We assessed the vertical growth and mycorrhizal infection of woody plant roots on a closed landfill, using tree and shrub clusters that had been previously installed in patches of increasing size to establish protocols for woodland restoration. The density of the fine roots of shrubs, which had poor-to-moderate mycorrhizal infection, decreased strongly with increasing depth. Oak (Quercus) seedlings planted within and outside patches were assessed for ectomycorrhizal infection. Oak root systems were mycorrhizal, but root-tip proliferation was improved and ectomycorrhizal composition was influenced by woody debris in the mineral soil. Most surviving oaks were found within patches, but all seedlings showed poor growth: most taproots were deflected horizontally above the boundary between surface soil and subsoil layers (−15 cm). Abrupt decreases in pH between surface and subsurface horizons (6.9 versus 5.3), together with poor drainage and aeration of the latter soil, were probably responsible for poor root growth. Root growth of greenhouse-grown pine and maple seedlings was similarly restricted in pots packed with topsoil over subsoil material. Our results suggest that many current specifications for the cover of closed landfills will not permit restoration of native woody plant communities because of physical limitations to root growth and infectivity. The structure of the engineered soil must address basic plant growth requirements as well as traditional concerns of drainage and barrier protection.