How to Kill Tree Stump – 8 Methods

If you have a tree stump in your yard that is starting to produce new shoots, you’re probably wondering how to kill a tree stump to get rid of it before it attracts pests or grows. A half-dead tree stump is an obstacle that won’t disappear by itself. However, there are several ways to go about it if you’re wondering how to kill a tree stump, and some may be more effective than others. We’re going to outline several ways to accomplish this task to remove that unsightly stump and take back your yard below.

Why You Should Kill & Remove Tree Stumps

After you cut down a tree or it falls, you typically have a small part of the trunk left over. This part usually contains roots, and they can continue to be a nuisance or regrow. In most cases, a stump won’t be able to grow new shoots because it’s fully or half-dead, but some will.

In these instances, it’s nothing but an unpleasant view that can mar the overall look of your backyard. Also, a dead or dying stump is a magnet for insects and pests that can spread to other areas of your home. The stump could occupy extra space that you could use for other things like a patio or garden. If you leave it alone, it can be a hazard that causes accidents.

Someone can easily come along and trip over the tree stump and injure themselves. The roots can also pull water away from other trees, and this reduces the overall health of your lawn. However, getting these stumps out of the ground isn’t easy, but there are several ways to go about it. If you don’t, the roots from this stump can damage your home’s sewer and water lines.

1 Large Tree Stump
Tree stumps can look unsightly in your yard, and they can present tripping hazards or issues for your septic system if they get out of hand. Tree stump by Matthew Paul Argall / CC BY 2.0

Method One – Boiling Water

The first way how to kill a tree stump involves boiling water, and it’s one of the most cost-effective options that you have available. This technique can impact the roots when they’re exposed to the boiling water. The overarching goal of this method is to damage the root system to kill them off.

All you have to do is take a pot and add a substantial amount of water to it. Put the pot on the stove and wait until it starts to boil. Take the boiling water and pour it directly on the roots of your tree stump. For this method to be effective, the water has to burn the majority of the root system.

If it’s possible, try to scrape away any dirt and hit the roots as far out as you can. It is possible to pour water on them, but you can also cut them closer with an axe so you have less of a job to do in terms of hunting for the roots and trying to get the boiling water on them. Instead, you can focus your attention on the uncut portions. If you want the process to go faster, you can drill holes into the tree stumps so that the heat will spread. This will deteriorate the stump faster.

Method Two – Chemical Stump Remover

Using a commercial stump killer is one of the slowest methods you’ll find when you’re figuring out how to kill a tree stump. However, it’s also one of the safest and least labor-intensive options, and it’ll get rid of both the stump and the roots. So, it makes sense that it’s one of the most popular DIY approaches.

The first thing you have to do is get a high-quality saw or chainsaw and remove as much of the stump as you possibly can by cutting low to the ground. Have goggles and protective gloves on to avoid injuries. Strip away the tree bark because it has a lot of soft waterproofing that can easily slow down the decomposition process.

Get a drill and drill ½-inch to 1-inch holes vertically into the stump. You want to keep the holes between one and two inches apart, and drill as deep as you can. If possible, try to keep it around six inches deep. You want to drill down below the level of any surrounding soil to get deep into the stump. Once you have your holes, carefully fill each hole with your commercial stump killer. You should follow the instructions on the bottle because they vary from product to product, and keep your protective gear on in case it splashes.

If you’ve picked out a granular stump killer, the manufacturer will most likely recommend that you add water to the drill holes and let the granular stump killer dissolve and slowly soak into the stump’s wood fibers. You should make a point to regularly check the rotting progress on the stump and top up your stump killer if necessary. Once a few weeks go by, you should notice that the stump is spongy. This is the point where you can remove it by digging it out or with a pickaxe.

