Bookmark   September 11, 2009 at 1:47PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX

I don't put mulch on my weed barrier and won't recommend anything other than gravel. Gravel over weed barrier is common here for low maintenance yards. You still need to spray roundup once in a while. An organic mulch is probably better in VA but it will likely need spraying as well.

My weed barrier has been on all summer and has already saved me a couple of roundup sprays. I also leveled those areas and put a small berm around the outside under the fabric. There has been no runoff even when we had a big rain last week.

The Fruitnut

    Bookmark   September 11, 2009 at 2:41PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX

Mulches can be good for your trees. But a mowed grass cover can provide many of the benefits listed above. And on a site where there is excessive vigor, having the grass compete with the tree for water and nutrients would be an advantage. On a young tree, a mulch is highly likely to be beneficial. But after the tree reaches a good size or starts bearing, it may be too vigorous. Allowing the grass to take over the mulch could be beneficial.

Blanket statements often miss the details.

The Fruitnut

    Bookmark   September 11, 2009 at 2:59PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
brandon7 TN_zone(7)

Interesting idea about using grass to assist in controlling excessive vigor. I think I've seen that idea before, but I've never really given it much thought.

    Bookmark   September 11, 2009 at 3:28PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

To everyone who took the time to reply to my post, I thank you. This forum is a tremendous resource. Thanks to all!


    Bookmark   September 11, 2009 at 4:32PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo

I don't know if anyone has mentioned rootstock, but more vigorous ones like M111 and seedling will be able to withstand any droughts better.


    Bookmark   September 12, 2009 at 9:36AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
alan haigh

Where do you find seedling rootstocks nowadays? I like 11l for low care also.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2009 at 10:43AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo


Raintree Nursery still carries a lot of trees on seedling or Dolgo Crab rootstocks. I start my own from seed and bud graft them later that summer. M111 is vigorous, but the roots still have a different nature than the seedling; the seedling are like cables or heavy ropes, while the M111 are more fine like a mop. If brutal conditions and neglect are what you expect, I'd go with seedling.

    Bookmark   September 12, 2009 at 11:44PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
alan haigh

Thanks, I haven't planted any trees on seedling for about 10 years. Commercial suppliers used to at least graft least vigorous varieties on seedling. Now the rootstock is used primarily in very cold climates, but I think full-sized apple trees are a thing of unmatched beauty. These are the apple trees of our ancestors and I should hate to think that they will ever dissappear from our landscapes.

I still believe that the serious hobbyist can make good use of this rootstock, creating multivariety large trees and more or less having an entire home orchard on one tree. You can train them as low as you want and when managed well the quality of fruit can be just as good as those from smaller trees- in some cases, even better.

They do require more skill to manage for high quality fruit, however.

    Bookmark   September 13, 2009 at 8:50AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Axel(12b/Sunset H2)

What a great thread. Since I have an apple orchard on sandy soil, let me tell you what works for me. Most of the advice echoes what was posted above.

1) Rootstock is most important - I use MM-111 for its drought tolerance, and it makes a big difference. Our nutrient deficient sandy soil gives us MM-111 trees that grow 6-8 feet, only in the case of spigold and northern spy do we have trees that reach about 10-12 feet. I have not had good luck with seedlings, they don't have the drought tolerance needed for sandy soil, and are difficult to get going. I have some seedling stock that are more dwarfing than MM-111, one tree is barely 4 feet tall (seedling rootstock according to the nursery where I bought the tree.) If you want full size trees, just root some northern spy trees (they do root on their own).

2) Mulch is really important. I don't have any weed barriers, but the wood chip mulch is enough to keep weeds down, and keep the soil moisture levels up, but it does mean more fertilizer is needed to make up for nitrogen losses from the decomposing wood chips.

3) When you plant, put some manure in the hole, it will help, but it's not necessary, because sandy soil means any surface-applied fertilizer will make it to the roots very fast.

4) The biggest challenge I have with my sandy soil is the poor nutrient levels. It means fertilizing often, especially during the first few years so that the trees become established. I recommend manure, chicken is good, horse is better. No worries about salt accumulations, because the salt will readily leach out from the sandy soil.

    Bookmark   September 13, 2009 at 12:55PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
alan haigh

Axel, what makes sandy soil difficult from a plant nutrition standpoint is the lack of colloids- the tiny particles in soil that help hold on to plant nutrients until they are needed.

Clay is the mineral source of colloids, humus is the organic source. Compost already contains humus, manure is in the process of becomming humus as is all raw organic material. When someone says all the organic matter disappears in warm sandy soils they are exaggerating slightly but also missing the point.

