I want to plant a perennial garden in the dappled shade below a large, old maple tree. Digging around the tree is really difficult due to all the roots; is it O.K. to create sort of a “raised bed” by adding 12-18” of topsoil beneath the tree and gradually sloping it down from the trunk to ground level?
This is a very common problem facing gardeners who are fortunate enough to have these established gems in their yards. Unfortunately, there are no easy answers that can be used in all cases. As a general rule, simply adding large amounts of soil around trees can cause severe damage when done improperly. The degree of caution depends upon the tree species, age and vigor as well as the depth of the soil and location it is to be placed beneath the tree.
The most sensitive area is near the trunk of the tree (which is where most of us want to plant!). Soil piled against the bark can cause it to decay, while covering the roots may prevent proper air and water exchange.
An inch or two of good soil spread over an area is usually safe. If you wish to add more than that, save yourself future grief by first hiring a licensed arborist to evaluate your specific situation. They will be able to best assess how much soil you might be capable of adding without injuring your valuable tree. You will have to pay for the service, but it will be far less than the cost of removing a dead tree, not to mention the loss of a beautiful, well-established specimen.