We just bought a house with an overgrown back yard. It's a small urban plot- 30' x 15' and there's a 80' Norway Spruce in the back corner. The former owners had some sort of sandy arbor in the back and piled two feet of dirt around the spruce. I'm trying to level what I can, but it means taking up a lot of soil at the base of the tree (but only a quarter of the base since it's in the corner of our property). I just got past the drip line and started running into a lot of roots. I'm worried I'll injure the tree. Can I remove the top foot of soil and sort of... let the roots lie on top? Will this injure the tree?

I've read that changing the grade can really hurt the tree. Thanks for your help! I appreciate if you add your experience so I can better understand the replies.

  • Can you walk in that space? If not, why bother leveling? If yes, by removing soil and leaving the roots exposed, walking gets more dangerous.
    – Johannes_B
    Mar 18, 2020 at 4:51

1 Answer 1


yes, changing the grade on an established tree is risky. If you do as you indicated you were thinking about and remove soil then let the roots sit on top of the soil this will stop them from absorbing water and exchanging nutrients with the mycorrhizal fungi in the soil. The roots will effectively stop working.

I often find people writing that they changed the grade of a mature tree and it worked for them. It can sometimes be done if you only work on the roots on the perimeter of the tree and no more than a third of the circumference of the roots.

A more effective question is:

If the tree dies how much will it cost to remove it and replace it?

Established trees like it just the way it is and it is better to change your plans to accomodate the tree than find out the tree will not adapt to yours.

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