Even in the Upper Midwest — not known for severe summer storms — we occasionally suffer major damage from tornadoes and straight-line winds. Two years ago, heavy rains combined with winds in excess of 80 mph caused the loss of four large trees on our property. Thankfully, the falling trees missed our house and outbuildings, but they left us a huge mess.
When our 70-foot-tall pine tree blew over, the entire root ball was pulled out of the ground. I knew a lot of work was in my future as I surveyed the damage the next morning. But I wasn’t prepared to remove a root ball from a tree more than 5 feet in diameter.
My options to remove the root ball were somewhat limited: I could hire someone with a backhoe to dig it out, or I could do the work myself. Because the storm was so widespread and destructive, most professional services were booked for weeks, so I decided to tackle the job. I learned a few things along the way that may help you in a similar situation.
Getting at the Root of the Problem
The massive root ball of our felled tree was still attached to its deep taproots and packed with dirt. I estimate it weighed close to 1,000 pounds with all the sod and soil. Due to the load-lifting limits of my compact utility tractor, I knew I’d have to drastically reduce the root ball’s size.
But first, I needed to remove the tree. I cut the limbs and much of the trunk into firewood-sized lengths, leaving only the thickest part of the trunk attached to the root ball. Next, I removed the sod from the top of the root ball with a small shovel; this gave me greater access to the roots. The latter couldn’t be cut because they were packed with soil, so I used a spade to dig around the outside of the root ball and under the main taproots, which were still in the ground. Then, I began to cut the roots at the point they entered the ground. Every root needed to be cut free to lift the root ball. The number and size of roots that develop on mature trees is amazing. Besides one or two taproots, our tree had numerous off-shoots varied from 1 to 4 inches in diameter.
Although using a chainsaw would seem to be the most effective way to cut roots, the soil will dull the chain quickly. Before I could cut the largest roots with my chainsaw, I had to remove the soil from the cutting areas with a wire brush. Once the majority of the soil is gone, you can remove the rest with a garden hose or power washer, if you can get one to the downed tree.
One of the most useful root-cutting tools, in my experience, is a reciprocating saw outfitted with a wood-cutting blade. I own both battery-operated and electric-powered reciprocating saws; I find the battery-operated saw to be more efficient in getting at hard-to-reach roots. Another benefit of reciprocating saws is that the blades are fairly inexpensive to replace, compared with having to sharpen a chain after just one or two cuts with a chainsaw.
Mattocks are also useful tools for cutting roots. Sometimes referred to as grub hoes, mattocks are handled tools with heads that resemble a hoe on one end and an axe on the other. The hoe part of the head can be used to dig and expose roots, and the axe to chop through the roots. They’re really effective at cutting roots 2 inches or smaller in diameter — even larger if you keep the blade sharp. Mattocks usually are available in weights of 5 to 8 pounds.
After I’d cleared as much soil as possible from the root ball and cut through all the roots that entered the ground, the next step was to lift out the root ball. Now that the ball was much lighter, I was able to use my utility tractor to hoist it from the ground. I wrapped one end of a heavy log chain around the root ball, attached the other end to the tractor’s loader, and lifted the ball out of the ground and into a trailer.
You must have an adequately sized tractor with a loader to safely lift heavy objects out of the ground. Even with all the soil and sod removed, the weight of the root ball from my felled 5-foot-diameter tree was still well over 600 pounds. Lifting and hauling objects at or near the maximum limits of your tractor can be extremely unsafe, and damage your equipment.
Stumps to Grind
The same storm that produced my pine tree headache also left me three other felled trees with the root balls still in the ground. After salvaging the limbs and trunks for firewood, I was left with stumps that had to be removed. Methods for removing stumps include applying chemicals to disintegrate them or burning them out, but the fastest and most effective method is to use a stump grinder.
These implements have a multi-toothed cutting wheel powered by a gas engine to repeatedly strip away small pieces of wood as the blade is worked back and forth. Stump grinders come in many different sizes and can be rented at most equipment rental stores. Rental prices vary by location, but usually are between $100 and $400 per day.
Stump grinders can be hazardous to operate and require strength and stamina to continually move the blade over the stump. You may wish to leave the job to professionals if you aren’t confident in your ability to handle this tool. If you decide to do it yourself, here are some things to keep in mind.
As with any below-surface excavation, be sure to call your local utility companies to check for buried cables in the grinding area. Many states offer a one-call utility detection service that will come onsite at no cost.
Once you’re confident no underground hazards exist, you’ll need to dig down around the stump and expose its sides to determine its actual size. Also, if you haven’t cut the stump down as close as possible to the ground, now’s the time to do it. You don’t want to have to grind excessive stumps that could’ve been cut away with a chainsaw instead. Then, clear the area around the stump of gravel, rocks, and any debris that may impact the cutting teeth of the grinder, or send projectiles flying.
Use proper safety gear when grinding a stump: protective glasses, helmet, heavy gloves, and boots. Although most grinders are outfitted with protective screens on the front, the grinder’s powerful teeth can cause debris to fly. If you’re renting a stump grinder, make sure the provider gives you proper instructions on how to operate the unit; don’t leave the rental location until you feel comfortable. Most grinders are heavy, but moving them around is fairly easy because they’re self-propelled.
The exact operation of stump grinders varies by model, but the basic process is similar across the board. Start by positioning the grinder at one edge of the stump. Use the grinder’s hydraulic lever to raise the teeth a few inches above the surface of the stump. Engage the power lever to start spinning the cutter wheel, and then lower the wheel about 3 inches into the stump. Next, use the hydraulic lever to swing the cutting head with a sweeping motion from side to side across the surface. After you’ve cleared out that area, move the grinder forward and repeat the process until the stump has been removed 4 or more inches below the surface of the ground.
When you’ve finished, fill the hole to the ground surface with topsoil. If you wish, spread fertilizer and grass seed and lightly rake them in. Rake up all the wood chips you’ve created and make use of them in landscaping beds or other applications where mulch is used.
If you don’t feel comfortable doing your own stump grinding, almost every locality has several professional companies specializing in tree removal and stump grinding. If you’re not in a hurry, let the company know you’re willing to wait until it has another job in your area if you can get a price break.
Tim Nephew is Grit’s equipment specialist. He lives in rural Minnesota, where he owns and maintains 80 acres of wildlife habitat.