To excavate a hole and properly plant a tree so that it thrives, follow these steps:
- Choose a spot for your tree where it will receive adequate sunlight.
- Dig a hole 2–3 times wider than the root ball of the tree. The hole should be shallow enough that the root ball protrudes 1–2 inches (2.5–5 cm) above the top of the hole.
- Remove the tree from the pot or burlap wrapping and loosen the dirt packed around the tree roots.
- Place the tree in the hole and backfill dirt around the roots.
- Add 3–4 inches (7.5–10 cm) of mulch around the tree.
- Water the tree after planting. Continue to water on a weekly basis.
- Stake the tree to ensure it stays upright.
This process on how to dig a hole for a tree will make your work easy, and set your tree up to flourish. With a little work, the job will go smoothly and you’ll enjoy a healthy tree for years to come.
Table of Contents
7 Steps to Dig a Hole for a Tree
Planting a tree isn’t as simple as digging a hole and dropping the tree in. An improperly dug hole can cause a tree to struggle and die, or contribute to tree diseases. On the other hand, a properly dug hole makes tree cultivation a breeze. Get the job done right and you’ll have few worries with your tree in the future.
Choose Your Site
Pick a location for your tree where it will receive 4–6 hours of daytime sun. Make sure the tree is not shaded by buildings or other plants. In order for it to thrive, your tree should not have to compete for sun and nutrients with other plants.
- Choose a location where the tree will receive 4–6 hours of daytime sun.
- Locate and mark underground utilities to avoid damaging them during digging.
- If you are unsure where your underground utilities are located, consult 811 before digging.
If you are planting a large variety of trees, such as an oak or maple, make sure that you plant the tree a safe distance from your house and other structures. This will prevent the roots of the mature tree from causing damage to your foundation.
Dig a Wide, Shallow Hole
When digging to plant a tree, it’s best to excavate a wide planting hole. The hole should be 2–3 times the width of the tree’s root ball. This loosens soil near the tree, allowing young roots to easily develop and spread, for better tree health.
- The hole should be 2–3 times the width of the tree’s root ball.
- The hole should be somewhat shallow. 1–2 inches (2.5–5 cm) of the root ball should stand above the top of the hole.
- Periodically test the size of the hole as you dig by placing the potted tree inside.
The hole you dig should not be excessively deep. In fact, you will want the top 1–2 inches (2.5–5 cm) of the root ball to stand above the top of the hole. Planting a tree too deeply can lead to moisture trapped at the base of the trunk, causing tree disease and death.
It’s always better to dig a shallower hole and gradually work to the correct depth. Digging too deep and then attempting to backfill a hole leads to settling soil that makes trees lean and sink. Dig a little at a time, slowly increasing depth.
Remove Your Tree From its Container
If your tree is a potted sapling, gently tap on the side of the plastic pot to loosen it. If the tree’s root ball is wrapped in burlap or another substance, carefully cut away the covering without cutting the tree bark or roots. Do not pull a stubborn tree out of a pot by its trunk or branches. This can cause damage and root breakages.
- Gently remove the tree from its pot or wrapping without pulling hard on the tree trunk.
- Loosen the dirt around the outer roots, to disentangle them.
Now that your tree is free from its container, use your fingers to break up the hard-packed dirt around the root ball. If the tree roots are tangled and “swirling” around themselves because of how tightly they were packed into the pot, use your fingers to disentangle them without breaking them.
Plant Your Tree
Place your tree in the center of the hole and backfill excavated dirt. When filling the hole, follow these guidelines:
- Use the dirt fill to support the root ball and keep the tree standing upright.
- Do not mound dirt around the tree trunk.
- Stomp or tamp dirt to remove air pockets, but not attempt to pack it down hard.
By replacing the dirt firmly around the root ball, you provide support for the tree while still allowing the soil to remain loose enough that it doesn’t choke off root growth.
Once your tree is planted, spread a 3–4 inch (7.5–10 cm) thick layer of mulch atop the area. Cover the entire area of loosened soil around the tree. This mulch layer will help maintain soil moisture and encourage healthy tree roots.
- Spread 3–4 inches (7.5–10 cm) of mulch over the backfill dirt.
- Do not mound or pile mulch around the base of the tree.
Clear the mulch away from the base of the tree. Leave bare dirt in a 2–3 inch circumference around the tree trunk. Mulch mounded at the base of a tree can invite fungus and disease.
Water Your Tree
After planting, water the area deeply enough that you moisten the root ball and the loose soil area covered by mulch. Trees require water to survive through the stress of transplanting.
- Water immediately after you finish planting and mulching.
