Well, it’s done. Your old tree, perhaps sick, dying or dead, has finally been cut and there are only memories left… and a huge stump. But how to get rid of the latter?
Here are 5 methods you might consider:
1. Let Mother Nature Do the Work
This is the most laidback method, as any stump will eventually rot and disappear on its own, but it’s also the slowest method: it can take years, sometimes more than a decade, for it to rot away. How fast it disappears depends on stump’s size, the tree species, the state of the trunk before cutting, climatic conditions, etc. As it decomposes, the stump will feed an abundance of microbes in the surrounding soil. Mushrooms may appear on the stump or from buried roots, but no, they will not attack your plants: they are saprophytic fungi, dedicated solely to the decomposition of dead matter. Some of them may well be edible.
You can hide a decaying stump by covering it with soil (easier to do if you cut it close to the ground) and that in fact helps accelerate decomposition, or place a container or two on top it. Planting shrubs, conifers or perennials around the stump will also help hide it. If the stump is high enough, it can even be used as a bench, a small table or a pedestal for a sculpture while you’re awaiting its disappearance.
2. Dig It Out
With either a lot of hard work or a good tractor or other pulling device, you can dig the stump out or pull it free. Dig all around it to expose the roots (the larger the stump, the more room you’ll need to maneuver) and cut through them with an ax, a circular saw or a chainsaw. Try levering out the stump with a pick or a crowbar (easier to do with a small stump) or attach a chain or rope around it and pull with a tractor, backhoe, truck… even a horse or mule if you’re the homesteading type.
3. Shred It
You can use a stump grinder to get rid of it. This is the fastest method, but also the most expensive. You can rent one or hire an arborist or a landscape gardener who owns one to do the job. Use ear plugs—it’s going to be very noisy!—and you’ll need eye protection too. The tool does an amazing job. It just takes a few passes to make the stump disappear to a depth of 6 to 12 inches (15 to 30 cm) below ground and, to be honest, manipulating the machine is actually quite enjoyable. In a few minutes, there are only wood chips left and you can use those as mulch or add them to the compost bin.
4. Hasten Decomposition
You can easily and inexpensively rot a stump away with a commercial stump remover, available in just about any hardware store. Start by drilling holes into the stump at least ¼ inch (1.25 cm) in diameter and about 8 to 12 inches (20 to 30 cm) deep, then fill the holes with the product. They’re generally rich nitrogen and that stimulates natural bacteria to work extra hard and thus rot the stump away.
Most stump destructors these days are just potassium nitrate (KNO3), a highly concentrated synthetic fertilizer. If it were sold in its natural form, the product would be labeled saltpeter, a naturally mined mineral, and you could get away with calling it an organic product, but these days, potassium nitrate is generally made synthetically, so no dice. If you do object to synthetic chemicals, anything rich in nitrogen will do the job. Some people simply use blood meal.
Add water to the holes, following the manufacturer’s instructions, and keep the stump moist afterwards (covering it with a tarpaulin or pail will help). When the wood becomes soft and spongy, which can take 4 to 6 weeks (a year or more for blood meal), you’ll need to work the stump over with an ax or a crowbar, removing it chunk by chunk. Often, people will burn what remains of the stump (see the following point).
5. Burn, Baby, Burn!
This method will probably not be permitted in a municipality (always check with authorities before proceeding!), but is certainly commonly used elsewhere. Since you don’t want to cause a fire, be sure to remove any organic matter from the vicinity of the stump and avoid doing it during dry weather.
You’ll need to drill holes in the stump as in method 4, then pour kerosene fuel oil (never gasoline) into the holes. Wait a week or two, then drop a lit match in each hole. The stump will then burn very slowly (the pyromaniac in you will undoubtedly be disappointed), over several days. Check regularly and keep children and pets away. Eventually, the fire will die out, leaving you with a gaping hole with blackened edges.
Personally, I prefer Method 1: letting Mother Nature do the job. Long live laidback gardening!