Digging A Hole: How To Dig A $10 Hole For Planting

There is an old-timer piece of gardening advice that says “it is better to put a $1 plant in a $10 hole than a $10 plant in a $1 hole.” 

Which is another way of saying that no matter what price plant we have, the chance of survival may depend entirely on the person who is doing the planting. 

shovel and hand spade digging a hole for plantingPin

Before blaming the nurseryman when a plant dies, we’d better think back – what kind of hole did we put it in?

Required Hole Digging Equipment 

The same equipment will dig a cheap hole or one of much more value. 

Two essentials for good work are a shiny digging tool and a strong back. 

Perhaps a willing back is more important than a strong back. A willing back is often more in sympathy with (and may better understand) a plant’s needs than a strong back.

When we lift out the soil to make an opening, curl the roots of the plant to fit the hole (instead of making a hole to fit the roots), pile the soil back helter-skelter—that’s a $1 hole. 

To the plant it may not be worth more than a dime!

My mother’s favorite digging tool was a spading fork. She used it to plant lily bulbs, to set trees, or for any digging necessary. I use a spade, not too heavy, not too light. 

Some gardeners prefer a pointed shovel. Whatever garden tool is used, keep it clean and shining. 

Is there anyone who doesn’t have a guilty conscience? 

Take Care Of Your Tools – Clean Them and Store Them Properly

We all know that after being used, the tool should be cleaned of all soil immediately. 

Dirty, rusty tools cause the soil to stick and make them heavier to use as well as not cutting through the soil in the most efficient way. 

After being thoroughly cleaned, the tool should be hung on a rack or hook – not set on the ground where it would soon become rusty from ground moisture even if well cleaned. 

A file will keep the cutting edge of a spade or shovel sharp. Sandpaper will remove rust –  then wipe the tool with an oily cloth.

A Planting Hole Is Like a Pot

A new house plant calls for a suitable container, a pot that is large enough to take care of the plant’s roots. The pot must be filled with just the right potting soil. 

The hole we dig in the ground is like a container for a plant – the “pot” in which we will set the tree or shrub. It becomes the plant’s home. 

That is the place where its roots will have to grow. What goes into that hole should provide the basic things a plant requires. 

Whether it is a $1 plant or a $10 plant, neither is likely to thrive and may not even live if the soil does not contain plant food and the necessary air and moisture to make it available. 

The roots must be encouraged by the soil structure to make new feeder roots quickly in order that the plant can continue its growth.

Assessing the Planting Hole Size

The size of the hole needed depends on the size and spread of the roots which will go into it, and the condition of the soil. 

The harder and more barren the soil, the more important it is to dig a very large hole. 

Instead of putting back the impoverished soil, obtain soft, humusy material from another location and use it to firm the plant well around the roots. 

Or it may be possible to mix sand, peat moss or humus with soil taken out to make it soft and friable in order to hold air and moisture.

If the soil is all that could be desired, place the topsoil to one side when digging the hole, and the subsoil in another pile. 

Make the hole 4″ to 10″ inches larger than the root spread. Use the topsoil to make a cone-shaped mound at the bottom of the hole. 

Set the plant on the cone and spread the roots naturally. Use the topsoil to tamp firmly around the roots. When that supply is exhausted, use the subsoil to fill the remainder of the hole. 


A proper planting hole should be large enough for the roots to be arranged naturally, without coiling. Topsoil set aside at the beginning is the first used in filling the hole, so it will be near the plant’s roots.

Leave a depression to be filled in with mulch. As a rule, the topsoil is richer. It contains more of what the plant needs in the way of plant food and helpful bacteria to get established. 

The subsoil is often inferior but also has some virtues. It will probably not contain weed seeds that would grow and compete with the plant. 

This would apply only to such things that need rather deep planting. Shallow-rooted plants such as strawberries and cabbage would be planted in the richer surface soil.

Do Not Dig In Wet Soil

No matter what the condition of the soil, you cannot dig a $10 hole in wet soil. Let it dry first. 

When we dig into really wet soil, as it dries it will harden like cement around the roots of the plant.

Where You Dig Is Important!

Where you dig the hole may have much to do with its value so far as the plant is concerned. 

Some plants are happy in either sun or shade and are not particular about the kind of soil they find about their feet. 

If it is a shade-loving fern, however, you can never dig anything but a $1 hole for it if you choose a sunny location in clay soil. 

You must find, or provide, soft woodsy soil on the north side of a building or in the shade of trees or shrubs. On the other hand, no rosebush would thrive in that same hole – sun and heavier soil are needed.

The same principles hold for entire flower borders. Sun-loving annuals or perennials need humusy, well-drained soil in the sun. 

For shade-lovers, the border must be along the north foundation or on the shaded side of shrubs or trees.

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