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I'm Trying to Plant a Garden on Dead Tree Roots

Sometimes the death of a tree can open up a spot in the landscape for a new garden. There's one challenge, however, that makes this seemingly simple task more difficult. The dead tree's surface roots can often make it impossible to till up or turn over the soil. Homeowners can choose to work around the roots with minimal effort. It's also possible to remove the roots.
  1. Pocket Planting

    • Pocket planting is by far the easiest solution when it comes to establishing a garden on tree roots. This method works for planting around either living or dead tree roots. Simply excavate small holes in the soil between the biggest roots. Plant a small annual or perennial in each hole. Apply three inches of compost or well-rotted manure to the top of the entire area and water regularly for two to three weeks, or until the new plantings have a chance to get established.

    Raised Bed

    • While building a raised bed underneath a living tree is not recommended, building one on dead tree roots offers several advantages. First, you avoid having to excavate the dead roots. Secondly, raised beds usually offer greater productivity, a longer growing season, and better drainage. Soil can simply be mounded up over the roots for a low raised bed. Ambitious gardeners may want to build a structure to hold the soil in place. Concrete blocks are affordable and durable. As a bonus, the holes can be used for extra planting space. Wooden raised beds look more rustic. Choose cedar or redwood if you go this route, as these types of wood are naturally rot-resistant.

    Hand Digging

    • Dead roots from a young tree may be conquered by a determined do-it-yourselfer. Shovel away the soil to expose the roots, and then tackle them with an axe, root saw, or loppers. Once you've removed the roots you can amend the soil and establish your garden in that same spot.

    Stump Grinding

    • Stump grinding is best left to the professionals. A stump grinder is a machine with hardened carbide teeth that will shred stumps and roots 6 to 12 inches below ground level. Even with this equipment, very large stumps and roots will take some time to remove. After the stump is ground down, remove all of the sawdust from the area and fill the crater with topsoil. Then, plant your annuals and perennials.

    Chemical Removal

    • Patient gardeners can try their hand at chemical removal. The chemicals are available at garden centers. In this process, several holes are drilled into the stump and roots and the stump-removing chemical is poured into the holes. Over time, the chemicals help break down the wood fibers and the soil can then be tilled up or amended for a garden.


    • Adventurous homeowners with a long-dead tree can try using scrap wood to start a fire on top of the stump and roots. This method requires a great deal of caution as the roots can smolder for a couple of days. Once the wood has been obliterated, the ground can be used for a garden.


    • Avoid planting gardens near black walnut roots and trees. Black walnuts produce a chemical called juglone that affects the metabolic activity of some other plants. Even if dead black walnut roots are removed, decaying leaves and nuts around the site still produce juglone.