How to Remove Large Bushes and Shrubs Safely

Beauty bushes in flower growing along a house foundation.
David Beaulieu
Project Overview
  • Working Time: 2 - 5 hrs
  • Total Time: 3 - 4 days
  • Skill Level: Beginner
  • Estimated Cost: $450 to 500 (if you have no supplies on hand)

Why would you want to remove a large bush or shrub from your yard? If it is a prized plant, you have a great incentive to leave it alone. But there are also a variety of possible reasons why you might choose to remove a bush from your landscape, at some point, regardless of your attachment to it. It may be too high-maintenance for you, or it may have become so overgrown through a lack of pruning that it is no longer attractive. It may not fit into a new landscape design you have chosen to implement (as when a hedge becomes unnecessary because you have installed a privacy fence, instead), or it may have simply become diseased or died.

If you find yourself in any such situation, you may select to remove that large bush or shrub, however reluctantly. The physical work involved is tiring, although the process is not complicated at all. The real trick is in the preparation. If you don't prepare for the job properly, you can end up causing damage or, worse yet, hurting yourself. Here is what you need to know to get the job done right and stay safe. 


Whether you call it a "shrub" or "bush," you're referring to a perennial, woody plant, usually with multiple main branches. There are exceptions, such as when these plants are trained to grow tree-like, with just one major branch, or "trunk" (often referred to as "standards"). To distinguish them from trees, remember that bushes and shrubs usually stand less than 15 feet tall, and their branches usually measure three inches or less across.

When to Remove Large Bushes and Shrubs

Because of the physically demanding nature of the work, avoid trying to remove large shrubs and bushes during the height of summer, especially if you mind the heat. Because of the digging involved, you can also rule out winter, when the ground is frozen. Thus, the ideal time to remove large shrubs and bushes is when the ground isn't frozen and it isn't too hot outside.

Before Getting Started

Begin by assembling supplies and making sure that your tools are in proper working order. In the case of cutting tools, this includes putting a sharp edge on blades, using the appropriate file.

A critical step to take before proceeding further is to make sure that you will not be severing any utility lines when you dig. Do not attempt to make this determination yourself. Instead, call 811 about three days before you want to dig out the plant. This will give the service sufficient time to arrange for workers to come to your property and mark where the utility lines are with flags or spray paint. Because the spray paint will wear off, do not schedule the marking for a period of longer than 30 days before you plan to dig.

In preparation for the workers' arrival, ensure that they have access to your property and will be able to work safely and unimpeded. Unlock the gate, if you have a fence; bring in any lawn chairs, etc., that may stand upon affected areas; and if you have a dog that you let outside, be sure to bring it inside.

Safety Considerations

Because of the thickness of the branches of large shrubs, you will probably need to cut them with a chainsaw as one portion of the removal process. A chainsaw is one of the most dangerous tools that you are likely to use when working in the yard. It is essential to take precautions against possible chainsaw injuries:

Dressing Properly

The first step in helping to prevent serious injury is to dress properly. Wear garden gloves and a long-sleeve shirt to prevent cuts to your skin when you brush up against branches. On your legs, wear chainsaw chaps, a type of thicker, protective pant. Protective headphones will muffle the sound emitted by a chainsaw engine. But of even greater importance is wearing goggles and steel-toed boots.

Goggles will protect your eyes from wood chips that the chainsaw may send hurtling at your face. Steel-toed boots may prevent a serious foot injury should the chainsaw slip from your grip and fall toward the ground. If you are working on branches above your head, wear a helmet, too.

What you don't wear is almost as important as what you do wear. Do not wear clothes that are loose-fitting: They could become caught in the chain of the saw. Likewise, tie back long hair and avoid wearing dangling jewelry.

Avoiding Chainsaw Kickback

Dressing properly is just one step in operating a chainsaw safely. You also need to know something about technique before you begin so as to avoid kickback.

Kickback is the sudden, accidental movement of the bar of the chainsaw back toward the user while cutting. Since the bar is edged with the sharp teeth of the chain that make it possible for a chainsaw to cut through wood, any movement of this bar in your direction threatens serious injury.

