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Removing Tree Stumps

Written by Rhonda Ferree, retired horticulture educator

Recent droughty summers, a cold winter, and various other environmental and pest problems have killed many trees in our area. Usually when a tree is removed a stump is left behind. Here are several suggestions on how to remove tree stumps easily, quickly, and economically.

According to Bob Frazee, retired University of Illinois Natural Resources Educator, the cheapest and easiest method of removal, although not the quickest, is to cut the stump at or below the ground level, cover it with soil, and keep the soil moist. Decay organisms will then rot the wood. Grass may be planted in the soil if the thin layer over the stump is kept moist during dry seasons. The decaying method may be hastened by boring several vertical holes in the stump before it is covered with soil. This method may be used any time during the year.

Frazee says that stumps may also be burned out. However, before burning stumps, be sure to check your local ordinances to see whether open burning is permitted. Frazee suggests that stumps may be burned out rather quickly with charcoal or coal by making a "stove" from an empty 5-gallon metal container. A stove is made by removing the bottom and top from the can and punching 4 to 5 one-inch holes in the side near the bottom. Place the stove on top of the stump and build a fire in it. A hot fire is required to burn out stumps, since the wood absorbs moisture from the soil and burns like green wood. Stumps will burn best during dry seasons.

Grubbing or digging out stumps is another option, according to Frazee, but it is hard work. Stumps larger than 15 inches in diameter are usually rather difficult for the average person to remove.

A popular option for homeowners to explore is use of a commercial stump grinder. Mechanical stump grinders that chip the wood are available from some landscaping firms, tree removal services, and some community street departments. A stump-cutting or grinding machine is often the quickest and most satisfactory means of removal. It can chip out a stump to 8 or 12 inches below ground level in minutes.

Stump removal is not easy. Many people resolve to leave the stump and let it decay naturally. Chemicals are available that can help speed up the decomposition process. Instructions for stump removal chemicals will vary from product to product, but all require drilling several holes in the stump. A measured amount of chemical is poured in each hole, and then water is added to fill the holes. Let the mixture stand for four to six weeks. Repeat applications may be necessary.

Sometimes the decaying stump is included in the landscaping. I saw a stump used as a miniature fairy garden recently that was really cute. Try adding containers on top of the stump for a different look. I once put a wooden wheelbarrow filled with annual flowers on a stump and added more annual flowers around the stump. Use your imagination and you may find leaving the stump is a good option.

If the tree is not completely dead when it is cut down the stump may produce sucker growth. You have two options to solve this problem. The quickest solution is to immediately treat the cut surface with an herbicide such as Tordon. You can also cut off all new sucker growth before it reaches eight inches to gradually deplete the stored food, but this can take five to ten years to be completely effective.

Finally, remember that dead trees are an important part of our ecosystem. Many birds and small mammals nest in dead trees. Consider leaving the tree if it is located in an area where it won't be an eyesore or cause safety issues over time.



As horticulture educator, Rhonda Ferree inspired citizens in local communities to grow their own food and improve their home landscapes. She focused on high quality, impactful programs that taught homeowners how to create energy-efficient landscapes using sustainable practices that increase property values and help the environment.

After 30 years with University of Illinois Extension, Rhonda retired in 2018. She continues to share her passion for horticulture related topics as “Retro Rhonda” on social media.

ILRiverHort is a blog that helps people connect to nature and grow.