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A large yellow machine removing a tree stump in a green yard.

How To Kill a Tree Stump

Typical Cost Range: $100 – $400

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Author Image Written by Brenda Woods Updated 02/16/2024

Cutting down a tree is typically not enough to kill it completely. The stump will often continue to sprout, and it may act as food and shelter for pests like termites.

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Professional tree stump removal costs $150–$500 on average.

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Home Remedies for Tree Stump Removal

Large tree stumps in particular are quite difficult to kill and remove. Here are a few ways you can get rid of a tree stump before getting your hands dirty with physical removal.

Girdling

If you haven’t yet cut down the tree but wish to remove it from your property eventually, the easiest way to kill the tree and its roots at the same time is through girdling. Cut a 2-inch wide ring all the way around the tree, going at least 1 inch deeper than the maximum thickness of the bark. The tree will no longer be able to send nutrients from the leaves down into the roots, so the whole root system will eventually die with no chance of sprouts from the stump.

Of course, the problem with this solution is that it requires a living tree, and it takes a very long time. The tree will typically take a year or so to die. If you’ve only got a stump to work with or you need the tree gone quickly, this won’t be much help. However, if you have the time and foresight to girdle the tree, you should be able to remove the tree and its stump once it’s dead.

Herbicide

The most effective way to kill a tree stump without physically removing it is to use a synthetic chemical specifically designed to kill plants and brush. Of course, you must take great care with these chemicals, since they can kill grass and other plants around the stump. According to the University of Arizona Extension, brush-killing herbicides that contain trichlopyr or glyphosate are the best choice for most tree species. If you can apply them immediately after you finish cutting down the tree, you’ll get the quickest results.

However, even if the cut stump is old, herbicides will still be effective. Always follow the manufacturer’s instructions on the label, which usually involve drilling holes or cutting gouges in the stump. Only apply the herbicide to the stump itself, not any suckers or sprouts that pop up, as you may inadvertently poison other plants. Make sure to wear proper protective gear, including gloves.

Plastic Bag or Tarp

Small stumps may be killable by blocking off their access to light. Without sunlight, the tree stump will eventually die, though there’s no telling how long the process will take.

Here’s how to kill a tree stump with an opaque (light-blocking) plastic bag or tarp:

  1. Similar to other methods, cut 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 opaque tarp. You could cover a smaller stump with a bucket or other opaque container.
  3. Weigh the bag or bucket down with heavy rocks or bricks.

This technique requires little to no effort, but it will be slower than physical removal methods.

Epsom Salt (Not Recommended)

When you look for DIY stump-killing solutions, the first suggestion is almost always Epsom salt. This salt, a form of magnesium sulfate, is deadly to plants in large quantities but otherwise low in toxicity. If you’re looking for “natural” solutions, this solution sounds ideal and inexpensive. However, there’s little evidence to show that Epsom salt effectively kills tree stumps.

Nevertheless, if you wish to try this method, here’s how to do it:

  1. Drill deep holes in the stump about 1 inch wide with a power drill.
  2. Fill the holes with Epsom salt.
  3. Sprinkle the stump with water.
  4. Cover the stump with a tarp to keep the rain from washing away the substance.
  5. Repeat this process every few weeks to ensure its success.

If this process is successful, the stump will die within two to three months and be close to full decay after a year. Note that you should never use rock salt or table salt, which could seriously harm the quality of your soil.

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Techniques To Physically Remove a Tree Stump

If you don’t have at least several months to wait to kill the stump, you’ll need to physically remove it from the ground. Compared to “home remedies,” these methods are much quicker but take more effort, tools, and money to perform.

Use Fire To Kill a Tree Stump

Burning a tree stump will work quickly, but be aware that it is not legal everywhere, and it is not the safest method. It also won’t remove the entire stump or any of the roots. Proceed with caution, and check with your local fire department to see if burning a tree stump falls in line with the local fire code.

Once you have approval to burn your tree stump, there are a few ways you can move forward. You can drill holes into the trunk, pour kerosene into each hole, light scrap wood on the surface of the stump, and carefully monitor the wood as it burns. This method is slower, but it burns the wood from deeper within the stump.

