I dig gently and hoe softly. Why? To avoid tree roots.
I was taught (and have taught) that tree roots are arranged like the diagram on the left. Current research shows that trees roots actually grow like the diagram on the right. Wow. Big difference.
Trees may have a few large roots that extend deep into the soil, but their function is to anchor the tree. The water, nutrients and oxygen needed by the tree are in the top few inches of the soil. According to US/IFS, “Realize that while most tree roots are in the top two feet of soil, those that feed the tree are in the top few inches”.
Who cares where the roots are? I am trying to develop a pleasant landscape for my house, but every time I try to plant something, every time I dig more than a few inches, I run into tree roots. “On average, tree roots spread close to 3 times the spread of the branches, so that a tree with an 8-foot branch crown spread would have a 24-foot root spread diameter.” Southern magnolia trees like the one in my backyard, may have roots that extend “3.8 times the dripline“. It is a challenge to dig a small hole for an annual, or to try to remove weeds, My yard is a massive network of tree roots from my trees and those of my neighbors with a thin layer of soil on top, so I dig gently and hoe softly to avoid damaging the roots.
Note: Diagram from UF/IFAS Okeechobee Extension Service who got it from Houston Area Urban Forestry Council