Only some very strange people actually want to kill a tree, but sometimes a situation occurs where a particular tree just has to go. Maybe it wasn’t your fault – some previous owner of your property made a bad judgment and planted a tree just too close to the house or driveway. Perhaps you planted a tree yourself but falling leaves or fruit are blocking drains and causing a hazard. The most likely situation is where no one planted that tree, it just grew from a seed brought by the wind or birds and those trees are often the biggest problem, since they tend to be ‘weed’ species that grow fast but have few if any attractive features beyond being alive.
Now the obvious answer to the question, ‘How do I kill a tree?’ is to cut it down or pull it out, but often the tree in question is large and old, making a bigger job out of removal, and as anyone who has tried it knows, for all but the youngest tree, cutting it down is fine, until the tree re-sprouts and rapidly grows back, often bushier and bigger than it was before.
Taking out a Tree
So here are some suggestions for how to definitively get rid of a problem tree.
Step one: cut off the main branches. If the tree is large you may need to bring in a tree-surgeon for this part and remember that climbing around in a tree with a chain-saw is something that should only be done by a properly-trained expert. It is much easier to wait until winter to take down a deciduous tree, since without leaves it is much easier to see what you are doing and the waste is much less bulky.
Step two: cut back the trunk. On a smaller tree where you plan to dig out the root, leave the trunk about six feet tall, so that you can use it as a lever to loosen the roots – it will make the job much easier.
Step three: with a smaller tree it is not a huge job to dig out the whole stump and that will definitely make sure it is dead. Even a small tree has a surprisingly tough root system, so you may need to chop or saw through the larger roots as you dig around it. As already mentioned leaving a long trunk for leverage can make a big difference. Even the largest tree stump can be dug out if suitable machinery like a back-hoe can be brought in – and the tree is not underneath a driveway or the foundations of a house.
Step three – alternative: The disruption and disturbance of digging out a large root system can be mostly avoided by bringing in a stump grinder. This specialized machine will grind down the top few inches of a stump, so that it can be covered with soil and sodded over. The only issue to consider is that over time the wood left in the ground will rot, and this often causes shrinkage of the soil and a sunken area to develop.
Removing a Stump by Burning
Another approach to stump removal is to apply a proprietary product that will accelerate the death of the root and make it possible to remove it by burning. Check with your local city to see if open fires are permitted, but if you live in a rural area this can be a good method. The process is straight-forward, much cheaper than big machines and doesn’t take a lot of labor. It does take a few weeks to work though.
- Cut the stump as close to the ground as possible.
- Using a 3/8 or larger drill bit, drill holes 8-10 inches down into the stump, spacing them every 2-3 inches. This is the biggest part of the job.
- Buy a stump-removal chemical in powder or granule form from your local garden center. These usually contain Potassium nitrate, also called saltpeter.
- Pour the powder or granules into the drill holes, trying to get it as far into the holes as you can.
- When all the holes are full, add the recommended amount of water. Don’t add any ‘extra’ water as this can slow the process.
- Cover the stump with a tarp to keep pets and children away and to stop rain diluting the chemical.
- Wait several weeks until the wood becomes soft and spongy enough to easily break off a piece. The saltpeter has converted the stump into a crude kind of gunpowder that will burn underground without air.
- Soak the stump with kerosene, letting it soak in. Do this several times, covering the stump between each application.
- When the stump is well-soaked, set fire to it. The fire will burn down into the ground and remove almost all the stump. Don’t leave the fire unattended at any time – it will eventually burn itself out, leaving a hole that you can fill with earth and cover with sod or new plants.
Just remember that the most important part of killing a tree is making sure that afterwards you plant at least one new one, and preferably two or more, in a more suitable location, to keep up the tree stock in your neighborhood, city and planet.