There are two main ways for you to tackle how to remove a tree stump. The first is to cut the stump as low as possible to the ground, then treat it with stump killer. The second is to get stuck in and dig it out. Treating the stump takes less effort but it's not a quick solution, taking a year or more for the stump to rot away. It also means that the area occupied by the stump and roots is difficult to cultivate until it has rotted. However, it’s really the only way if you’re cutting down a tree or shrub in a densely planted border, as you’ll damage nearby plants if you try digging the stump out. It’s also a good option for an area you’re not planning to replant.
If you decide to dig it out yourself you'll need a good set of muscles to get stuck in, but it is quicker to do it this way. Read on to find out more about both techniques, plus don't miss our other how to guides, such as how to make leaf mould, for more expert advice on your gardening tasks.
How to dig out a tree stump
1. To dig out a stump, you’ll need a strong garden fork and ideally one of the best garden spades, a hand trowel, a small axe or pruning saw, strong gloves and sturdy boots, and probably some help! When you cut down the tree or shrub, leave about a metre of the trunk attached to help loosen the stump as you dig it out.
2. To start, clear space around the stump making room several feet away for all the soil you’re about to dig out so it doesn’t keep falling back into the hole. Using the garden fork and working a couple of feet out from the stump, loosen soil deeply all around it, then dig it out with the spade and pile it as far away from the hole as you can. On heavy or hard soil the fork may not be enough and you might have to use a pickaxe.
3. Keep digging down using the trowel to clear soil away from the roots, then cutting through them with the pruning saw or axe. You may be able to hack through slimmer roots with a pair of the best secateurs or the blade of the spade. Cut away roots across the full width of the hole you’re digging so they don’t get in the way of the fork or spade.
4. Eventually you’ll be able to dig under the stump, cutting away roots as you go. It takes a long time and is hard work. If you’ve left a lever of trunk in place, pushing it back and forth will help to loosen the roots. Eventually, the stump will come free, but be careful when it does as it may be very heavy. The same applies to heaving it out of the hole you’ve dug – get help if you can!
5. When you’ve removed the stump, back-fill the hole with soil adding lots of garden compost as you go. You can find out how to compost in our expert guide.
6. The bigger the stump, the harder it will be to remove. Any stump over 20cm in diameter requires a massive effort to get out, so if this is the case you should consider getting professional help. Large stumps can be ground out, and you’ll pay between £50 and £300, depending on size and any access issues.
How to remove a tree stump using a stump killer
1. To kill a tree stump without digging it out, you’ll need a stump killer such as SBK Brushwood Killer or Roundup Stump Killer (both available at Amazon), protective gloves and glasses, a paintbrush, a bow saw or pruning saw, a small axe and an old compost sack turned inside out or a black plastic sheet.
2. First, clear back the debris and soil. Then, using the pruning saw or bow saw, cut the stump as low to the ground as possible. Hack into the cut surface of the stump with the axe repeatedly to break open the wood so it holds the killer liquid. Dilute the stump killer liquid as recommended in the instructions.
3. Wearing gloves and glasses, paint the liquid generously over the stump surface and onto the bark around the edges. Try to avoid spilling any. Now cover the stump tightly with the old compost sack or plastic sheet and weigh it down with soil all around the stump crown. The stump should slowly start to rot away.
Top tips for removing a tree stump
✓ Wear strong protective clothing, including sturdy boots and heavy duty gloves.
✓ Leave a bit of trunk in place when digging out, to use as a lever to loosen roots.
✓ Cut away roots the full width of the trench around the stump when digging out, so they don’t dangle in the trench and get in the way while you’re working.
✗ Forget to wear good gloves and some eye protection when using a stump-killer liquid.
✗ Treat the stump without first chopping up the surface with an axe to increase surface area and improve retention of the killer liquid.
✗ Leave a stump treated with killer liquid open to the elements. Wildlife, pets and children are at risk from the liquid until it has been absorbed into the stump. Cover it with a thick black plastic sheet and weigh it down firmly with soil so it stays in place.