15 Expert Tips for Digging Holes

Updated: Feb. 14, 2024

Digging is bonehead simple. But as with any other job, a little know-how lets you do it smarter and faster and with less strain. Check out these smart tips for a dumb job.

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digging holes hole for planting trees

Call Before You Dig

Cutting into a buried utility line can kill or cost you—yes, you’re responsible for damage to underground lines on your property. To avoid that risk, call 811 three or four days before you dig. It’s a good idea, though usually not mandatory, to mark the area you plan to excavate with white spray paint before utility lines get marked.

Dig postholes faster and easier and position them more accurately using this step-by-step digging holes guide.

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sharpen your shovel

Sharpen Your Shovel

A sharp edge makes all the difference when you’re slicing through hard soil or roots. A file will do the job, but a grinder equipped with a metal-grinding disc is the fastest way to sharpen. A knife-sharp angle will dull instantly, so grind a blunter edge, about 45 degrees or so.

Learn how to sharpen your shovel or spade and make digging easier.

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mattock digging holes

Trench with a Mattock

A mattock is designed for digging narrow trenches—just right for running cable or pipe. Swing it like an ax to cut into hard soil, and then lift out the dirt with the wide blade. The chopping blade slices through roots. Wrap tape around the shaft to gauge the depth of your trench.

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fold back the sod digging holes

Fold Back the Sod

When you’re digging a trench, slice the sod along one side of the trench’s path and fold it over. Then, after refilling the trench, you can just flip it back into place.

Looking for ways to save time and get rid of nagging landscape problems this summer? Check out these 11 Landscaping Hacks That Will Save You Time.

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digging a hole clamshell digger

Knock Off Sticky Soil

Soil clinging to your posthole digger makes progress almost impossible. To knock off the sticky stuff, keep a “knock block” within reach and slam your digger against it. It can be a stone, a brick or a face-down shovel.

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power sod cutter

Save the Sod

Digging a hole is an opportunity to harvest some sod and patch up bad areas of your lawn. With a square spade, you can neatly slice up small pieces of sod, but it’s slow going. For larger areas, rent a manual kick-type sod cutter. For major sod harvesting, rent a power sod cutter (about $80 for a half day).

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posthole auger digging holes

Rent a Posthole Auger – Or Not

Gas-powered augers can make deck footings or fence-post holes fast and easy, but only in some types of soil. In hard clay, an auger is slower than a spade. In rocky soil, you’ll have to stop occasionally to pull out rocks with a clamshell digger. Because of these frustrations, some deck and fence contractors don’t bother with power augers and simply hand-dig every hole.

If you’re planning a project that requires lots of postholes, a power auger will speed up the process. But if you think it’ll make digging holes a picnic, think again. Here you’ll learn the ins and outs of using a rented power auger.

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tile shovel

Get a Tile Shovel

The long, narrow blade is great for trenching. It also works well for breaking up tough soil and enlarging postholes. Prices start at about $20 at home centers.

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digging bar

Get Tough on Tough Soil

A long, heavy digging bar is the ultimate tool for loosening rock-hard soil and dislodging rocks. A 5-ft. version costs about $50 at home centers. That may seem like a crazy cost for a simple steel bar, but you won’t regret it when you’re in tough digging conditions.

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cover grass while digging holes fence
Family Handyman

Cover Your Grass

To avoid raking soil out of the grass later, pile soil on cardboard or plywood. They work well because you can scoop dirt off them when refilling the hole. Tarps are fine too, but they’re easily punctured by a shovel.

Check out more tips for larger backyard projects!

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clamshell digger holes

Dig Postholes with a Clamshell Digger

A clamshell digger ($20 and up) is best for most jobs. Just plunge it into the ground, spread the handles and pull out the dirt. As your hole gets deeper, you have to enlarge the top of the hole so you can spread the handles.

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clamshell digger mark depth
Family Handyman

Mark the Depth

A tape measure isn’t the tool for checking depth— it will get filled with dirt and wrecked. Instead, mark depths on your shovel or posthole digger. That way, you can measure as you dig.

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improvised shovel half of clamshell digger

Improvised Shovel

A tile shovel is the best tool for flaring out the base of footing holes. But if you don’t have one handy, remove the bolt from your clamshell-style posthole digger and use half of the digger as a tile shovel.

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mark hole with hose and paint digging pond

Mark with a Hose and Paint

Lay out the footprint of your hole or trench with a garden hose. When you’ve got the layout right, mark it with spray paint.

Check out these fun backyard projects!

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auger-type diggers digging hole

Beware of Auger-Type Diggers

Just twist the handle and an auger-style digger drills a perfect posthole. Unlike a clamshell digger, it doesn’t require you to enlarge the hole. But there’s a catch: Augers work well only in soil that’s soft, rock-free and not too sticky. In most soils, a clamshell digger is a better choice. Augers cost $50 or more.