How To: Kill a Tree Stump

Rid your yard of troublesome tree remains, once and for all.

By Bob Vila and Mark Wolfe | Updated Aug 6, 2021 5:28 PM

how to kill a tree stump diy

Photo: istockphoto.com

Removing a tree from your yard can be a tricky and expensive process, but it’s especially frustrating when you still wind up stuck with a stubborn stump. Sometimes, when its vast root system continues to send up leafy shoots, the stump will continue to grow rather than decompose long after the tree is cut down. Fortunately, there are a number of techniques you can use to rid your yard of an annoyingly persistent tree stump.

Keep reading to find a solution that’s suitable for your situation.

Physical Tree Stump Removal Techniques

If you need the stump gone as soon as possible, you could make quick work of it by digging, grinding, or burning it out. Physical removal methods come with their own sets of challenges. Let’s take a closer look at each of these methods to learn why they may or may not be right for you.

Dig the Tree Stump Out

For smaller stumps, up to about 12 inches in diameter, digging out the stump could be the most practical solution. Digging only requires basic hand tools, rather than renting or hiring a large, expensive machine. This is a labor-intensive approach, but very much doable with the right tools.

To dig out the stump you’ll need a sturdy spade, mattock, and digging iron. A narrow spade with a mid-length handle, like the Fiskars 46-inch Transplanting Spade, digs deeply and maneuvers easily around the dense root ball. The mattock, chops through roots like an axe, and loosens compacted soils easily. Use the digging iron to dig into deep or narrow spaces, and to pry up stubborn roots.

how to kill a tree stump by digging

Photo: istockphoto.com

To remove a tree stump by digging, begin by loosening the soil around it with the mattock. Clear away the loose soil with the spade. As roots are exposed, chop through them with the mattock. Continue working downward and inward from all sides toward the taproot beneath the stump. Use the digging iron to loosen soil beneath the stump or to pry the stump sideways for additional working space. When the taproot is exposed, use the sharp edge of the mattock to chop through it. Remove the stump, with its root ball and any large roots.

Burn the Tree Stump

If the stump has dried thoroughly, burning it out could be a workable solution. This method may be more time consuming than digging, and does not thoroughly remove the roots below soil level, but it may provide satisfactory results with somewhat less physical exertion. Consult your local fire department for any information about burning advisories in your area before attempting this solution.

Before lighting the fire, clear the area of flammable materials and trip hazards within at least a 20 foot radius of the stump. Also, extend a connected, pressurized garden hose to the area to quickly extinguish any flames that ignite outside the area of the burning stump. Finally, plan to attend the fire the entire time that it is burning. It could take a day or longer, depending on the size, type of wood, moisture content, weather conditions, and many other variables.

Now the hard part. Setting a stump on fire is not as easy as it sounds. Dousing it with flammable liquid is not a great idea. It’s dangerous and really not that effective. The liquid tends to burn off without actually igniting the stump. Instead, build a fire over the exposed top of the stump and keep it burning. To accelerate the process, improve airflow by digging soil away from the base of the stump. Fire needs oxygen, so the more exposure it has, the faster it will burn.

RELATED: 5 Things to Do with Tree Stumps

grinding down tree stump

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Grind the Tree Stump Down

Grinding removes the stump in as little as 15 minutes, but it could take 2 hours or more. You could hire out the work, but it’s not a difficult DIY project. Stump removal machines are available at The Home Depot Rental, Sunbelt Rentals, United Rentals, or your local equipment rental company. If you do it yourself, be sure to wear the proper protective gear including safety glasses and hearing protection when using a stump grinder.

The process of stump grinding can be dangerous to the operator and bystanders. The machine grinds to a depth of about 8 inches, throwing the debris into a nearby pile. Some dangers of using a stump grinder include flying wood chips or rocks, and possibly cutting utility lines.

Use the Call Before You Dig hotline, 8-1-1, at least two weeks before your planned work day. All of the underground gas, electricity, water, and communication line locations will be flagged so that you can avoid them. Keep the work area clear of bystanders while you work.

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Home Remedies to Kill a Tree Stump

If time is on your side, you could simply kill the stump to keep it from resprouting. Soon, the natural processes of decay will take over to weaken the wood, allowing you to remove it more easily. If the long, slow approach works for you, consider employing one of these easy, inexpensive home remedies for how to kill a tree stump using materials you may already have on hand.

Epsom Salt Formula for Stump Removal

how to kill a tree stump

Photo: istockphoto.com

Fortunately, there’s a favorite bath-time essential that moonlights as an easy stump removal solution: Epsom salt. Epsom salt, or magnesium sulfate, is a naturally occurring compound of magnesium, sulfur, and oxygen which are necessary plant food elements. But in a high concentration it draws the moisture out of the stump, killing it within a month or so.

Start the Epsom salt method by drilling 1/4-inch holes, about 3 inches from the outside of the stump. Drill into the stump as deeply as possible, spacing the holes about 1 inch apart. When you have drilled as many holes into the stump as possible, fill them with Epsom salt and then add enough water to saturate the minerals without spillage. Then sprinkle Epsom salt around the entire base. Finish by covering the stump with a tarp to prevent rainwater from washing any of your secret ingredient out of the holes. Although it could take up to a month or more, the solution will eventually cut off the moisture supply to the roots, allowing you to pry up the tree stump and get rid of it for good.

Don’t have any Epsom salts laying around the house? No trouble, you can find it on Amazon. Once equipped, you can easily—and naturally—remove the stump eyesore from your yard.