2 Chemical Stump Removal
A chemical stump remover is a great choice if you want something that is quick, powerful, and effective. However, you do want to be careful and ensure that you don’t get it on the surrounding plants. Stump speech by Robert Couse-Baker / CC BY 2.0

Method Two – Chopping it Up

This is a more labor-intensive option on how to kill tree stumps, and you’ll need a stump grinder for it. If you don’t have one and you don’t want to rent one from a home improvement store, you can also chop it up to remove it. However, the stump grinder is a better choice if you have a larger stump in the yard, and it’s a rotary cutter that will grind it up. You’ll also want to get protective equipment like a mask and goggles to protect you from flying wood chips and sawdust.

Cut the stump close to the ground. Get a chainsaw and level off the stump until it’s a few inches from the ground. Remove any roots or branches that stick up too far off the ground to give the grinder a stable surface to operate on. You want to put on your mask and goggles before positioning the stump grinder over the stump. Make sure you follow the manufacturer’s instructions and move it slowly back and forth the surface to grind it up. You want to continue the process along the aerial roots to grind those too. Make sure you keep your feet out of the way of the grinder, and consider wearing heavy boots so you don’t accidentally hurt yourself. Your pets and kids should stay safely away.

To finish, shovel out your grindings and fill the holl. You want to get rid of all of the wood chips and discard them or recycle them as mulch before filling the hole with soil. You may need to get an ax to get the remaining roots.

Method Three – Epsom or Rock Salt

Using rock or epsom salt is a cheap way to kill your stump, and it’s an easy process. When you use this method, it will take several months to work and the stump to die, so it may not be a good choice on how to kill tree stumps if you want them gone quickly. Don’t use regular table salt because this can hurt the soil around the stump. Instead, get 100% rock or epsom salt with no added ingredients to make sure it doesn’t both the space directly around the stump.

If you have a really stubborn tree stump, you can add a herbicide with triclopyr or glyphosate to the mix. A chemical herbicide will kill it quickly, but it could also kill the roots on the surrounding trees or shrubs at the same time. Also, glyphosate is a probable human carcinogen, and it’s prohibited for use in some states. You should double-check with your local laws and be careful if you use it.

Next, you should drill holes into the stump, and work out a pattern across the whole surface area so the solution can penetrate down. The holes should be a minimum of eight inches deep by one inch wide. If you have a long enough bit, extend the depth to a foot. Penetrating as deep as you can into the stump will ensure that the salt solution saturates the area. If you don’t have a long drill bit, you can use an ax to chop the wood and make deep gouges. For stumps with deeper aerial roots, drill holes in them too.

Pack all of the holes with salt before sealing them with wax. You want to fill the holes around ¾ full of rock or epsom salt, and make sure you get the holes you drilled into the aerial roots. Light an unscented, plain candle and drop wax into the holes to plug them. You want to keep the salt in place instead of scatting it around. Excess salt can hurt your topsoil and nearby plant roots.

Finally, cover the stump. You can use a trash bag, plastic tarp, or something else to cover it. It’ll die much more quickly without access to any sunlight and rain coming to it to nourish the shoots. After six to eight weeks, the stump will die. You should check it every two weeks or so to see how it’s progressing. When the stump dies, it should start falling apart by itself.

Method Four – Shielding it from the Sun

The stump needs the sun to grow, so covering it will help when you’re learning how to kill tree stumps. The idea is to slowly allow the stump to die due to lack of sunlight, so you start the process by putting a trash bag or a dark tarp over it to block sun and water. You want to wait 3 to 6 months for the stump to slowly die with this method. Check on it from time to time to see how it’s progressing. Eventually, it’ll start to fall apart and rot. As this process takes hold you want to introduce a stump removal solution to speed it up. This could be a chemical alternative, or you could go with epsom or rock salt.

If you see any saplings start to grow, cut them off. Covering the stump completely should block anything from growing, but until the stump dies completely, you want to get rid of any saplings off the base as soon as they sprout. You can also paint them with a woody brush killer as long as it has triclopyr. If you want to let a new tree grow from the old one, cut off your additional saplings and skip applying the herbicide.

