How Deep Should I Dig to Plant a Tree? A Complete Guide

It is estimated that 80 percent of newly planted trees are planted too deep. When this happens, the tree’s root structure can’t expand adequately to nourish and anchor the tree properly. Consequently, this is the number one reason why new trees perish. What about you – are you in too deep? If so, we can help!.

We can’t stress enough the importance of making sure trees are planted at the correct depth. A lot of the time, trees don’t do well when planted deeply because they start to die from lack of oxygen. To improve the lifetime of your new tree, follow these simple steps.

Step 1 – Investigate your soil. The first step you need to take is establish what kind of soil you have. Next, find out how the soil drains. Is it heavy clay, sandy, or loamy black soil? Observe your yard after rainfall. Does your yard hold water after it rains, or does the water seem to drain quickly? The answers to these questions will help you decide if your yard is a good place to grow a new tree.

Step 2 – Find the root flare. Look at where the tree’s trunk starts to flare out at the base. That’s where the first two roots can be seen. You really have to dig down sometimes to find the root flare within the rootball. You might have to shave off the top of the rootball to expose the root flare. The tree will be much happier once it is planted properly, so don’t worry if you mess up some of the roots.

Step 3 – Measure and dig the hole. If you want to plant something, the hole should be at least twice as wide as the root ball and no deeper than the trunk flare. The flare of the tree should be at or slightly above the soil grade.

If you want to know how to plant a tree from beginning to end, read another blog post because it has a step-by-step guide.

Want a tree care company to help you plant, prune, or take care of your trees? Click here to learn how to pick one that will work for you. We’re always happy to help customers figure out where the root flare is and how big the planting hole should be. Learn more about how we can care for your trees.

Planting a new tree can seem intimidating, especially if you want to make sure you do it right. One of the most important things to consider when planting a tree is how deep to dig the hole. The depth of the planting hole is crucial for the tree’s health and longevity.

Digging too deep can cause major problems for a newly planted tree On the other hand, not digging deep enough can also lead to issues So how do you know how deep to dig when planting a tree? In this comprehensive guide, we’ll walk through everything you need to know about choosing the right planting hole depth for trees.

Why Proper Planting Hole Depth Matters

The depth of the hole you dig to plant a tree sets the foundation for how well that tree will establish itself and grow. If the hole is too shallow, the roots won’t have enough room to anchor the tree properly or absorb sufficient water and nutrients. Dig too deep, and you can damage the root system.

Additionally. an improper planting depth can lead to problems as the tree matures like

  • Girdling roots
  • Weak anchoring
  • Drought stress
  • Nutrient deficiencies
  • Shortened lifespan

In other words, taking the time to get the planting hole depth just right will pay off for years to come!

How Deep Should I Dig to Plant a Tree?

The ideal planting hole depth is 2-3 inches less than the height of the root ball or container. This allows the root flare to sit slightly above ground level when planted.

The root flare is where the tree’s roots spread out at the base of the trunk. It’s important that this is partially exposed because roots need access to oxygen. If the root flare ends up buried, it can lead to root rot and other issues.

Step-by-Step Guide to Proper Planting Depth:

  1. Measure the height of the root ball or container. The height is from the bottom of the ball/container to where the trunk flares out at the base.

  2. Dig a hole 2-3 inches shallower than the root ball height. The bottom of the hole will serve as a base to support the root ball.

  3. Place the tree in the hole. The top of the root flare should be level with or slightly above the surrounding soil. If it’s lower, remove the tree, backfill the hole, and dig again at the proper depth.

  4. Backfill around the root ball with native soil. Tamp down gently to stabilize. Do not stomp or pack tightly.

  5. Water thoroughly after planting to settle the soil. Continue deep watering while the tree establishes over the next 2 years.

What Happens if the Hole is Too Shallow?

Planting too shallow is one of the most common mistakes when planting a new tree. Here are some problems that can occur:

  • Exposed roots: Without enough soil to cover the root system, the delicate roots are more prone to drying out.

  • Lack of anchoring: A shallow hole means the roots don’t have adequate soil to grip to properly anchor the tree. The tree is more likely to lean or topple over time.

  • Surface rooting: With insufficient depth, the roots will tend to grow outward rather than down. This leads to surface roots that can crack sidewalks, interfere with mowing, and compete with other plants.

  • Drought stress: Shallow roots can’t access moisture and nutrients deeper in the soil profile. This makes the tree more prone to drought damage.

  • Slow growth: Restricted rooting area limits the tree’s ability to take in water and nutrients needed for healthy growth.

  • Shorter lifespan: All of these factors add up to a less robust, shorter living tree.

What if the Hole is Too Deep?

While a hole that’s too shallow causes obvious issues, one that’s excessively deep can be problematic too. Here’s what can happen if a tree is planted too deep:

  • Decay and rot: When the root flare and trunk are buried, they are deprived of oxygen. This leads to bark and root decay.

