How to Kill a Tree Stump Without Poisonous Chemicals

tree stump

Sometimes we need to cut down trees to remove them, but chopping trees down to the ground does not stop them putting out new growth from the stump or from the roots and eventually turning back into full sized trees again.

In fact, the technique of cutting trees down to a stump and letting them regrow is called coppicing, it’s a traditional woodland management technique and many trees can be coppiced for timber harvesting or other reasons and successfully regrow.

To get rid of a tree stump, you don’t need to chop or dig it out of the ground, use expensive machine or poisonous chemicals. Why avoid chemicals marketed as “Blackberry & Brush Killer” or “Tree & Blackberry Weed Killer”? You seriously do not want to contaminate your garden with these persistent poisons!

Avoiding the Poisonous Chemicals

Tree & Blackberry Weed Killer, Blackberry & Brush Killer and other such herbicides used for killing tress, woody shrubs and vines all contain triclopyr BEE (butoxyethyl ester), a selective systemic herbicide used for control of woody and broadleaf plants.

It’s a schedule 6 (S6) Poison, which is the highest toxicity level of poison that the general public is legally allowed to buy, and it’s going in your living space… Once it’s there, it will be around for a while too. Being a systemic herbicide, it soaks right through the plant or tree, making all parts of it toxic. The herbicide actually remains active once it’s in vegetation, even if it’s decaying. The safety sheets for triclopyr BEE sold to the agricultural market (sold under the trade name Garlon or Release) clearly state “DO NOT burn off, cut or clear for 6 months after treatment.” The contaminated waste contains active herbicide will still kill other plants and trees and burning it creates toxic fumes. This is not mentioned at all in the same products sold to the general public, which is highly irresponsible.

Why do agricultural products have extensive and highly detailed safety precautions that may be many pages long while the same products sold to the public have only a sentence or two? Well, chemical manufacturers couldn’t really care less about the health of the general public but are very cautious in terms of liability and litigation should their products cause farmers to lose millions from accidental crop failures, which they would be sued for! It’s all about money…

It’s important to keep in mind that the contaminated tree material poisoned with triclopyr BEE will be toxic for at least half a year, and if you put any of the material into your soil or compost it will contaminate that too – it will kill plants and trees. The estimated half-life (where the chemical breaks down to half the original amount) in aboveground drying foliage is 2 to 3 months.

Any triclopyr BEE applied will not stay at the site of application either. Soil mobility refers to how easily a chemical can wash away, move through soil and affect non-target plants and trees, as well as contaminate the water table or wash into waterways.

According to the Thurston County Health Department review of this herbicide:

Triclopyr BEE will quickly convert to triclopyr acid after application, which is highly water soluble and adheres poorly to soil, therefore, herbicides containing triclopyr BEE are considered high in mobility hazard.”

We’ve already mentioned that this toxic herbicide will persist for a while and doesn’t break down readily. How long exactly? The Thurston County Health Department review tells us:

Triclopyr BEE will convert to the acid form within a day of application, and it is unlikely to dissipate into the air or break down interacting with water (hydrolysis). Triclopyr is primarily broken down by microorganisms in the top 12 inches of soil but when it gets deep into soil, where there is less oxygen, it can persist for years. Triclopyr is likely to break down to less than 50% of the applied concentration within 60 days of a land application, which is rated as moderately persistent.”

Since triclopyr is mobile in soil and moderately persistent it has a potential to leach into soil and groundwater and to contaminate drinking water. In terms of toxicity, triclopyr is considered moderately toxic to mammals and oysters, and low in toxicity to birds, insects, fish and crustaceans.

So, you can go the ‘man versus Nature’ chemical warfare approach and use triclopyr, which will contaminate your living area and the environment, or you can kill a tree stump much more safely and cheaply using a more sensible approach.

In Permaculture, the Problem is the Solution

In Permaculture’s design principles, we have the Attitudinal Principle – “Everything Works Both Ways”. Whether we see something as positive or negative, as a ‘problem’ or as a useful resource, depends on our attitude.

Typically, people see a disadvantage as a ‘problem’ and then implement an energy-intensive ‘solution’ to attempt to ‘fix the problem’. The other option is to take a different attitude, look at everything as a positive resource, and figure out how to make use of it! We can get creative and think of all the ways we can turn these disadvantages into useful things we can use in our system.