The best way for making sandy soil more productive is building up its humus content and it requires a very small percentage of humus increase to have a dramatic affect on a soils cation exchange capacity- it's ability to hold many (negatively charged) soil nutrients.

So adding humus to sandy soil in the form of compost not only increases the water holding capacity of sandy soil but also greatly enhances its fertility.

Putting manure directly in a planting hole may or may not be useful if it is adequately rotted- fresh can be lethal to young roots. However the best place for any soil amending is in the top few inches of soil, not where the roots are as much as where they are growing to.

If you want to know what kind of soil in which trees function best go to the forest, preferably a hardwood forest, and put your hands in the soil that the trees have created for themselves.

They keep themselves well mulched with rotting leaves and branches and underneath that are layers that start with one of partially composted leaves and wood. Beneath that is usually a layer of almost pure humus. As long as this humus is moist, most of the important root activity occurs in this layer because it contains most of what trees need.
This is where the majority of nutrient recycling occurs.

Mulching your fruit trees fulfills the first part and creates the first layer of the soil parfait in which trees are evolved to thrive. Eventually that mulch will break down and become humus but by incorporating large quantities of compost in the top few inches of soil you are accelerating the process of creating the kind of soil that trees do best in.

    Bookmark   September 14, 2009 at 3:26AM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Plant production methods trailblazer Carl E. Whitcomb wrote on page 113 of Establishment and Maintenance of Landscape Plants (1987 (1991), Lacebark Inc., Stillwater):

"In 1970, a study was begun to try to determine the optimum amount of organic matter to add to a planting hole to aid establishment of woody plants. The study was conducted on the sand soils of North Florida using Canadian peat, vermiculite, pine bark, and colloidal phosphate (a clay-like material that holds considerable water), each at rates of 0%, 10%, 20%, 30%, 40%, and 50% by volume of the planting hole....

There was no benefit from any soil amendment at any rate either in the irrigated or non-irrigated area"

Here is a link that might be useful: Lacebark Inc.

    Bookmark   September 14, 2009 at 12:21PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
brandon7 TN_zone(7)

I'm actually rather surprised that there are still "professionals" that aren't familiar with the science. Below is one of very very many resources that debunk the myth that backfill amendment is beneficial.

Here is a link that might be useful: The Myth of Soil Amendments

    Bookmark   September 14, 2009 at 1:23PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Embothrium(USDA 8 Sunset 5 WA)

Same title that L. Chalker-Scott used.

This outdated practice is still required in the specifications of architects, landscapers, and other groups
associated with landscape installation. It is still recommended by garden centers and gardening articles.
And there is a multi-million dollar soil amendment industry that has little interest in debunking this myth.
As responsible green industry professionals, we need to recognize and avoid non-sustainable management

Here is a link that might be useful: Amendments.pdf

    Bookmark   September 14, 2009 at 2:13PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
franktank232(z5 WI)

I dig a hole, throw the tree in, put the dirt back in the hole, put wood chips a couple feet around the hole, thick, water, fertilize a little and leave it. I've never had any problems with tree vigor. I have very sandy soil. I live within a few blocks of the Mississippi River...

I think a lot of solutions would work fine.

The University of Nevada-Reno is growing a whole bunch of fruit trees in the north Las Vegas desert and they thrive. Mulch is the key!

video of that and more can be found here:

    Bookmark   September 14, 2009 at 3:41PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
Axel(12b/Sunset H2)

Harvestman, thanks for your comments, what you say makes sense. I have noticed an amazing improvement as a result of wood chip mulch. I started two years ago, and since, my trees have taken off, water usage is way down.

I usually mulch with manure in late Fall before the onset of the rain season, this helps decompose the remainder of the precious' year's wood chips. Then a day after the last major rain storm in March or early April, I put down a thick, 3-4 inch layer of fresh wood chips.

    Bookmark   September 14, 2009 at 5:57PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX

I'd agree that if your goal is to maximize tree growth, then an organic mulch is a very good idea. Personally I'm more concerned about the fruit. And I can assure you it is possible to grow superb fruit on low organic matter soil without an organic mulch.

If this man's soil will grow decent corn and soybeans, it will grow big apple trees on MM 111 rootstock with or without an organic mulch or anything else organic. They don't grow corn or soybeans commercially on poor soil.

Again, I'd recommend a mulch while the trees are getting established and then evaluate the vigor. A mulch might not be needed on bearing trees and might not even be best. Have we already forgotten about all the gripping over trees with too much water and the resulting bad fruit? Mulches increase water available to the tree, no?

