How to convert Riding Ring to Orchard?

Hello all, new here! (obviously) but looking for some help!

I purchased a horse property with a large riding ring. The ring is filled 12-14" deep with sand.

As I do not have horses, or any use for the ring, I was thinking of planting some fruit in that space (apples, peaches, pears, blueberries).

My assumption is that nothing (other than weeds) will grow in the sand…even if I fertilize it…and It is probably going to be difficult and costly for me to excavate all of the sand and replace with topsoil (~275yds?). So I was considering whether or not it would make sense to just dig out sand in say, a 4’ diameter circle (12" deep) where I am going to plant a fruit tree, or in a row 4’ wide or something where I want to plant blueberry bushes…and backfill that space with topsoil and plant the tree/bush?

Do you have any thoughts on what I could/should do to best prepare the land? Do I need to just suck it up and replace all the sand with soil?

Thanks for any advice!

It would help to know where you are and what the underlying soil is like. Does it drain well and what’s the texture like: sandy, loamy, or clay?

I won’t replace the sand. If the soil below is clay I’d think about trying to mix the sand with an equal depth of soil. If you have a backhoe mix the whole area. Otherwise you could just mix around each tree.

Welcome! Where are you located at? Zone and state will give folks help to assist you.

I wouldn’t replace the sand. While it’s true sand doesn’t hold water or nutrients, many successful orchards have been planted in soil which is largely sand. It is likely you will have to water until the roots have a chance to reach soil (if you are in an area w/ real soil below the sand).

While it can be a disadvantage the sand won’t hold water, it can/frequently is an advantage. You will likely never see water borne root diseases like phytophthora, or drowning if you are in an area that can receive heavy rainfall, which frequently occurs here.

Yours is a unique situation. I’ve not read anything about fruit tree/bush establishment in 1’ of pure sand w/ soil below. If it were me, I would plant the trees in the sand w/o any in hole amendments, but I would plant the trees deeper than normal to get the roots closer to the soil (again assuming soil below the sand). Then top dress the sand w/ organic mulch.

My thought is the mulch will help hold/release moisture and naturally fertilize the trees as the nutrients wash down. I would probably also add small amounts of a balanced inorganic fertilizer, especially during the establishment years, to make sure the trees don’t experience nutrient deficiencies common with growing fruit in pure sand culture

In Michigan the west side the state is mostly sand and long term it is acidic and so farmers grow blueberries, it is one of our major crops. Blueberries require soil that has a ph of 4.5-5.5. Sand becomes acidic as nutrients wash away. So it is perfect for blueberries. What you want to do is dig a 4x4 area and remove 1/2 to 3/4 of the sand and replace it with pine bark fines, and peat moss. Mix it up. It would be nice to know the pH of the sand as some sands are basic too.
Blueberries are not the easiest plants to grow. Trees require a lot of care. if you want easier trees we can make suggestions. The ones you picked require quite a bit of knowledge to grow. We can help no matter what you have in mind. Also too, as mentioned where are you? Do you know the zone?

Mulch everything with whatever you can. Wood chips, sometimes the tree trimmers and the city tree trimmers will dump wood chips for free. Shred leaves and add them to the sand. I use straw for mulch too, Pine straw is also excellent. I have a free source and use it also. Keep throwing organic matter in the area, eventually the soil will be top rate.
You could also build raised beds for say veggies and fill with good garden soil, compost etc.

You may want to consider conditioning the area with mulch for a couple years before you really plant anything.

Your idea could work too, if done right. I would dig out a 6’ x 6’ area backfill with native soil if at all possible. Mound that area to peak in center about 2 feet above ground level. So the tree is mounded.
This is a minimum size, the wider the better.

wow, this is amazing information!

My location is Connecticut.

The riding ring is part of the larger property which is all open hayfield, and was probably farm land (or at least hay fields) for generations before that. The area in question is at the top of a hillThe topsoil has proven quite fertile…I opened up a new section in what used to be a horse paddock last summer for a garden and was very pleased with the results. Beneath the topsoil/sand is pretty much clay…when it rains water seems to sit in the topsoil for a little while because it drains through the clay so slowly.

There is a blueberry bush on the property right now. It is small and located in a ~20’x20’ fenced in flower garden. Not sure if its struggles are due to location, or more likely the fact that I havent mulched appropriately in the last 2 years to maintain proper soil acidity.

