When planting in hard soil, do you use water to soften things up or do you go at it with hand tools?
Always wanting to work smarter, I usually dig a small hole with the shovel and turn the hose on it, letting it soften up the ground so I can dig a large hole with relatively little effort. But I notice that others promote going at the hard dirt with a pickaxe. I would really like to lose fewer (or no) trees this year and if that means "the hard way" I might be open to it.
What do you all do? Which method do you think has a higher tree survival rate?
You almost have to. But I find a good very slow soaking 48 hours before a dig helps and the time required with my soil so it isn't muddy. With all the rain we had now is a good time to dig.
I doubt how you dig the hole is important at all in tree survival. How quickly you get it in the ground. Proper planting. Proper post-plant care. Possibly pre-bare root treatment. Increase likelihood of dormancy break and thriving.
I do both - small hole, fill with water, give it a couple of days to drain/percolate, then go at it with a pickaxe. :) As far as tree survival rate, I think there are probably other factors that play a much larger role than the method you use to excavate (such as size of the hole, use - or not - of soil amendments, watering schedule, location, shade&paint, etc).