The Fruitnut

    Bookmark   September 14, 2009 at 8:02PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
alan haigh

I have to admit, I don't know much about soybeans, but I believe corn is often grown on soil that only works because of the high input of synthetic nitrogen. If you add the chemicals and have enough water, of course you can grow anything in pure sand. This is about sticking some fruit trees in the ground and neglecting them and none of us really knows what kind of soil we're talking about as far as water retention.
Maybe you are right, fruitnut, but some extra input certainly can provide some insurance.

A lot of times people don't really know the actual texture of their soil, even accomplished gardeners. You can always have that tested as well.

    Bookmark   September 14, 2009 at 8:46PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
fruitnut Z7 4500ft SW TX

Growing corn is all about water and nitrogen. Sure there are other factors. But yield is proportional to the amount of water available over the growing season. A huge factor in water availability in the non-irrigated east, is water holding capacity of the soil. Corn isn't grown on soils with low water holding capacity because the yields aren't high enough to be economically viable. Both corn and soybeans are very drought sensitive compared to apples on MM 111.

So unless this guy just has a bad spot, it's a very good bet that his soil isn't just pure sand 4-6 ft deep. It either has better soil at a pretty shallow depth or it has a shallow water table or both. For corn and soybeans a water table at 24-36 inches is very favorable. Apples trees could grow very large, maybe too large with a water table at 36 inches. If there is no water table, apples on MM 111 might root as deep as 10-20 ft compared to 4-6 ft for corn.

True we don't know what kind of soil is on his small plot. Probably he doesn't know either, and doesn't care or he'd be back in this discussion.

My main points are that more water and more fertilizer isn't always better for fruit and if his soil will grow good field crops it will grow big apple trees; maybe too big.

The Fruitnut

    Bookmark   September 14, 2009 at 10:02PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
franktank232(z5 WI)


I might take your advice and pull the pavers/mulch away from my apple trees. They aren't huge, but i don't want them getting any bigger. I've actually kept them pruned pretty well :)

    Bookmark   September 14, 2009 at 11:47PM
Thank you for reporting this comment. Undo
alan haigh

Fruitnut, well, I've never been called on to install fruit trees in a former corn field to I'll defer to your wisdom here.

I am called on to establish bearing age fruit trees in all kinds of soil and sometimes on sites where there's hardly any. Establishment of these trees is more problematic than planting one year trees by a long shot.

This being my main experience, I tend to error on the side of caution to assure their survival, because replacement is expensive.

Dry fruit farming commercially is not done in neglect and if I was installing even whips on a site where the owner wasn't going to be paying much attention, I might include some compost amending as I describe here just to help assure quick establishment, even in the case of neglect and drought.

Of course growing quality fruit is a balancing act and too much vigor is the worst thing for producing high quality well colored fruit.

When I started my own orchard we were in several years of consecutive or almost consecutive drought summers. I got in the habit of mulching my fruit trees every year because my well was insufficient to spare water for the trees.

This is the first year where I've regretted having done that. With all the rain we've had, my enriched soil may be contributing to bland fruit this time. Even if you get the balance right for an average season, it may not be perfect for an exceptional one.

    Bookmark   September 15, 2009 at 5:22AM
Sign Up to comment
More Discussions
Suburban backyard "orchard" (Z6 SE NY)
Hello all. I have a new to me house and yard (Zone...
WHO called glyphosate a "probable carcinogen"
More and more studies seem to be coming out against...
KNNN espalier planting
Hi - I just planted some 1 year bare root apple trees....
Jamie Cartwright
Help understanding huckleberries
I recently enjoyed some huckleberry pie and was pleasantly...
Growing Anything Under A Black Walnut Tree
Hi Gang.....maybe someone here has a solution or idea,...
Sponsored Products
Sandy Wing Chair - SANDY WHITE
$899.00 | Horchow
Home Decorators Collection Cushions 49 in. dia. Heather Beige Sunbrella Montauk
$75.00 | Home Depot
Eagle One Commercial 6 ft. Picnic Table - C350BLK
Joy Carpets Reading Train Kids Area Rug Multicolor - 1429-C
$286.00 | Hayneedle
Green Apple Absorbent Pet Rug
$39.99 | zulily
Caps Pendant by ET2 Lighting
$98.00 | Lumens
Stoneware Apple Figurine
$17.99 | zulily
Mizone Paige 3-piece Duvet Cover Set
People viewed this after searching for:
© 2015 Houzz Inc. Houzz® The new way to design your home™