Planting in Red Clay

Last year I started planting trees differently. No amendments, no fertilizer, no hole. Just an asterisk shaped cleavage of the sod big enough to fit the main roots. The roots don’t dry out as quick and it seems to be a better anchored tree. The thought is that the roots will be forced to grow into the surrounding clay instead of circling the loose amended area. This year I planted very shallow with this method, about 3 to 4 inches deep and mulching with grass clippings. I Will update as trees continue to grow. I was spurred to do this after losing a couple plums to canker after the graft sank and the cultivar took root.


Very interesting. Goes against the conventional wisdom, but conventional wisdom can be wrong or at least not exclusive.

It doesn’t sound like something I would try, but keep us posted! You may be on to something


Here’s an excerpt from an interview with Lee Reich on tree planting:

It’s interesting that some of these myths were debunked many, many years ago. I have a book, one of my favorites written many years ago, called “Science and Fruit Growing.” It’s written by the Duke of Bedford and Spencer Pickering in England [in 1919].
The Duke decided to have a kind of agricultural experiment station, and they tried all sorts of things, like among them there was something called the Oklahoma planting method. Basically with bare-root trees they would strip off all the side roots, take a crowbar, wedge out a hole in the soil, wedge the tree in and that was it.
They got great results from it. I’m not saying it would work everywhere, or suggesting it, but mentioning it as far as saying that the bathtub-sized hole for a tree is not necessary.

It sounds like there’s some precedent to @SoMtHomestead 's method. I’d definitely avoid amending the hole, regardless of what size you dig.


Great share!
Agree on the no-amendments.
Back to the original post, I’ve never seen roots circling in the planting hole here.
But I don’t amend the backfill, I always break up or slice the rootball of container trees, and I rough- up the edges of the hole (basically all the “textbook” stuff).
However- I don’t have red clay soil……

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Clay soils have much better mineral composition than sandy soil. On sand minerals are washed off, on clay they get stuck.

I have nothing but sand and river rocks, pretty much in equal amounts. You should see the pile of rocks just from the tree holes I have been digging… I do the $100 dollar hole method because the problem is not that the soil is clay or sand but that the soil is not in a forest, with constant offal of decomposing matter. This is what I’m trying to reproduce under my trees.

So $100 hole, lots of compost and peat and vermiculite and whatnot to condition the soil, followed by twice a year applications of compost and green wood chips.


I agree with $100 hole except that I’m in the do not amend backfill camp.
Add the organic as a top dressing after planting. My 2 cents, worth everything ya paid for em.


I have very sandy soil as well (few rocks, fortunately)- pretty much beach sand. I put all my amendments on top, not in the hole.


The reason I do $100 holes with amendments is to enhance the mechanical composition of the soil so nutrients can flow.

I’m on sand. Nutrients from the hole will leach into the sand, which is a good thing as it will enrich the surrounding soil where the roots will go. The stuff that keeps decomposing on top then stands half a chance of leaching down in the same fashion. Having amended the soil just gives me a 10~20 year head start on what the soil would be after a few decades of compost and green mulch dressing.

If I had clay I would be concerned that my fluffy amended $100 hole would turn into a bath tub and that I would end up drowning my trees in it. It all depends on what you are working with.

Sounds good. there are few absolutes in gardening.


I imagine you’ll be successful.

The US Forest service makes one spade impression and shoves the pine tree into the hole and a in a matter of minutes can plant dozens of pine trees…or hundreds even. Failure rate must be acceptable.

Pines are not fruit trees. We don’t expect them to metabolize hundreds of pounds of fruit year after year. Same reason why dandelions can outperform just about anything; they are all flower and seeds. Heck with willow just shove a willow stick on the ground, use the stick itself to poke the hole. chances are better than even that it will grow.

