How to Kill an Old Tree Stump in Your Yard

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Have you ever tried getting rid of an old tree stump only to be left, well, stumped? (Sorry, sorry.) There’s no shortage of reasons to get rid of that pesky stump, whether you’re making way for new trees to grow, or you want to avoid trip hazards in your yard. Luckily, there’s also no shortage of solutions for you to get the job done.

The best method to get rid of a tree stump depends on your timeline. Left alone, most stumps will take years to naturally rot and decompose. There are several home remedies that will accelerate that timeline to a few weeks or months. If you need to remove it immediately, there are more physical options to kill that stump for good. Below we detail a bunch of methods, so you can choose the right one for you and your stump.

If you have time, try these home remedies

Epsom salt

This is a great solution if you’re seeking a slower, natural approach to getting rid of a tree stump. Epsom salt contains magnesium and sulfur, which are beneficial to plants but deadly in large quantities. The goal here is to overdose the stump with Epsom salt, which will suck the moisture out of it and accelerate its full decay (which, again, can take several years on its own).

Grab a power drill and follow these steps to use Epsom salt to kill a tree stump:

  1. Drill several holes in the stump, each one about an inch wide. Make each hole go as deep as you can.
  2. Pour Epsom salt directly into the drilled holes, filling them to the top.
  3. Add enough water to the holes to moisten the salt. Do it slowly so that the salt doesn’t overflow.
  4. For good measure, cover the stump with a tarp to keep the rain from diluting the Epsom salt too much.
  5. Repeat this process every few weeks to ensure its success.

When done right, the stump will die within two to three months. Here’s a fun tree fact to keep in mind going forward: Pale wood typically still has life left, while dark and brittle wood is dead.

Rock Salt

This method is similar to the Epsom salt approach, with some slight variations:

  1. Like with the Epsom salt steps, drill holes into the stump and then pack them with rock salt.
  2. Spread a generous amount of rock salt atop the stump and all along the ground around the stump.
  3. After all of the holes are packed and the stump is covered in salt, pour soil and mulch over the stump.
  4. Then, pour water over the mulch and surrounding area. Really water the salt into the soil until you don’t see any crystals remaining. This will dissolve the salt, help the roots absorb the solution, and pack the soil.
  5. Finally, apply another band of salt on the ground around the stump in order to fully kill the roots.

Keep watering the stump every few days for one to two months to keep the stump moist with the saltwater solution. If you see fungi start to grow, that’s a good sign, since they’re there to help with decomposition.

Note for these salt approaches: As roots break down, small sinkholes and other soft spots can develop around the tree stump you salted. Fill in these holes with additional soil to prevent injuries that could occur if someone tripped in one of these holes.

Boiling Water

If your home isn’t overflowing with salt, never fear: Boiling hot water can shock a stump’s root system to severely damage and eventually kill it.

  1. Dig around the stump in order to expose as much of the root system as you can.
  2. Drill holes into the roots and on top of the stump, so the hot water can have as much access as possible.
  3. Pour boiling water to kill the root system.

Once the stump and roots are dead, the natural decomposition process can begin.

Plastic Bag or Tarp

The simplest strategy: Condemn your tree stump to darkness. If you’re looking for low-effort, and don’t mind waiting for nature to do its thing, here’s how to kill a tree stump with a plastic bag or tarp:

  1. The smaller the stump, the faster this process will work. Start off by cutting the stump as close to the roots as possible with a chainsaw, hatchet, or handsaw.
  2. Cover the stump with a black trash bag or tarp.
  3. Weigh the bag down with heavy rocks or bricks.

If the stump is small enough, you can try covering it with a dark-colored bucket or container. Rotting should start to take place in two to three months.

If you need a quick fix, try these methods

While we recommend the home remedies above for a gentler death, here are some options if you need to get rid of that stump ASAP.

Digging

This method allows you to remove as many tree roots as possible and ensure that the stump doesn’t continue to grow. Plus, it’s going to be quite the workout for whoever is doing the digging. To save time and effort, and to reduce the risk of damage to your yard, you might want to hire a professional for this job. Otherwise, here’s how to dig out a stump with basic hand tools:

  1. Begin by loosening the soil around it with the mattock, if you have one.
  2. Dig around the stump, exposing as many roots as possible. Chop through roots as they get exposed. Use a chainsaw, hatchet, or handsaw to cut the larger roots.
  3. Continue working downward and inward from all sides toward the core of the stump.
  4. Once you’ve dug out and cut all of the roots around the stump, you should have enough leverage to lift and remove the stump from the ground, roots and all.

Note: This process can take multiple hours of labor, depending on the size of the tree stump and its root system.

Burning

Compared to digging, burning out the stump doesn’t tackle the roots below soil level. Then again, this method requires much less physical labor and will suffice to get rid of the above-ground issue.

Some fire precautions before embarking on your burning journey:

  • Consult your local fire department for any information about burning advisories in your area before attempting this solution.
  • Always clear the area of flammable materials and trip hazards within at least a 20 foot radius of the stump.
  • Extend a working garden hose that can quickly extinguish any flames outside the designated area.
  • Plan to be around the entire time that the stump is burning, which could take a day or longer, depending on the size, type of wood, moisture content, weather conditions, and many other variables.

If burning is the method for you, the key is not to try and set the stump itself ablaze right off the bat, but to build a fire over and around the stump. Here’s how to go about it:

  1. Optional: You can make the stump more flammable by drilling holes into it and filling them with potassium nitrate. Do not simply douse the stump with flammable liquids; the liquid tends to burn off without actually igniting the stump. The dangers outweigh the benefits.
  2. Build a fire over the exposed top of the stump. Construct a pyramid-like structure over the stump using scrap wood, or simply put the scrap wood on top of the tree stump and set it aflame.
  3. Add more wood to keep the fire going as necessary.
  4. To accelerate the process, improve airflow by digging soil away from the base of the stump.
  5. Monitor the stump until all the wood has been reduced to ash.

When you’re done burning the stump, place the ash and burned pieces in a fire-safe container or bucket.

Grinding

This is the go-to method if you have the right tools. If you don’t have a grinder machine, this approach is so quick and effective, it might be worth hiring a tree removal professional (typical prices for this job are around $100–$400). Stump grinder machine rental costs typically fall between $80 and $150 for a four-hour window.

If you have a grinder machine, use it as instructed to chip away at the wood and cut any roots that are connected to the stump. Remember to clear the area of any obstacles, like rocks, or children.

Another reminder for the grinder approach: Use the Call Before You Dig hotline, 8-1-1 so that any underground gas, electricity, water, and communication line locations will be flagged so you can avoid them.

This process can take anywhere from two to six hours depending on the size of the stump. With this method and all the above, once you’ve removed the tree stump, you’ll want to add topsoil or mulch in and around the area.

Final reminders: What not to use to kill a tree stump

  • Bleach: 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 raise soil pH.
  • Diesel: Adding flammable liquid to the process won’t provide the long, steady burn required to eliminate the stump. Instead, you risk a fire situation that is not effective, but is still dangerous.
  • Motor oil: Same deal as diesel. 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.

Instead of resorting to those items above, turn to popular herbicide brands (like Spectracide) for designated tree stump removal products. And as we said at the top, you can always use natural solutions like Epsom or rock salt.



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