Kickback is caused by the tip of the blade coming into contact awkwardly with a hard object. Such contact can cause the tip to bounce wildly off the object instead of cutting into it. Try to cut with the half of the chainsaw bar that abuts the engine rather than cutting with the half that is closer to the tip.

A second technique for avoiding kickback is to lock the elbow of your lead arm straight out while you're cutting. If you're right-handed, your right arm will be the trailing arm, and you'll employ the index finger of your right hand to operate the tool's trigger. Your lead arm is the left one (your left hand will hold the chainsaw handle). With your lead arm locked, any kickback that happens will push your lead arm up and back; the movement of the bar won't be directed back at you.

What You'll Need

Equipment / Tools

  • Shovel
  • Mattock
  • Bypass loppers
  • Chainsaw
  • File(s) for sharpening blades


Protective Gear

  • Tight-fitting long-sleeved shirt
  • Chainsaw chaps
  • Garden gloves
  • Goggles
  • Steel-toed boots
  • Protective ear muffs
  • Back brace (optional)
  • Helmet (if shrub is over your head)


  1. Remove the Tops of the Branches

    Using your loppers, cut off the tops of the branches. Not only will this take care of much of the overall shrub material that you will need to remove, but it will also expose the larger material further down, giving you the access that you will need to tackle its removal later.

  2. Remove the Lower Part of the Branches

    Loppers can cut through branches only up to about 1.5 inches in diameter. For thicker branches, you will need the chainsaw. As you cut, avoid letting the blade hit the ground at any point, as this would dull the teeth on the chain. Repeat until all of the wood is removed to within about one foot of the ground. Leaving this stump behind, for now, will give you something to grab as you try later to loosen the roots.


    Move the branches you've already cut away with the loppers from your work area so that you can do your cutting with the chainsaw without impediments. Likewise, periodically turn off the chainsaw and move the branches that you've cut with the chainsaw, too away from your work area. Keeping the work area free of obstructions is one of the keys to chainsaw safety.

  3. Remove the Soil Around the Perimeter

    With your shovel, dig out the soil all the way around the base of the bush. The goal is to expose as much of the root system as you can.

  4. Chop Out the Roots

    With the ax-like end of your mattock, chop through the roots, one by one.

    What Is a Mattock?

    A mattock is a garden tool with a long handle. Think of it as part pick, part hoe, and part ax. Mounted atop the handle is a piece of metal with two different heads. On one end, there is a broad head for digging that slices through the soil like a hoe. On the other end, there is a head that is sharpened and functions like an ax. You swing a mattock like a pick.

  5. Remove More Soil From Underneath the Stump

    With the hoe-like end of your mattock, remove the bulk of the soil underneath the stump that you couldn't access with your shovel.

  6. Check the Looseness of the Rootball

    Grab onto that one-foot length of stump that you left, and rock it back and forth to determine just how loose the rootball is. At this point, it will have quite a bit of give to it. However, it is rare to have a large bush or shrub come out easily. There are probably roots you have missed that are still anchoring the plant in place. The only solution is to continue chopping and digging with the mattock until the root system is completely severed from the earth.

  7. Yank Out the Rootball

    Make sure you are wearing your back brace. When the rootball seems to be loose enough, yank on it to dislodge it from its hole. Pulling up on the stump, remove the rootball from the ground.

What to Do With Removed Shrub Branches

Depending on where you live, one option after all of this work is done may be to create a brush pile with the cut branches and roots. Brush piles draw wildlife. That can be either good news or bad news, depending on your landscaping goals and preferences. Birds will come (which can be great for avid birdwatchers), but garden pests such as woodchucks can also take advantage of the cover provided by brush piles to invade your garden and eat your vegetables.

If you do not want or cannot have a brush pile, you may have two other options:

  1. In some communities, the town sets aside certain trash days for the pickup of yard waste. You can take advantage of these opportunities to haul your branches to the curbside for removal. Follow whatever rules your town imposes for such a pickup (for example, tying the branches in bundles).
  2. Strip the leaves off the branches and compost them (smaller twigs are okay, too, but avoid putting too much woody material into the compost bin all at once). Run the woody material that remains through a wood chipper, which can be rented from certain home improvement centers. The chips can later be used as mulch or composted.