Saltwater Solution to Kill a Tree Stump

Rock salt is another multi-use product that could help eradicate unwanted stumps, but caution is warranted. Like Epsom salt, it kills by drawing out the stump’s life-sustaining moisture. Although rock salt is a naturally occurring substance that takes about the same amount of time to kill a stump as Epsom salt, it is less desirable.

Rock salt, or sodium chloride, contains the elements sodium and chlorine. These elements not only kill tree stumps, but also have an adverse effect on desirable plants. If the salt concentration in the soil is too high, sodium and chlorine displace phosphorus and potassium that the plants need, causing deficiencies and death. Note other home remedies that use saltwater to kill poison ivy and other hard-to-kill weeds.

starving tree stump with tarp

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Forced Darkness to Starve a Tree Stump

If you’re going for a natural, additive-free approach to stump elimination, try this. Trees, and the suckers that grow from their stumps, need light to photosynthesize, so why not turn out the lights? To starve a tree with darkness, you’ll need a large tarp or sheet of black plastic, and a large volume of organic waste, such as wood chips, fallen leaves, or grass clippings.

First, cut the tree as close to the ground as possible. Then cover the stump and as much of the exposed roots as possible with the tarp. Finally, pile the organic waste over the tarp, at least 12 inches thick. Suckers may develop from the exposed portion of the root zone, but the stump will slowly weaken and die.

Chemicals That Kill Tree Roots

Most chemicals come with the warning, “use only as directed.” We agree with that point. Although there are a vast array of chemicals that could effectively kill stumps, possibly as well as Epsom salt, many of them cause collateral damage to adjacent plants, animals, or people. What’s the point when there are safer alternatives that are more effective? With that in mind, read on to learn about several well-known examples.

Tree Stump Remover

Many of the chemical products designed to remove stumps, like Spectracide Stump Remover, are made with potassium nitrate. This compound contains potassium, nitrogen, and oxygen that reduce the natural decay time from years to as little as 4 to 6 weeks. It is safe for the environment, and is the fastest product on the market.

Stump removers are most effective when used on aged, dead stumps. If you are dealing with a freshly cut tree, start with a stump killer such as Ferti Lome Stump Killer. Most of these products incorporate systemic insecticides like triclopyr to kill the roots and eliminate regrowth of suckers. Apply the chemical to the top of the stump within minutes of making the fresh cut, so the product is quickly absorbed into the remaining stem and roots.

how to kill a tree stump with stump remover

Photo: amazon.com

DON’T Use Bleach

Bleach is not sold as an herbicide and should not be used on plants. The dangers outweigh the marginal benefits. As outlined earlier in the rock salt segment, chlorine is indeed a naturally occurring element, but it poses problems to desirable plants when it is concentrated in the soil. The truth is that applying the high concentration needed to kill a tree stump would potentially expose adjacent grass, shrubs, and perennials to toxic levels of chlorine, and significantly raises soil pH. Instead, save your bleach for more appropriate uses.

DON’T Use Motor Oil

There is no good reason to use motor oil to kill tree stumps instead of one of the aforementioned products. Plus, a quart of motor oil costs about the same as the Spectracide Stump Killer, which is a tested and proven product for exactly this purpose. It is less messy to use and works fast.

DON’T Use Diesel

Diesel is popular among stump burners because it does not blow up like gasoline. However, as noted in that section, adding flammable liquid to the process won’t provide the long, steady burn required to eliminate the stump. As a chemical stump killer, it would likely have an effect as well. But if you have to purchase a special can and a quantity of diesel fuel but don’t have another use for diesel fuel, wouldn’t it make sense to use Spectracide Stump Killer or Epsom salt?

RELATED: The Best (and Weirdest) Things You Can Do with a Tree Stump

FAQ About How to Kill a Tree Stump

Does tree stump remover kill grass?

Tree stump remover granules, those made of potassium nitrate, specifically for the purpose of killing stumps, do not kill grass. In fact, they are made of compounds that break down into usable plant nutrients.

What can you put on a tree stump to make it rot?

Fungi are the most effective organisms for breaking down wood fiber, so you could plug mushroom spawn into the stump. An old method of hastening stump decomposition is to cut grooves into the stump, pile soil on top, and cover the stump with a tarp to promote microbe growth.

Will bleach kill a tree stump?

How to Kill a Tree Stump with Epsom Salt

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No studies have shown that bleach is an effective tree stump killer.

What’s the best thing to kill tree stumps?

The best thing to kill a tree stump is a systemic stump killer herbicide, such as triclopyr, applied directly to the fresh cut on the stump.

How long does it take for Epsom salt to kill a tree stump?

Following the directions outlined above, it takes 8 to 10 weeks for the stump to die using the Epsom salt method.

Final Thoughts

Left to rot naturally, a large tree stump may take decades to die and decompose. In the meantime it may cause a variety of difficulties, from unsightly suckering to trip hazards to sinkholes and more. To get rid of the problem, you have three sound and effective choices. For complete removal, when every large root must go, grab your tools and dig the stump out. Stump grinding is an easy, fast solution for large stumps, but the lower portion of the tap root will be left behind to rot naturally.

Chemical methods for how to kill a tree stump cost less and require less time and effort. But take care to avoid unproven and unnecessarily risky home chemical treatments. Choose Epsom salts to kill suckering tree stumps, and make later removal easier. If removal is necessary but not urgent, apply stump remover granules to hasten the decay process of already-dead stumps. These products will make slow-but-easy work of that hard project you’ve been dreading.

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