—William, Waycross, Georgia
A: Roger says: It all depends on the type, number and size of the stumps. Some trees have big, wide, flat root systems, such as pine trees. Some trees, like oak, have deep roots and a tap root that goes straight down, which makes digging extremely tough. To help clear up exactly what the best options are for removing stumps, below I've listed several methods and my thoughts on what method works best for different situations:
Hand-digging Digging by hand works best for small, shallow-rooted trees. Essential tools are a shovel, an axe or grub hoe with axe head, loppers, and a root saw. The trick is to dig and expose roots, then cut with the appropriate tool, pull the roots out of the ground with the grub hoe and put them in the compost pile.
Stump grinder: This is a machine that literally chews up stumps 6 to 12 inches below ground level. A set of carbide teeth makes quick work of small- to medium- size stumps; large ones will take a little time. I remove all the grindings to the compost pile and fill the craters with loam. If you enjoy running such equipment, these machines are available at rental houses. If machinery is not your thing, or you only have one or two stumps to do, many arborists have stump grinders and will do the grinding on a per-stump-inch price basis. If you have many stumps to get rid of, a stump grinder is the most economical way to go. Make sure you get complete instructions on how to operate the machinery and wear appropriate safety equipment.
Backhoe/skidsteer Sometimes if stumps are in planting areas we will pull them with a backhoe. This is the costliest way to remove stumps, although the expense can be kept to a minimum if you have a lot of stumps to do and a place to bury them on site. Burying eliminates the cost of hauling stumps away and disposing of them off-site. Bear in mind that it is inadvisable to bury stumps in a wetlands area, and remember too that no matter where you bury a stump, the area is going to settle sooner or later. Of course, having a backhoe on your property does create a large mess, so I usually only do this on new, large construction areas. Small- to medium-size stumps can be removed quickly with a skidsteer machine. A bucket with teeth or the pallet fork attachment will pop the stump out, which you can then gather in the bucket and bury on site. Skidsteers are available for rent, but backhoes usually are not.
Chemical removal: There are several chemicals available at garden centers that will hasten the rotting of a tree stump. This basically involves drilling a series of holes in the stump and adding the chemicals. While this method definitely does speed up decomposition time, don't expect it to be lightning-fast. The stump will still take a prolonged period of time to break down.
Fire: People sometimes use scrap wood to start a fire on top of a stump and keep it going until the stump is gone. This is a great idea if you have a few stumps to remove, have scrap wood you want to get rid of and want to keep warm for the weekend. Remember to check with local officials on the time of year when you're allowed to burn in your area.