- Water weekly for the first year.
- Do not use any fertilizers on your young tree. These can cause more harm than good.
Water your tree weekly for the first year of its life. Deep, weekly watering will allow your tree to build deep roots and begin to fend for itself. Do not use any fertilizers or potting soils, these can damage or kill your new tree. With water and time, the tree will take hold.
Support Your Tree With Stakes
Use this tree staking kit to support a newly planted sapling. As loose soil settles, newly planted trees can be pushed to one side by winds or other factors. Use a staking kit to support the new tree in an upright position. It’s much easier to get a tree started the right way than it is to correct a leaning established tree.
- Stake your tree to keep it growing straight.
- Use a staking system that doesn’t damage the tree’s bark and doesn’t interfere with lawn maintenance
Because a new tree may have to be staked for the first few years of its life, it’s important to use a staking system that still allows you to easily mow and edge your yard.
How to Dig a Hole for a Tree in Hard Ground
When digging to plant a new tree in hard soil, plan to dig a very wide hole. Excavate an area 5 times wider than the tree root ball. This is essential for breaking up compacted soil and allowing future root growth.
- In hard soil, dig the hole for your new tree 5 times wider than the circumference of the root ball.
- Loosening hard soil around the tree will allow for future growth.
If a tree is planted in a too-narrow hole in hard ground, the roots may struggle to penetrate the earth. This can starve the tree of nutrients and water, leading to sickness and death.
How to Dig a Hole for a Tree in Clay Soil
Like hard soil, clay can be very difficult for young tree roots to penetrate. In clay, dig a hole 5 times wider than the tree root ball.
When digging a wide hole in clay soil, it does not need to be uniform depth. It’s okay to make the hole shallower at the outer edges, giving the hole a saucer-like shape. This is because many tree varieties, such as oak, have wide-spreading roots concentrated in the first 18–24 inches of the soil. Digging and loosening soil deeper than this is hard work and may not be beneficial for the tree.
What is the Easiest Way to Dig a Hole to Plant a Tree?
Digging in moist soil is much easier than excavating the hard-packed ground. If possible, use a soaker hose to soak the ground you plan to dig. Soak the ground for 30–45 minutes for 2–3 days before digging. This will make your work much easier.
- Soak the ground you intend to excavate for 2–3 days beforehand, using a soaker hose or sprinkler.
- Use a sturdy shovel and mattock to dig the hole.
- Avoid using an auger to dig holes for trees.
Hand tools—a shovel and pick or mattock—are your best bet when digging holes for trees. Power augers may seem like a quick fix, but these can dig holes that are too narrow and deep, leading to leaning and sinking trees.
How Deep Should You Dig a Hole for a Tree?
The depth of the hole depends on the size of the tree’s root ball. A little shallow is typically best. The ideal hole for a tree is 1–2 inches (2.5–5 cm) shallower than the height of the root ball. This allows for proper rooting and prevents the trunk from being swamped with water, which can harm the tree.
What Happens if You Plant a Tree Too Deep?
A tree planted too deeply will inevitably end up with soil and water collecting at the base of the trunk. This moisture causes rot and fungal infection that will kill your tree. To avoid this, make sure the base of the tree (where the trunk meets the root ball) is 1–2 inches (2.5–5 cm) above the sides of the hole you dig when planting.
What Happens if You Don’t Plant a Tree Deep Enough?
A tree planted in a too-shallow hole will be prone to leaning or falling, and it will struggle to take root. It will eventually weaken and die.
If you’ve recently planted a tree and it seems unsteady, or roots have become exposed from watering, it’s likely not planted deep enough. Rather than mound dirt over the roots, dig up the new tree and replant it, making the hole slightly deeper.
Will Exposed Roots Kill a Tree?
Mature trees often have somewhat exposed roots. In the case of established trees, exposed roots are seldom harmful. If your newly planted tree has exposed roots, this is a much larger problem.
Young trees need full soil coverage for their roots, so they can gather essential nutrients and water from the soil. A sapling with exposed roots should be replanted at increased depth to provide the root-to-soil contact the tree needs.
The Best Way to Dig a Hole for a Tree
When digging a hole for a tree, first choose a spot that receives adequate daytime sun. Then, dig a hole 2–3 times wider than the tree’s root ball. Plant the tree in this hole, making sure the root ball is 1–2 inches above the top of the hole. Backfill the hole and tamp the dirt down.
Once you’ve finished planting, add mulch and water. Stake your tree to keep it upright and continue to water weekly for the first year of its life. Avoid using fertilizer on new trees. With these simple steps, you can easily plant a tree and see it thrive.