With this in mind, have you ever accidentally killed a young tree or plant by over fertilizing, or known anyone that has? It happens all too often, with people getting carried away with large amounts of chicken manure in their garden, and especially with young citrus trees because gardeners hear that they’re ‘heavy feeders’ and over-feed them!

When excessive fertilizer is applied around the roots of a plant or tree, it creates a high concentration of salts in the soil, and through osmosis, water naturally moves from areas of low salt concentration to areas of high salt concentration to equalize the proportion of water to fertilizer salts. What large amounts of fertilizer do is draw water out of the roots, drying the plant or tree out, causing the symptoms of lack of water, such as leaf burn, and if the desiccation is extreme enough, the death of the plant or tree results – this phenomenon is called fertilizer burn.

The osmotic desiccation of plants through fertilizer burn can be a problem when over-fertilizing, but it can be used to our benefit to kill tree stumps too, with a few subtle changes to the process!

Killing Tree Stumps with Epsom Salts

Epsom salts is nothing more than magnesium sulphate, people use it in their baths to relax, and gardeners use it as a supplementary nutrient to rectify magnesium deficiencies in plants and trees. It’s also readily available, cheap and completely safe for people and the environment.

Large amounts of Epsom salts will draw moisture out of a stump much like an over-application of fertilizer does to roots, eventually drying it out, after which it will just naturally rot away. Any magnesium released into the soil will just be taken up by plants – magnesium is the key element in chlorophyll which allows plants to photosynthesize and makes leaves green.

To kill a tree stump with Epsom salts, you’ll need the following tools and materials:


  • A drill with a long drill bit around 25mm (1”) wide is required for the task.
  • Either an electric drill with a spade bit, or bit brace with an auger bit will work fine for drilling wide holes into a tree stump.
Drills and bits
An electric drill with spade bit and hand brace with auger bit for drilling a tree stump


A packet of Epsom salts, which can be purchased from the supermarket or a pharmacy/drugstore.

One packet of Epsom salts is sufficient for a large tree stump

Some water will be needed to moisten the Epsom salts. If there’s no access to water nearby, fill a plastic bottle with water and take it along with you!

plastic water bottle
Some water will be needed to moisten the Epsom salts placed in the holes drilled into the tree stump

The only other item required is a sheet of plastic, garbage bag or tarp to cover the stump, to protect it from the rain, and prevent the Epsom salts form being washed out.

garbage bags
A single garbage bag or plastic bag is required per tree stump

Procedure for Killing a Tree Stump with Epsom Salts

The following steps detail how to kill a tree stump with Epsom salts:

drilling tree stump epsom salts application
Drilling depth, width and spacing for Epsom salts application
  1. Drill holes into the top of the tree stump, using a 25mm (1”) drill bit. Drill holes at least 15-20cm (6-8”) deep using a spade bit or auger bit.

    On larger tree stumps, space the holes around 7-10cm (3-4”) from the bark edge and from each other.

    On smaller tree stumps aim for six or more holes.

    The intention is to create enough holes that run deep enough to hold a sufficient amount of Epsom salts so that it can more easily penetrate into the wood and the roots to dry them out.
  2. Fill all the holes with dry Epsom salts all the way to the top.
  3. Slowly add just enough water to each hole to moisten the Epsom salts – it doesn’t need to be really wet, just moist, and be careful to not wash the Epsom salts out of the holes.
  4. To prevent the Epsom salts being washed out by rain, cover the stump a sheet of plastic, a garbage bag or a tarp, and anchor or fasten down the cover so it doesn’t get blown away by the wind.

That’s all there is to the process, it’s fairly straightforward!

Additionally, if roots extend from the side of the stump, they too can be drilled and filled with Epsom salts. If the stump if freshly cut, once it is drilled and the holes are filled with Epsom salts, the whole surface of the stump can also be cover with a thick layer of Epsom salts to speed up the drying process.

The stump can take up to six months to dry out, depending on the size of the tree and its root system. Check the stump each month to see if the level of the Epsom salts in the holes has dropped as it’s been absorbed. If it has, top up the level of the Epsom salts and moisten as before.

Hopefully you won’t have to kill too many trees on your gardening journey, but if you do have to remove a tree, this is definitely a much better way to get rid of living tree stumps than contaminating a garden with poisonous chemicals!

