The Homeowner’s Guide to Tree Stump Removal

Large Tree Stump
© michellini / Adobe Stock

Some tree stumps might work fine as planters, but others only get in the way, look unsightly, and attract ants, termites, and other pests. If you have a stump in the latter category, there are a few ways you can get rid of if. Which tree stump removal method is right for you depends on the size of the stump, the equipment you have, and the amount of effort you want to invest.

Grinding: Quick and Practical

Stump Grinder Removing Stump
© irma07 / Adobe Stock

Grinding the stump into mulch is one of the fastest and most practical ways to get rid of the wood above ground. Most of the root system is left in place, so you won’t end up with a big hole.

To do the job efficiently, you’ll need a stump grinder. This machine is equipped with a high-speed rotating cutting wheel that chips away at the wood as you repeatedly run the machine over the stump. The stump is ground progressively lower until it’s below ground level. You can get the job done with a chainsaw or stump grinder chainsaw attachment, but the process will take longer. Keep in mind that using a chainsaw alone to grind down a large stump can destroy a small or old chainsaw.

Stump grinding’s downside is cost. Both renting a stump grinder and hiring a professional cost more than other stump removal methods. For a single small stump, you’ll spend less money, but more time and effort by pulling, burning or rotting the stump. 

While you can rent a stump grinder, if you have just one large stump, hiring a professional will get you faster, better results. A landscaper who offers this service will have a high-power stump grinder and know how to use it. Landscapers typically charge a minimum fee of around $200, and that increases with the number of stumps. To get rid of a yard full of stumps, it’s generally cheaper to rent a stump grinder and do the work yourself.

If you decide to do it yourself, start by digging out the stump so you can cut it as close to the ground as possible. Turn the stump grinder on, then position the cutting wheel over the stump and move it slowly right to left in sections. Keep going until the stump is around 5 to 6 inches below ground level. When you’re done, cover the area with soil and replant grass or other plants. Use the leftover wood shavings as mulch.

Pulling: Fast, but High-Risk

Heavy Duty Tow Chain
© Pam Walker / Adobe Stock

For stumps smaller than 15 inches in diameter, pulling is usually the easiest and most affordable removal option. You can safely pull a small stump with a farm jack, also called a handyman jack. Bolt the ends of two 2×4s to the top of the jack to form a tripod. Place the tripod over the stump with the jack on one side and the two 2×4s on the other. Wrap a chain securely around the base of the stump enough times to form a strong grip. Hook the chain onto the jack’s arm and work the jack to gradually lift the stump.

For a larger stump, you’ll need a tractor or a larger four-wheel drive vehicle. A two-wheel drive truck or car is unlikely to get the traction needed to pull the stump, especially on dirt or grass. Prepare carefully because the risk of something going wrong is high. If the chain snaps, it can whip back and injure someone or damage your property. If the stump comes out suddenly, it can go flying into the back of your vehicle.

Use a heavy, high-quality chain or tow rope that can handle the stress. Start by digging around the stump and cutting as many of the roots as you can to loosen it from the ground. Wrap the chain or rope low around the base of the stump. Attach the chain or rope to your vehicle’s tow package. If your vehicle doesn’t have a tow package, attach the chain or rope to the metal frame, not to a door or other part that could break off. Drive forward slowly to pull the stump out of the ground.

Burning: Perfect for an Evening Outdoors

Kerosene Bottle
Photo Credit: Longhair

Burning a stump away isn’t difficult, but the time required makes it somewhat impractical. That said, if you’re looking for an excuse to enjoy more backyard campfires, burning a stump is the perfect solution. A large stump can take several hours to burn, so it should give you two or three evenings around the campfire.

Before you set your stump on fire, contact your local fire department to make sure there aren’t any burn bans in effect. To burn well, the stump should be dry. If you’ve just cut down the tree, waiting a full year before you burn the stump will give you the best results. Even then, it still might not be dry enough to burn well if it’s been getting wet in every rain shower. Keeping it covered for a week before you burn it can help.

If you want to turn your stump into a campfire, build a ring of rocks around it to contain the fire. Clear the ground of any flammable materials, such as dry leaves. Dig out the stump to expose as much of the surfaces as possible.

Then add material to help the stump burn. Drill two holes of around 8 to 10 inches deep into the top of the trunk, then pour several capfuls of kerosene (never gasoline) into each. Wait two weeks to let the wood absorb the kerosene. Surround the bottom of the stump with a layer of charcoal, then add firewood and kindling. Now you’re ready to light your fire.

Using potassium nitrate (saltpeter) to help the fire along also makes quick work of the stump. To use this chemical, first drill several holes of 8 to 10 inches deep and spaced 3 to 4 inches apart into the top and sides of the stump. Pour around 3 ounces of potassium nitrate into each hole. Add hot water to each hole to dissolve the potassium nitrate. Add charcoal or firewood to the stump and light it.

If you’re not concerned with enjoying the fire, burning the stump under a barrel will give you more freedom to do other things while the fire is burning. Even so, never leave the fire completely unattended. To make a burn barrel from a 55-gallon steel drum, cut a triangular hole in the bottom and a rectangular hole in the side near the top to allow for airflow. Position bricks or concrete blocks around the stump to keep the barrel off the ground. Place the barrel upside down over the stump, add firewood and kindling through the triangular hole, then light the wood.

After the fire dies down, any remaining wood, including the roots, can smolder for days. If the stump is in a dry area or surrounded by brush, thoroughly douse the fire with water before you leave for the day.

Rotting: Easy, but Slow

Big Rotting Tree Stump
© fallesen / Adobe Stock

Letting the stump rot takes the least amount of effort, but it’s also the slowest method. Burying the stump in soil and leaving it alone is the simplest approach, but the stump will take years to rot this way. To help the natural rotting process along, completely bury the stump with compost to create a favorable environment for fungi. Water the stump occasionally to keep it moist and turn the compost every two weeks to allow airflow. This also promotes fungi growth. Within 8 to 10 weeks, the stump should be soft enough to remove with a shovel.

Powdered stump removers formulated to speed up rotting are available, but they’re only minimally effective. Most of these are based on potassium nitrate, which breaks the wood down to a spongy consistency. High-nitrogen fertilizer, such as 45-0-0, works as a cheaper alternative to potassium nitrate stump removers.

To apply either product, drill 8- to 10-inch holes throughout the stump, pour in your stump remover of choice, add water and wait. If you used potassium nitrite, keep kids and pets away from the stump. After 6 to 8 weeks, the stump should be soft enough to remove. Because potassium nitrate burns well, some stump remover manufacturers recommend burning the rotten stump rather than cutting or digging it out.

Epsom salt (magnesium sulfate) is another helpful stump-rotting chemical. Over the course of several months, it draws moisture out of the wood, making it brittle and easy to break up. Apply Epsom salt to the stump as you would any other powdered chemical stump remover or dissolved in water. To apply dissolved salt, mix 1 gallon (8 lbs) of Epsom salt in 2 gallons of water and pour the solution over the stump. Cover the stump with a plastic tarp to keep the wood dry and reapply the Epsom salt every two to three weeks. This method is slow acting, so you might need to wait up to six months.

Left to its own devices, a stump can take as long as 10 years to break down. If you want to get rid of an ugly or inconvenient stump faster, grinding is often the safest and fastest option.

While pulling is a quick stump removal method, it’s also easy to get wrong and carries a relatively high risk of property damage or injury. Go this route only if you have the right equipment. Burning takes minimal effort, and you’ll get a few hours of cozy light and warmth out of the stump. If you don’t mind the stump hanging around for a few months longer, encouraging it to rot will save you some labor.

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