Tree Stump Removal The Lazy Way
Get rid of tree stumps without breaking your back or your budget
Tree stump removal is not a topic that lends itself well to a glamorous photo spread such as what you will find in your typical home and garden magazine. Nevertheless, it is a very real and common problem that plagues many home owners and others who get saddled with the yard work. Stump removal is a lot more difficult than it may first appear. In fact, it requires a fair amount of skill and labor, so much so that arborists and other tree professionals often charge a pretty hefty fee for this service and generally do not include it as a standard part of tree removal.
In this article, I will walk you through my simple tree stump removal method that is quick, low-cost, easy, highly effective, chemical-free, and perfectly safe, with very little labor involved. This method basically relies on natural tree decay processes, but gives Mother Nature a push. If time is not a major consideration and you are lazy like me, then my technique is hard to beat. The one disadvantage of my method, however, is that there is a long waiting time, so if you need to have your stumps removed in a hurry, then I also present various alternate methods to get you pointed in the right direction.
Photo credit: All photos on this page are by DIY Mary unless noted otherwise.
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Removing Tree Stumps - An Overview
There are a number of ways to remove tree stumps ranging from brute force methods that employ heavy duty stump grinders to various chemical techniques that accelerate the stump decay process. Each method has its advantages and disadvantages. When it comes to deciding which method is best, there is no one-size-fits-all technique since tree stumps vary widely as to shape, size, age, location, type(s) of surrounding vegetation, and other important factors.
If you need to get rid of your stumps in a hurry and don't want to dig them up, then using a stump grinder (e.g., as shown above) is pretty much the only way to go. It is also a good technique if you have stumps that are extremely large (e.g., greater that 18" in diameter). Of all the ways to remove tree stumps, using a stump grinder is the most expensive, whether you rent the equipment and do it yourself or hire someone to do it. (If you do it yourself, then make sure to remove any rock and debris from the area, and take other safety precautions such as using protective eye wear.) It may also be problematic for stumps that lie very close to buildings.
If you can wait 1-3 months, then there are many chemical techniques available. The most popular of these is to apply potassium nitrate, fertilizer, or other nitrogen-rich chemical to the stump by drilling several holes into the top and filling them with the chemical mixed with water. Nitrogen-rich substances promote the growth of fungi that accelerate the decay process, making the stump easier to remove. After they are allowed to do their work (typically over several weeks or months), the stump will gradually become soft and mulchy. An axe may then be used to break up the stump and remove it, or it may be burned by applying kerosene and setting it on fire. This technique works best on stumps that have been dead for at least a year.
A variation on the above technique is to use salt. To protect the surrounding vegetation, it is important to make sure that the salt is confined to within the stump so that it does not leech out into the soil. Other similar techniques make use of a variety of chemical and substances such as deisel fuel, bleach, sodium hydroxide, and even sulfuric acid. In some cases, frequent checking and repeated applications may be necessary,
Finally, many people opt to let Nature take its course. This is the cheapest and least hands-on method, but of course, it also takes the longest. The time it takes for a stump to completely die off naturally can take anywhere from several years to a decade, depending on the stump. The techniques I describe below show how to accelerate natural decay so that the waiting time can be greatly reduced.
The above photo is of a "Slashbuster" backhoe stump grinder attachment grinding a hardwood tree stump. Photo credit: Soundchecker
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Lopping Shears (Loppers)
Lopping shears or loppers are great for trimming large branches, vines, and small trees (less than 2" diameter), and they also come in really handy when you need to trim a stump. Stumps often sprout new branches (which is one reason they're so hard to kill), and loppers are the perfect garden tool for removing this nuisance regrowth.
My Lazy Method For Removing Tree Stumps
If you have given up trying to deal with tree stumps and decided to let Nature take its course, the method I will be outlining below should appeal to you. All you need are a bucket or other cylindrical container (preferably black) that is large enough to cover your target stump, some lopping shears or other tool to trim the stump of new growth, and some basic gardening tools for gathering dirt and leaves, grass, and/or mulch.