  • Girdling roots: Roots that grow back up toward the surface may circle and choke the trunk. This slowly strangles the tree over time.

  • Poor stability: With the root flare beneath the soil, anchoring roots develop too high on the trunk. The tree can become unstable and top-heavy.

  • Drought stress: Just like shallow planting, an excessively deep hole discourages deep root growth. Without deep anchoring and water-seeking roots, the tree is prone to drought damage.

  • Nutrient deficiencies: Important nutrients are found closer to the soil surface. If the root system develops too deeply, nutrient uptake is decreased.

  • Disease and pest problems: The stress caused by improper planting depth makes the tree more vulnerable to infections, infestations, and other health threats.

  • Premature death: Between rot, girdling roots, and stress, a too-deep planting hole significantly shortens the lifespan of trees.

How Wide Should the Planting Hole Be?

We’ve focused on depth, but the width of the planting hole also matters. A good rule of thumb is to dig the hole 2-3 times wider than the root ball. However, don’t dig excessively wide, as this can lead to the loose fill soil slumping and making it difficult to properly backfill.

The wide hole encourages horizontal root growth, which is key for structural stability and access to water and nutrients from a larger area of soil.

Adjusting for Problem Soils

Ideal planting hole depth and width is based on planting in well-drained, nutrient-rich soil. However, many landscapes have less than ideal soil conditions such as:

  • Clay soils that don’t drain well
  • Sandy soils that drain too quickly
  • Compacted soils that restrict root growth
  • Shallow bedrock or hardpan that prevent deep rooting

In these cases, you may need to make some adjustments:

  • For poor drainage: Plant a little higher, build a raised planting berm, or amend the backfill soil with organic material to improve drainage.

  • For sandy or gravely soil: Amend the backfill soil with organic matter to help retain moisture.

  • For compacted or shallow soil: Loosen a larger area around the hole to give roots room to spread.

Modifying the soil or planting method can help overcome less than ideal conditions and give your tree’s roots the best chance to grow strong.

Key Takeaways on Planting Hole Depth

Choosing the right planting hole depth and width sets up your new tree for success. Follow these tips to ensure proper planting:

  • Measure root ball height and dig 2-3 inches shallower.
  • Plant at correct depth so the root flare is at or slightly above ground level.
  • Make the hole 2-3 times wider than the root ball.
  • Backfill with native soil, tamp gently.
  • Water thoroughly at planting and as the tree establishes.
  • Adjust for problem soils with amendments or modified technique.

Taking the time to plant at the proper depth will pay off with a healthy, thriving tree that lives up to its full potential. If you have any questions about digging the ideal planting hole for your new tree, be sure to consult with a professional arborist.

Proper Tree Planting Depth | From the Ground Up


What is the proper planting depth for a tree?

Generally, at least two structural roots should be within the top 1 to 3 inches of the soil surface, measured 3 to 4 inches from the trunk. A noted exception is some species prone to girdling roots where the top structural root should be within the top 1inch of soil. Top of root ball rises 1 to 2 inches above grade.

How deep should I bury my tree?

The top of the rootball should be level with the surrounding soil when the tree is placed into the hole. Here’s the reason: A tree will settle into the soil over the years. The deeper you dig, the looser the soil is in the hole. The looser the soil, the more a tree gets settled down into the soil.

Can a tree be planted too deep?

Planting too deeply A planting depth of only one-inch too deep can cause trouble. It is not uncommon to see trees planted as much as three or more inches too deep with mulch piled on top adding to the problem. Deep planting causes bark deterioration at the soil line, which can eventually kill the plant.

How deep should a planting hole be?

In well-drained soil, the planting hole should never be dug any deeper than the height of the root ball. This means that the soil at the bottom of the hole is left undisturbed. Setting the root ball on loosened soil will cause the tree to settle and sink too deeply into the soil.

How deep should a tree root system be planted?

A good rule of thumb is that a tree’s root system should be planted at about the same depth as it grew in the nursery. Holes can be dug even shallower on compacted or waterlogged sites as long as the backfill soil is mounded up to the root collar, the point on the trunk even with the nursery soil level.

How deep should a tree root hole be?

The hole sides should be slanted and the hole should be no deeper than the root ball is tall, so it can be placed directly on undisturbed soil. Tree roots typically grow more sideways than vertical and most roots stay fairly shallow, so a wide shallow hole fits the form of the root system.

How do you plant a tree in a hole?

Water the soil on planting day before you dig the hole. Give the planting location a good hose down to moisten the soil and make it easier to turn. Moist soil is also more hospitable and minimizes root stress for a newly transplanted tree. Dig a hole 2-3 times the diameter of the root ball.

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