Stumped when it comes to removing a small stump?

I have lost count of the number of times I have encountered the remains of a small tree/shrub where the top is long gone, but the stump remains. Why? Well, usually the answer is that removing even a small stump can appear to be difficult job so why not let it just rot away. Unfortunately, that may not work as quite a few stumps can regrow.  So, removal is the way to go here I will show you how I remove a small stump without too much effort.

As I mentioned, I see lots of stumps, lots and lots of them.  It is one thing to remove the top of a shrub or small tree such as Buddleja or small Elder, Sycamore etc. but when it comes to removing the stump, most people prefer to assume (hope) that the thing is dead and expect it to rot away because removing it looks like seriously hard work.

Buddleja, Elder, Sycamore and various others will easily regrow from whatever is left poking up above the ground so the best way to sort out the problem is to get on and remove the stump. Here I am going to show you how I do it and whilst it does involve a bit of hard work, there are a few ways to make the job much easier.


You will need the following:

  1. Spade
  2. Trowel
  3. Weeding Tool (e.g. Patio Knife)
  4. Loppers
  5. Pruning Saw (ideally not your best one!)


As ever before we begin, your safety is more important than getting the stump out so a pair of strong boots, some gloves and eye protection are all worth putting on before you begin.

Finally, taking it slow and steady will get the stump out just as quick and keep you undamaged.


Right, let’s get started…

Step 1 – Remove all growth above 60cm from the ground.

If the top hasn’t been removed yet, do this first however, and this is important, when removing the top, don’t cut below 60cm from the ground – I guarantee this will make life a lot easier later.

If you have a stump that has been cut right down the ground, I will deal with this at the end of the article.

Also, be sure to remove any branches etc, right back to the trunk. You are going to be getting up close and personal with the stump later and so you don’t want to be poking yourself in the eye or giving yourself a good scrape from a bit still sticking out.

Step 2 – Clear the area around the stump.

Next, we need to clear a circle around the stump of any other plants and obstacles (in particular, any ivy on/around the stump). We are going to need to get to the stump from all directions so having a clear area is going to make things easier and safer.

Step 3 – Dig a trench around the base.

Using the spade, dig a spades width and depth around the base of the stump.  As you go you will encounter the roots heading.  Clear around these as best you can with the spade and if you come across any small roots, use the loppers to cut them and remove the exposed length.

Put the soil removed to one side – we will use it to fill in soon to be vacated space.

Step 4 – Clear the soil from around the larger roots.

Using a trowel and weeding tool clear the soil and any other material from around the larger roots so you can see how thick they are, where they join the base and the direction they are going. Ideally you should be able to get the trowel underneath these roots.

Step 5 – Cut out the larger roots.

Using a pruning saw you now need to cut the root where it joins the base and as far along as you can go – ideally you should be taking out a 5-10cm section.  By removing a section rather than simply cutting the root, you will be giving yourself the wiggle room you are going to need shortly.

When cutting take it slowly letting the saw do the work. The saw is also probably going to need to go in and out of the soil and may run into small rocks and pebbles. If so, stop and remove these before continuing.

As you cut out each root section, give the stump a bit of a wiggle to see how you are progressing and this also give you an indication of where other roots may be. 

Step 6 – Rock the stump side to side and back and forth.

With all the visible root sections cut out you should now be able to move the stump around – leaving that 60cm or so up top gives us the leverage we need to loosen the stump more easily.

As you are rocking the stump, do take it slowly – there is the possibility it will easily snap the last roots and whilst that is the job done and you could also end up face down on the ground or on your backside if too enthusiastic.

Step 7 – Find and cut the last roots.

The likelihood is there are going to be one or two more roots going straight down, by rocking the stump you can start to get a feel for where they are. You will probably need to push the stump over as far as it will go and then look for these roots.  It may also involve removing a bit more soil, but they usually become apparent quickly.

Either cut these using the loppers or pruning saw or keep rocking and even twisting the stump using its weight and your movement to slowly break the root. 

With a modest amount of effort, you should be able to cut/snap all the roots and then remove the stump.

Step 8 – Bask in the glory of a job well done.

At this stage, just check the remaining roots are well below ground level, fill the hole in with the soil excavated earlier and put the kettle on.

Got a different situation?

Dealing with a stump cut to ground level.

If you encounter a stump that has been cut down pretty much to ground level, then proceed as outlined previously until you get to the rocking the stump stage. At this point try and take out more soil around and underneath the stump and roots to see if there are any others that can be cut.

When ready, use your spade to lever the stump around putting it underneath the stump or between the root segments previously removed.

This is going to take a bit more effort and again let the spade do the work but bear in mind the spade might break if you get too carried away so take it easy and work around the stump levering as much as you can before moving on. It takes longer this way, but you will get there.

If you have quite a few of these stumps to deal with then it may well be worth investing in a ground breaker bar as this will provide the leverage needed to sort out pretty much any small stump you encounter.  An important thing to note when using a ground breaker bar is that you absolutely must be wearing strong safety boots.

Dealing with an inaccessible stump

I have come across a couple of stumps where it isn’t possible to get close enough to dig them out, so a different approach is needed.

One such case was an Elder stump that was underneath a low growing Yew tree.  The Elder would keep re-growing and need cutting back down again so to deal with this I cut down the Elder to about 20cm from the ground and then covered it with a black bucket putting a brick on top.

The Elder will keep trying to regrow but without the light it will eventually stop and then start to rot. This process will take a couple of years but it does work for those stumps that can’t be got at for digging out.

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