Since many of the tree stumps in our yard are still alive and resprouting, I did a quick experiment several years ago to see if I could kill one of them off by shielding it from light (thereby accelerating the nature decay process and making it easier to extract from the ground). The experiment was very simple. All I did was put a metal coffee can over a stump about 6" diameter by 12" tall (as shown above) and let it sit for a couple of years, testing it every so often by giving it a kick to see if it would budge
Coverage is the key.
After not having looked at the stump for many months, just the other day, I decided to test it again, and lo and behold, the stump fell to the ground with hardly any effort on my part! Extracting it from the ground was extremely easy, requiring absolutely no pulling, digging, or cutting. The neat thing was that I had made no special preparations other than putting the can on top of the stump, which didn't even cover it entirely.
Below, I present a step-by-step demonstration of this "set and forget" method, with some extra steps added.
Step 1: Select tree stump for treatment.
For this demonstration, I will be using a stump that is about 7-8" in diameter by about 10" tall. Although this tree was cut some time ago, it is still very much alive and refuses to die, as you can see from the many new branches it continues to sprout (see photos below).
Step 1 PhotosClick thumbnail to view full-size
Step 2: Prepare stump for treatment.
For this step, I trimmed the stump of its branches (see photos below) so that it will be able to fit inside of the container I'm going to use to cover it.
Step 2 PhotosClick thumbnail to view full-size
Step 3: Add dirt and other ingredients.
Adding dirt plus leaves, grass, and/or mulch (whatever you have handy) will help to accelerate the decay process as it supports the growth of fungi in the tree. For this step, I applied some dirt to the stump, enough to cover the top, and pressed it down with a bucket to make it stick. (I could have added more dirt, but digging is hard work and I'm too lazy.) I then filled the container to be placed on top of the stump (a black bucket) with wet leaves about halfway. (See photos below.)
Step 3 PhotosClick thumbnail to view full-size
Step 4: Cover the stump.
For this step, I used a black rubber bucket that is sufficiently large so that it covers the stump from top to bottom (see photos below). Black is best because darker colors absorb more light, creating more heat within the enclosure so that the chemical reactions associated with the tree decaying process are accelerated. (However, if you don't have a black or dark colored container handy, feel free to use whatever container you can easily get a hold of as this method works well even with light-colored containers and partial stump coverage.)
I then placed the bucket upside down on top of the stump, carefully turning it over so that the leaves would stay inside. (The first time I tried this, I noticed that the bucket still felt loose around the stump, so I removed it and added some more leaves.)
With all those leaves and dirt, there is more organic matter to support the growth of fungi, which, combined with the moisture, helps speed up decomposition. The leaves and dirt also serve to make the bucket fit more snugly over the stump so that way, it will more likely stay put in case of a strong wind.
Step 4 PhotosClick thumbnail to view full-size
Step 5: Check back in one year.
Now that the stump has been covered, there is nothing else that needs to be done except to wait ...
Once you have treated your stump as described above, check back in about one year and give it a good swift kick (but not so hard that you break your foot!). If it fights back, wait another year, and once it starts to budge, you're in business! This means that the tree decay has propagated all the way down to the roots so that the stump can now be easily removed.
The photo above shows the stump from my first experiment that was killed off by keeping it partially covered with a coffee can for a couple of years. Good things come to those who wait.
What about copper nails? Do they work?
There is another method floating around on the Internet that entails nailing many copper nails into the tree stump. For those who have reported good results, the secret is to use many nails (at least four, depending on the size of the stump).
The copper nail technique is one of many that is also supposed to accelerate the nature tree decay processes, making stump removal easier. While many claim this method works, there are others who say it is an urban myth (which is also my best guess). I only bring it up here because those who are searching for ways to remove tree stumps may have come across this technique while searching the Internet and are probably wondering about how effective it really is. As for me, I have never tried this technique first hand, but when I do, I will let you know here how my results pan out.