Three Techniques To Physically Remove a Tree Stump

3 Physical Methods to Remove Stumps
If you have the resources and time to use physical methods and you’re learning how to kill tree stumps, consider the three following options. When you compare them to most of the remedies we listed above, they’re a lot quicker. However, they take more tools, effort, time, and money to complete. Stump_Pin by Twentyfour Students / CC BY-SA 2.0

Physical Method One – Burning the Stump

To burn the stump, you’ll start by drilling holes into it. Burning is a good method to get rid of the stump after you’ve successfully killed it. You want to drill holes across the stump’s surface, and the holes should be between 8 and 12 inches deep by ½ to 1 inch wide. You will need a longer drill bit for this project. Penetrating deep into the stump will ensure that the fire gets in and burns it down to the tips of the roots to make it easier to remove.

Pour kerosine into the holes. You want to soak the stump with kerosine to make it easier to light it on fire and burn it to ash. You want to fully saturate the stump to stop the fire from going out before it reaches the root tips. Another option you have is to put charcoal on the stump and light it. The coals will slowly burn down into the tree stump, and it can reduce the chances of injuring nearby plants.

If you’re worried about catching nearby objects on fire, you shouldn’t use this method. You’re going to set this stump on fire, and it can be effective, but it can be dangerous if you don’t have a lot of open space around the stump. Check local city ordinances to make sure it’s a controlled burn, and you can call 411 to find out more information.

You can also put scrap wood on top of the stump and use a fire starter to cause it to ignite. As the fire starts to burn down, the stump will eventually catch and go up. You want to double-check that the stump actually starts to burn, and you may need to add more wood if necessary to keep the fire burning.

Monitor the stump as it starts to burn to ash, and make sure you never leave it unattended because it can get out of control. Depending on the stump size, it can take several hours to burn. Fill in the hole and dig out the ashes. You want to remove all of the ashes, down to where the roots are, before you fill it in with fresh soil.

Physical Method Two – Dig the Tree Stump Out of the Ground

Digging the tree stump out is one way to get it out of your yard, but it can be a very time-consuming process that is potentially destructive to your garden or yard. This method ensures that you can remove as many tree roots as possible to stop the stump from growing, and this is why it’s a popular method when you’re learning how to kill stumps. To save effort and time, hiring a professional with the correct equipment can help. To dig the stump out, you should:

  • Dig around the stump to expose as many roots as you can
  • Get a hatchet, chainsaw, or hand saw to cut away the larger roots. Once you continue digging, you can find smaller roots that you can get rid of using loppers or clippers
  • Once you’ve cut all of the roots away, you can lift the stump out of the ground
  • Fill the hole with fresh dirt and cover it with mulch or topsoil

You should note that this process can take several hours of labor, and larger stumps will be more expensive to remove.

Physical Method Three – Grinding the Tree Stump

Grinding the stump is the fastest method for how to kill tree stumps and remove them. You will need to hire a tree removal specialist or rent a machine to break apart the wood in the stump and the roots. This will typically cost between $100 and $400 a stump. The rental for the stump grinder itself runs between $80.00 to $150 for a four-hour window.

You want to start the process by trimming the stump with a chainsaw, dig around it, and remove any rocks. Get the machine’s cutter blade to chip away at the stump and cut away any connected roots. This process can take between two and six hours, depending on how large the stump is. Once you finish, you want to spread dirt over and in the hole before adding mulch or topsoil.

Grinding the tree stump may be expensive, especially if you hire someone to do it for you, but it’s the fastest method to remove it safely and efficiently.

How to Accelerate Stump Rot

How quickly your tree stump rots will depend on a large number of factors, and it can influence which method you choose when it comes to figuring out how to kill tree stumps. A hardwood tree will take longer for the rot process to set in than a softwood tree. You can take a few steps to accelerate this process though.

How compact your soil is and the type of soil you have will impact the decomposition rate because it needs oxygen. If you have very well-aerated soil around the tree’s roots, this will speed up the stump decay. Moisture and air temperature also factor in to help create an efficient rotting process. You’re most likely familiar with damp wood getting soft and rotting, and a similar process applies to the stump.