You can also cut criss-cross lines in the wood that are about 5 to 6 inches deep with a chainsaw, then simply light some kindling on top and monitor the stump until it’s burned down below ground level. Never leave a burning stump unattended.

Dig the Tree Stump Out of the Ground

Digging out a tree stump is one way to remove it from your yard, but it requires time-consuming work. This method allows you to remove as many tree roots as possible and ensure that the stump doesn’t continue to grow. However, you must take care not to damage the root systems of other plants or trees, and you should always call 811 before you dig in your yard. To save time and effort, consider hiring a professional with digging equipment to handle the job.

Here’s how to dig a tree stump out of the ground:

  1. Dig around the stump, exposing as many roots as possible.
  2. Use a chainsaw, hatchet, or handsaw to cut the larger roots. As you continue digging, you may find smaller roots that can be cut with clippers or loppers.
  3. Once you’ve cut all of the roots around the stump, lift and remove the stump from the ground.
  4. Fill the hole with dirt and cover it with topsoil or mulch.

Note: This process will take multiple hours or even days of labor, depending on the size of the tree stump and the root structure.

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Watch this video to get an idea of the work that goes into digging out a tree stump by hand.

Grinding the Tree Stump

This is the quickest method for killing and removing tree stumps. It involves hiring a tree removal specialist or renting a stump grinder machine to break apart the wood in the trunk and tree roots. 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.

To grind a tree stump, start by trimming the stump with a chainsaw, digging around it and removing any rocks. Then, use the machine’s cutter blade to chip away at the wood and cut any roots that are connected to the stump. This process can take anywhere from two to six hours depending on the size of the stump. Once you’re finished, spread dirt in and over the hole, adding topsoil or mulch if desired.

What To Avoid When Killing Tree Stumps

Some DIY solutions the internet recommends for killing tree stumps are actively dangerous or destructive. These are not worth an attempt to save a few bucks or hours on a landscaping service:

  • Bleach—Bleach can be used to kill a stump when poured over it in high quantities, but we recommend avoiding this method since it can be detrimental to the surrounding plants.
  • Diesel fuel—Avoid using diesel fuel or gasoline to burn tree trunks, since these solutions don’t offer a slow, effective burn needed to properly break down the wood. Diesel fuel and gasoline can also be toxic for the surrounding plants in your yard. Instead, we suggest using minimal amounts of kerosene and kindling wood for your stump fires.
  • Failing to take precautions—Even if your city allows for burning a stump, monitor and maintain the fire until it’s finished burning to keep it from spreading beyond the controlled area. You should also take safety precautions when using tree removal equipment, such as a chainsaw or stump grinder, and wear the proper protective gear.
  • Using herbicide indiscriminately—If your stump is located near plants that you wish to protect, be careful when adding chemicals to the stump and keep them off any surrounding plants.

Our Conclusion

When it comes to killing tree stumps, the less effort and money that the method requires, the longer it’s going to take. If you need your stump removed quickly, your best bet is to break out a shovel, rent a stump grinder, or call an arborist or other lawn care professional to do the job for you. You’ll pay for labor costs, but you won’t have to break a sweat.

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Typical Price Range: $341—$1,523

Frequently Asked Questions

How long does it take for tree stumps to naturally decompose?

It takes about three to seven years for tree stumps to naturally decay on their own. However, the actual time will depend on your location, environment, climate, and type of tree. Generally, the lower the stump is cut, the quicker it will rot.

What are the best tree stump remover products?

Popular herbicide brands including Spectracide, Stump Stop, and Bonide make  stump killer solutions. Your best bet is to use herbicides containing glyphosate and triclopyr.

Can I remove a stump without professional help?

If you’re considering removing a stump on your own, you can rent a stump grinder to break up the wood and cut off the roots. However, hiring a professional can save you time and effort, since they’ll have the proper equipment and expertise needed to take care of your stump.

What is the best way to kill a tree stump?

The best way to kill a tree stump depends on how long you’re willing to wait. If you need to remove the stump as soon as possible, hiring a professional to dig it up or grind it is the best option. If you don’t mind waiting for a few months to a year for the stump to completely decompose, we recommend using herbicides or covering the stump with a black plastic bag.

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