Removing Tree Stumps Without Stump Grinders

Image: tree stump.
Does a stubborn tree stump in your yard have you stumped?. Liu Track/ EyeEm/Getty Images

A tree has been felled and its wood removed, but the rest still sits there, firmly rooted in the ground. What you need now is a strategy for removing tree stumps. What is the best way to solve this landscaping problem?

You can hire someone with a stump grinder, but that's expensive. Or you can rent one from a rental center and do it yourself, but that has two major disadvantages:

  1. Stump grinders are heavy.
  2. And they are dangerous.

Another method is the manual one, which entails literally removing the tree stump (the grinding and chemical methods result in disintegration rather than in literal removal). Manual removal is cheap but has two drawbacks:

  1. It is labor-intensive.
  2. After you remove the stump, what do you do with it? Not all towns will pick up stumps along with the trash (check first).

Below is a brief explanation of the manual way, but this article will focus on another cheap alternative that has the added benefit of being easy: the chemical method. But be forewarned: the chemical method requires some patience.

We've also seen folks make a hole in the middle of a stump, place soil in the hole, and use it as a planter. Talk about making lemonade when life gives you lemons! But since you're reading this article, let's assume you're more interested in removal than in lemonade.

how to remove a tree stump
 Illustration: © The Spruce, 2018

Manual Method

Are you trying to get rid of a small- or medium-size stump? If you opt for manual tree stump removal, use a mattock, a shovel (or garden spade), and an ax. A mattock has a broad end for digging and a sharpened end for slicing. Of course, different folks have different preferences for tools and different experience levels with tools (and you can never have too many good tools around for a job like this), so here are a few more supplies:

  1. Heavy steel bar (sold under such names as "utility bar" or "digging bar"), one end of which is sharpened and can be used to chop through roots. This tool can also help you pry out a small stump once you've loosened it sufficiently.
  2. Small bow saw. Use this to cut roots you may have trouble reaching with the mattock.
  3. Large bow saw, as an alternative to an ax. This is a safer tool to use than an ax (see below).
  4. Steel-toed boots (for safety), gloves.

It never hurts to have some leverage, so do not cut a stump down to ground level if you're removing it manually. Assuming you're prepared with your mattock, shovel, and ax, follow these instructions:

  1. Dig around the stump with the mattock's broad end.
  2. Once you have loosened the dirt in this fashion, shovel it out of your way. Be prepared to clear away a lot of soil! The bigger the stump, the more earth you'll be moving. This is necessary to gain access to all those roots that need cutting.
  3. Use the other end of the mattock to start chopping your way through the tree roots. 
  4. Dig and chop your way under the root ball to the taproot. For all but the smallest of trees, taproots will be imposing enough to require cutting with an ax or large bow saw. Clean excess dirt off the taproot with a wet rag before cutting.
  5. Warning: Do not use an ax unless you have been educated in handling one properly. In unskilled hands, axes are dangerous. A safer alternative is detailed below.
  6. Chop through the taproot with your ax. Be careful that the area is clear of people, pets, and objects before you start swinging the ax, to avoid injury. Aim the ax carefully so that it does not strike dirt (which would dull the blade). Always wear steel-toed boots when wielding an ax.
  1. An alternative for those lacking experience using axes safely is cutting the taproot with a large bow saw. It will take longer, but it's not as dangerous, so that's the recommended method.

And what about the stumps left behind by large trees? Here, manual removal is usually out of the question. If you own a four-wheel-drive pickup truck, you may be tempted to attach a chain to a large stump and pull it out with your vehicle, after you've loosened it. While this may work for people who truly know what they're doing and who have the right equipment, be aware that you can easily damage your truck in this way. 

Obviously, the manual approach involves a lot of digging, sawing, and chopping. Not everyone is physically capable of doing this kind of work. That's why we'll focus our attention now on an easier--albeit slower--way to get rid of a tree stump.

Chemical Method

  1. This method essentially a way to hasten the natural processes that would eventually break down the stump anyhow–even if you did not lift a finger. But nature's tree stump removal technique is terribly slow. To hurry nature along, you’ll be supplying two ingredients in unnatural quantities to speed up the rotting process: nitrogen and water. Tree stump removal will still be slow this way, but it's an improvement over nature.
  2. But first, using a chain saw, cut the stump down as close to the ground as you can, without allowing the chain saw's teeth to strike the ground (this would dull your chain). Wear steel-toed boots for this part of the job.
  3. Drill holes a few inches deep into the stump in numerous places, using your widest drill bit. The wider and deeper the holes, the better.
  4. Fill these holes first with water, then with a fertilizer high in nitrogen. For instance, you could use cow manure. If you're using a commercial fertilizer instead, make sure the first of the three numbers of the fertilizer's NPK is the highest (for instance, a straight nitrogen fertilizer such as 45-0-0).
  1. Soak the ground all around the stump. Cover the stump with a plastic tarp. The tarp will act as a barrier to help retain moisture in and around the stump. Moisture is a powerful ally to have on your side for this project.
  2. Apply an organic mulch over the plastic tarp, and water it thoroughly. An organic mulch, such as tree bark or hay, will hold additional moisture, keeping the area even wetter. Wet mulch is also heavy, which will help weigh the tarp down so that it doesn't blow away. For additional weight, roll some heavy stones onto the tarp. The mulch also serves the purpose of hiding the tarp from public view (most people consider tarps to be eyesores).
  3. The final thing you need to do is--be patient! You're speeding up the natural process of rotting by employing the steps above, but this tree stump removal technique is still not for those who need the stump to disappear N-O-W.
  4. You'll reduce the wait for the completion of your tree stump removal project, however, by periodically removing the mulch and tarp for a moment and once again thoroughly soaking the stump and the ground around it. If you still have that nitrogen source at your disposal, add more of it. Then reapply the plastic tarp and mulch. Soak the mulch again, too, to keep the tarp wet and weighed down.

    Supplies Needed

    Another Chemical Method: Burn It out With Stump-Out

    There is a tree stump removal product called "Stump-Out" that is supposed to break down the wood fiber of stumps, leaving them porous. It comes in powder form. The porous wood then absorbs kerosene readily. After the porous wood is soaked with kerosene and ignited, it will burn away. The flame eventually becomes a low, smoldering flame. If the use of kerosene and flame is acceptable to you, this is another cheap and easy option for tree stump removal.