There are 2 apple trees…the sellers said they were just for the horses but I found the apples to be delicious. I went to a pruning seminar last spring at a local orchard so I know I am not caring for those trees properly (yet!) but they still produced really well last fall.

I understand these fruit trees may not be “easy” but I am interested in learning more about growing fruit (and gardening) over time, so I am eager to get the orchard in the ground, so I can start making mistakes, and start learning. My assumption being that if I dont do things right the first year…or two…I can always work to improve the health of the plants over time.

Last year for example I started my garden, and planted way more vegetables than I could ever possibly hope to use…and was unable to keep up with weeding and other maintenance due to how busy I am and how large the garden was. It was a great learning experience though.

I have plenty of space to plant trees and am probably thinking of like 60’ rows across the riding ring of trees/bushes…maybe 1-2 rows of apples a row of peaches or something, a row of blueberries…I expect by doing this I will only be planting maybe 30% of the area max…so if there are easier varieties or fruits to start with I can certainly add them to the mix!

My soil is 3 inches of top soil then 3 inches of a sand topsoil mix then pure sand for 6 feet or more. In nearby areas were there is erosion from dirt bikes it looks like the beach were the fine sand is exposed. My plouts and mulberry grow very vigorously while other fruit trees and shurbs slower but are fine even with no or little fertilizer.
If it was me I would get wood chips, which are often free from tree service, leaves or dirt from somewhere else on my property and mix it in with the sand. Also mulch the surface after planting.

Is cow manure good if I were going to try to add nutrients to the sand rather than replace the sand? I ask because my brother’s in-laws have a dairy farm down the road so that would be readily accessible.

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With clay soil below there will be plenty of nutrients. You said your soil is fertile. And the horses in there have been spreading manure for yrs with nothing pulling anything out. Once the trees get established they’ll likely grow like weeds. Your better off with moderate vigor than excessive vigor. Go light on fertilizer until you see what the trees need. Fertilize lightly the first two yrs until the roots get established in the soil.


One sure shot way of checking for soil fertility of a paddock is to check for red worms. They absolutely love horse manure and tend to exist in gobs near moist areas. You might not even need any additional amendments line fruitnut mentions above.

Many of my neighbors keep horses, however they don’t let the horse manure to pile up in the ring, it’s collected and thrown into garbage every couple of days. So the sand in the ring does not really get fertilized.

Absolutely old cow manure is great compost / dirt but more so for vegetables than fruit. It’s a bit rich for fruit. Since the sand is only one foot deep I would dig down to dirt and back fill the hole with dirt about 5 foot around. The tree roots when planted will be sitting on top of real dirt and the roots will spread quickly down and through the sand. Manure would bring more weeds than you want. Creeks and rivers have trees growing in the same sand and they do fine.

I wonder if tilling in the sand with what’s beneath its would work.

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Here in the northeast, sandy soil is an orchard blessing except in the driest growing seasons. We tend to suffer some brix deficit as a result of difficulty in communicating our water needs to mother nature who seems to often turn on the sky spigots at the absolute wrong moments. The last couple of seasons have been exceptionally benign in this regard so I’m banking on a correction in the wrong direction this year.

While it is well known that grapes do better in “poor” soils there is not much in the literature about what soils create the highest quality tree fruit. That is likely because quality doesn’t seem to affect market value much- at least in the short run. Too much water makes fruit bigger but doesn’t increase sugar content to go with the volume. With wine grapes, however, high brix increases there value beyond the loss in weight.

Sand is grand as long as it isn’t topped with something finer. Capillary pull draws water from coarse to fine soil, but not the reverse, so sand under silt or clay creates soggy conditions.

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If you can be patient enough, one strategy might be to test your ring by getting a dozen or so rootstock which may run only three or four dollars a stick, and rough out your rows with them. Trees large enough to bear soon are expensive anyway. starting with rootstock really only adds a year or two, which felt like a lot when I was waiting but gave me a lot of time to see how they are adapting. You also don’t feel as bad redigging a two dollar stick than some rare heirloom variety you ordered from a nursery and had to wait for. That would let you scatter various apple and stone fruit around and see how they perform with minimal intervention.

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