How to dig post holes through tree roots with pictures


As a landscape gardener, I install garden fences all the time, in fact, I pretty much rely on fencing jobs to see me through the Winter months when the need for gardening is not high on one’s priority list, but old garden fences tend to collapse in the cold and windy months and therefore in need of replacing.Over the years, I have had my fair share of complications when it comes to digging the post holes for the new fence to be installed, and the absolute worst complication being when you hit large tree routes. I mean, how exactly do you dig post holes when tree routes are in the way? After reading so many (in my opinion) silly guides online, I’m just going to explain exactly what I do to overcome this problem. But first, let’s see what I am up against on my current garden fencing job…


I know right! I am about to install 9 foot fence posts, 6 foot fence panels as well as gravel boards in between this brick wall and trees. What a great time to write this post and explain how I do it! Let’s get back to this later, for now, lets talk about what doesn’t work when trying to dig post holes through tree roots. In my opinion of course!

Does an auger actually drill through tree routes?

I think this is an important question to answer, as there seems to be a lot of information online that would lead someone to believe that you can simply purchase or hire a petrol auger and drill through tree routes when installing your fence post hole.Now I could be wrong, maybe my petrol auger isn’t strong enough, or maybe I’m not doing it the correct way? But the last time I tried to drill through a large route with my petrol auger I nearly ripped my arm off! The drill bit just gets stuck, and instead of drilling a fence post hole through the tree root, it turns the handle instead!It will be ok for small tree roots, but for anything larger than 3 inches thick, I just wouldn’t recommend it, which is a shame as petrol augers are otherwise an absolutely amazing piece of machinery to have when digging post holes and would make a great asset to any company.

Will a petrol chainsaw cut through tree routes when trying to dig post holes?

As well as the petrol auger method, I have tried using a chainsaw and/or pruner to simply cut the tree roots out of the way and carry on digging. But again, this just doesn’t work. The problem that you have is that as soon as your chainsaw chain hits dirt, even if it’s a brand new one, it will go blunt. Chainsaw chains and earth just do not mix and is not fit for the job. Keep your chainsaw chain sharp and don’t waste your time or money on replacing chains by trying to cut through tree roots when trying to make way for your fence post holes.

What tool actually works when trying to get large tree routes out of the way to dig fence post holes?

Honestly, the only machine that will actually eat through tree routes and tree stumps with ease, in my opinion, are tree stump grinders. But this just isn’t ideal, not only are they expensive but they are large and heavy. They are good for tree stump removal, and although they can do the job, if you need to dig fence post holes near anything of any importance such as a brick wall or garden feature, it will be very difficult to use without hitting such things.

What I do to dig fence post holes when tree roots and tree stumps get in the way.

  1. If the post hole needs to be directly above a large tree root, first dig around the tree root as best you can using a spade.
  2. If a spade is too weak to cut through the tree root, the next thing to do is to attempt at axing it out. I have got through so many tree roots by just using an axe!
  3. If your axe just isn’t doing the job, then the best way is to change the location of the post hole. A standard fence panel is 6 feet long, so try to dig another post hole at 5 feet, and then 4 feet and so on. Trust me, this will save you a lot of time compared to attempted at getting the root out.
  4. Once you have dug your new fence post hole, You will need to measure the new distance from the last fence post and begin to cut the fence panel to the same length. You can use a regular hand saw for this. If you are using concrete gravel boards, then a 9″ grinder will cut through it in a matter of minutes.
  5. After you have put together the new fence panel and post, with luck, your next panel at 6 feet along will be free of any large routes. If not, then repeat the process. Cutting the fence panels and gravel boards only delays the process by about 10 minutes per fence post installation.