Anything that puts out fruit, and God forbid is growing outside of its comfort zone (USDA zone, in a lawn that doesn’t resemble a forest floor) can use all the help it can get

unless your growing cane fruit, currants, gooseberries and elderberry. all can be planted by cuttings with near 100% take rate. why most of my fruit i grow are these . push the cutting in the ground in a fairly clear spot, put some mulch around it and chances are it will root. also are the most consistent fruiting over other bush/ tree fruit. all mine were planted in what was once cultured lawn with heavy clay/ rocks underneath. :wink:


Most plants will grow just about everywhere, but it will not thrive everywhere and they will not reach their full potential everywhere. The healthier the plant the more it will resist disease, pests, and inadequacies in their environment. You want to

Take for instance my rhubarb plants. Two of them are regular plants with pretty good size, they have been on that spot for quite some time and have a pretty good root system going. The third one looks like a gigantic tropical plant. Why? Because I used a post digger to go down 4 feet, filled the hole with well composted horse manure and other adjuncts, and placed the plant on top. That plant is using its dandelion-like tap root to take full advantage of all that unrestricted great soil. Both sets of plants get more compost and mulch yearly but the one with the better soil just has a better chance for all those nutrients to leach deep down.

Then again I can get away with that because of my sandy soil composition. This could easily kill the plant if drainage is not addressed.

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GOOD clay soil here.
no amendments IN the hole - I learned, the hard way, that that was a no-no, 25 yrs ago. Mulch well and let the soil microherd deep-cycle the nutrients to feed roots.
I dig a $1.50 hole for a $1.40 tree…just barely wide and deep enough to accommodate the root system, and the native soil goes right back into the hole. They’ve gotta grow in ut at some point, might as well get on with it from the start.


I mostly agree with you, but I often dig a little more for smaller trees in order to get some of the perennial weed roots out of the immediate surroundings.

I also steal nearby mole hill soil to replace some of the soil stubbornly clinging to sod/weeds from the surface.


They are planting 153,000 ponderosa pines in the Black Hills (South Dakota)right now. Each person is planting a 1000 a day. They shoot for 10,000 to 15,000 planted trees a day.


The one thing I failed to mention is the importance of ‘mating’ the tree to the soil. I usually keep my adjuncts to around 50% of the soil but I’m pretty much forced to do that; this is how many rocks I end up taking out of the damn holes.

To me the number one issue is the mechanical composition of the soil. Before I plucked my trees down I tested for water drainage by filling the hole with water, topping it off, then 24 hours later filling it up again to see how fast it would drain. Unsurprisingly it drained in a hurry. This gave me both options and an idea of a path moving forward. Good drainage means I can effectively water my plants. Better yet water moving down aerates the soil as when it goes down, it sucks air to take its place. it also drives water soluble nutrients deep into the soil. It also means that I can go slightly more trigger happy with nitrogen because it leaches out, as wel as boron which my soil doesn’t have.

Clay is another monster and you can’t do it half way; you either dig for gold or do minimal as you suggest. Digging a big hole on soil that doesn’t drain is a recipe for a big hole full of water and drowned, dead plants.


our soil is clay and rocks. The 1 gal pots the Red Havens came in meant pulling out 2-3 rocks! Clay is fine for peaches along with 12-12-12!

If i have 100 hardy callery pear tree rootstocks to plant that are 4 inches tall I am not above using a sharp shooter shovel. I simply stick it in the ground 1 foot deep during the wet season, rock the shovel back and forth to make the hole, throw in a handful or two of aged cow manure , 1 tree and stomp the clay soil shut with my heel. That method is very effective with autumn olive or callery or bet or other ultra hardy plants you need a huge amount of in a short time. The work has only begun I go back top dress the top of the soil with aged how manure to unlock the high mineral clay. In order to use that method in Kansas the weather needs to be on your side. It only works with small plants under 2 feet that are ultra hardy. Neighboring States like Oklahoma have red clay ours is yellow or gray I don’t figure it matters that much.


yep. been there done that! my soil is a tree killer if planted directly into it.

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