The stump’s preparation is the most important part of the proces. Larger surface areas with moist wood and great aeration are the perfect conditions for rot to start. So, you want to create these conditions. You want to expose as much surface area as you can by cutting the stumps as low to the ground as possible. Strip away any bark and separate the shallow roots from the stump using a shovel or ax. You want to create deep grooves in the wood.

Water your stump and the soil around it once or twice a week during the rotting cycle. Try to loosen the soil up around at the same time to improve airflow.

What To Avoid When Learning How to Kill Tree Stumps

There are a few factors that you can consider when you want to remove or kill your tree stumps to make it more effective. They include:

    • Bleach—You can use bleach to kill a stump if you pour it over the area in very large quantities. However, we recommend that you don’t do this since it can kill the surrounding plants and ruin the soil. It would be a much healthier option for your yard’s general environment if you went with a more natural method like Epsom salt as it can be beneficial to the soil and plants.
    • Diesel Fuel—Avoid using gasoline or diesel fuel to burn down your tree trunks since they don’t give the effective, slow burn you need to break down the wood properly. Gasoline and diesel fuel can be toxic for the surrounding plants in your yard. Instead, we suggest you use smaller amounts of kerosene with kindling wood to burn the stump.
  • Motor Oil—There isn’t a great reason to use motor oil  to kill your tree stumps instead of one of the items we listed. Also, a quart of motor oil can cost just as much as your commercial-grade stump killer, and this is proven and tested to be exactly for this purpose. It works quicker and is much less messy.
  • Potential Dangers—Even if your county allows you to burn the stumps, you want to monitor the progress and maintain it until it finishes burning to keep it from spreading beyond your desired area. You also want to take precautions when you use tree removal equipment like stump grinder or chainsaw. Make a point to wear protective gear too.
  • Proximity to Plants—Should the stump be close to plants that you want to keep, you should be extremely careful when it comes to adding chemicals to the stump when you’re learning how to kill tree stumps. Keep the chemicals off any surrounding plants because it can severely damage or kill them.

How to Kill Tree Stumps – FAQs

5 Kill Tree Stump FAQs
Since this can be an involved process, it’s not unusual for people to have questions regarding learning how to kill tree stumps. We’ve picked out the most popular ones and answered them for you below. Churchyard stump by Siaron James / CC BY 2.0

1. Does commercial-grade tree stump remover get rid of grass?

Any tree stump remover granules, especially the ones that are specifically made for killing stumps and feature potassium nitrate, don’t kill the grass. They even feature compounds that will break down for usable nutrients for your plants.

2. Will bleach kill a tree stump?

You could try, but there are no concrete studies that show that bleach works as an effective method to kill tree stumps. You’re more apt to damage the surrounding plants or soil.

3. What materials do you put onto your tree stump to make it rot?

Fungi work as the most effective organisms to break down wood fibers. So, it’s possible to put mushroom spawn onto your tree stump. One older method of speeding up the rotting process is to cut deep grooves into the stump, put soil on it, and cover it with a tarp to encourage microbe growth.

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

If you follow the step-by-step instructions we outlined above, it’ll take between 8 and 10 weeks to kill the tree stump using Epsom or rock salt.

5. What’s the best thing you can use to kill tree stumps?

Hands down, the best thing that you can use to kill your tree stumps is a synthetic or chemical stump killer. Applying triclopyr directly to the fresh cuts on the stump is the quickest way.

Bottom Line

If you leave them to rot naturally, a bigger tree stump can take years or even decades to die and start to decompose. In the meantime, it can cause a range of issues, including sinkholes and trip hazards to unsightly puckering. To stop the problem, we’ve outlined several methods on how to kill tree stumps for you to choose from. If you want to remove it completely, you have to remove every large root using tools to dig around it. Stump grinding is an easy and quick process for bigger stumps, but you’ll leave the lower portion of the taproot behind.

Chemical methods for how to kill tree stumps cost less while requiring less effort and time to complete. You should be careful so you don’t use risky home chemical treatments that can damage the area around the stump. With a little work and patience, you can clear that pesky stump out of your yard to clear up the view.

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