Now back to my earlier picture, I will now show you how I managed to install fence posts and panels in between a brick wall and tree roots (and stumps!)…

5I took a real gamble on this job! Digging fence posts between the wall and tree roots is not going to be easy. Being a quoted job, I knew that I couldn’t take too long when digging each post hole as each day is going to cost me money. Baring in mind, I was the 4th person to provide a quote. All 3 other landscape gardeners refused to go ahead!3One of many large tree roots getting in the way of the post hole! No…An electric breaker will not do the job! After trying to use an axe, which worked on the previous two large routes, on this one we decided to cut a fence panel just enough to come on the other side of the tree. We dug the fence post hole before measuring and cutting the fence panel.7Cutting the fence panel to size only takes about 30 seconds with an electric circular saw, much less time than trying to cut through a large tree root!8If concrete gravel boards are being used, using a 9″ grinder, cut the gravel boards down to size to match the fence panel.9Can you see the cut panel in the center of the fencing? It is about 1 foot shorter than the others, but still looks just as professional. This eliminated the need to cut through a large tree root to dig a post hole and saves so much time! Just have a look below how close we are to the tree…10And what a tight gap…But we are getting there…11I hope that this post has really helped when it comes to digging fence post holes when tree roots are in the way. Doing this type of work for a living does have it’s ups and downs, and I have made so many time consuming mistakes that I hope to pass onto you making your life much easier!Should you have any questions then please do write a comment below and I will try to answer as soon as possible. Why not let us know how you tackle large tree roots when it comes to digging post holes as I’d love to know! Please remember to subscribe, like us on Facebook and follow us on Twitter to keep up to date with the latest news, information, advice and reviews on everything gardening!

8 Comments Add yours

  1. Kim Bouvia says:

    I want to take down my arborvitaes and put up a fence. They are on my property line and the fence would be on the other side about a foot out. I am not sure how to deal with all of the roots. I’m guessing from your experience that an auger won’t work which was what I was thinking of doing. Any suggestions? The ax could work but what about roots you run into that are a foot or so down the hole you’re trying to dig?

    1. Hankintech says:

      Hello and thank you for your question. You may find that if it’s just the roots that you are worried about and not the tree stumps themselves then they may not be too deep.

      I’ll be honest though, using an axe is hard work! You may be better off digging around the roots to clear the soil and just cutting with a hand saw or for better results, a reciprocating saw. If you are going to start with an axe, then I’d recommend purchasing a mattock instead as these are similar and work better for us.

      Ideally the post holes would be around 2 feet deep (if installing 8 foot posts) so it could be worth digging the holes with a post hole digger to see how you get on before deciding what to to next, depending on your findings. As an absolute worst case scenario you could hire a stump grinder which would remove any roots up to 1 foot deep with ease.

      Any questions just let me know!

  2. Andrew Brookes says:

    Great blog post, thanks for sharing. I’m faced with a similar if smaller scale problem. Locating the post then cutting the fence panels etc looks like the ideal solution for me, but access to drop the panels into the posts is limited. How were you able to drop the fence panels into the posts for this project because access looked quite limited too?

    1. Hankintech says:

      Hi Andrew and thank you for commenting. Please correct me if I have understood the issue wrong, but if your putting new posts in then all you need to do is slot the panels in as you go along so then there is no need to drop the fence panels in from a height.

      For example, put your first post in place with post mix and let it set for 10 minutes. Then measure where the next hole will be and dig another post hole. Before putting the post into place, put your gravel board and fence panel in place and then slide your post in. I hope this makes sense?!

    2. Hankintech says:

      Also, I should probably add! If you do put the fence panels into place before installing the next post so that you don’t have to drop them in at a height then make sure your gravel board and fence panel are level before doing so. We usually use a ratchet strap to hold everything together whilst it sets. You can see another article explaining how to install a new fence here

  3. James Davey says:

    I feel your pain buddy, as a landscaper myself it’s a bloody nightmare with tree roots. Trouble they might encounter in the future it if you have high winds you’ll end up rocking the posts and panels as the trees back and forth. I always think axes and breaker bars are your friend when trying to dig the holes. Your right in what your saying about an auger, they’re great in an open field but no good here unless you want some kind of dislocation. Keep up the good work dude

    1. Hankintech says:

      Hi James and thank you for the kind words. It’s much appreciated!

Leave a Reply