For more information on herbicides and alternatives, see these related articles:


  1. Thurston County Health Department – Thurston County Review, triclopyr BEE (butoxyethyl ester)
  2. EXTOXNET Extension Toxicology Network, Pesticide Information Profiles – Triclopyr
  3. National Pesticide Information Center – Triclopyr (Technical Fact Sheet)

36 thoughts on “How to Kill a Tree Stump Without Poisonous Chemicals

    1. thank you for this great information.
      recently I had to remove an old tree, although it broke my heart, it had to be done because of the roots but I did not like using chemicals in my backyard and this gave me a lot to work with thank you

  1. I’ve seen in the wet climate of Wales, a stump sort of dug out like a cup and full of water, then that rotting the inside and it going all fungi full. It might have just been a fluke, but I am considering doing that on a sycamore here.

    1. I would imagine that carving the stump into a bowl would be harder than drilling! Water or fungi rotting the stump won’t always kill the tree though!
      I have an interesting story to share on the matter.

      My fig tree had been once chopped to a stump (I didn’t do it!) and a shoot growing out from the side of the stump formed its new trunk. It was a decent 3m high tree with a trunk as thick as a person’s leg, but unfortunately the right-angled bend where the trunk grew from the stump was weak, and the wind tore the trunk off the old stump, it sheared it off, much to my disappointment as the fig was loaded with buckets of half-ripe fruit.

      Thinking the tree was finished, I placed a compost bin over it to compost the stump, and composted garden clippings and bokashi processed kitchen scraps for months. One day, a cluster of new shoot emerged from the old roots under the soil around one side of the compost bin. I chose the biggest strongest shoot to retain and removed all others. I now have a nice productive fig tree with a strong straight trunk, rooted firmly in the ground, and the old stump is still under the compost bin. A shoot also emerged on the neighbours side of the fence, in a narrow gap of soil between the fence and their concrete, and they didn’t want me to remove it, so I espaliered it on their side of the fence for them. Now we both have a new, productive fig tree each!

      1. Thank you for your reply.
        After reading your comment, I’m starting to feel that figs are prolific. My sister has oodles of fig cuttings that took and are growing nicely around a foot high in pots. Unfortunately, I do find the fruit yucky, well apart from hen inside figgy biccies, which are healthy. So just maybe I will pop one into my garden, for the possible biccy making properties. Maybe also like your neighbour, the next person to live here will love them or the birds.
        As for the sycamore, it’s big enough for fire wood and might do well as a coppice.

    1. It will work on any tree that needs water to live, that covers all of them, so that would include camphor laurel too!

  2. Do you think applying it on our invasive bamboo will kill the whole plant, which is not desired. Well not yet anyway. Thank you Kate

  3. This is a big help to those homeowners from removing stumps in their backyard…without gaining health issues from poisonous chemicals…

  4. I have a Siberian Elm growing right out of the root system of a small flowering tree. Will this method kill the flowering tree along with the Siberian Elm?

    1. If the Epsom salts stay in the stump of the tree you want to get rid of, then the other tree you wish to keep will be fine. If you let all the Epsom salts wash out into the soil it will have the same effect as using too much fertilizer which will burn the roots.

  5. Thanks for this useful information, so well explained. We have about an acre of pine trees which block the morning sun from the the few acres of arable land on the property, so are looking into getting it all chopped down. Would this method be good on this big scale?

    1. You’re welcome! An acre is 4,000 square metres, that area of land can hold a lot of pine trees. For an area that large you’d be cutting a lot of trees and killing a lot of tree stumps! It would work using Epsom salts but you’d probably need a fair bit of it. It would be cheaper if you buy it in bulk.

      To be honest, if you have dozens of tree stumps to deal with, the approach that makes the most sense would be to bring in some earth-moving equipment to either dig the whole trees out or chain them and drag them out rather than cut them to stumps. Even the people who use chemicals to kill stumps (and end up poisoning the environment) would only do so for a tree here or there, as the herbicides used for killing tree stumps are rather expensive.

    1. I checked the ecotoxicity information for Magnesium sulphate (Epsom salts), it’s classed as ‘Not Acutely Toxic’ in general including for aquatic organisms. The LC50 (lethal concentration that will kill 50% of small fish in used in experiments) is 1,000,000 – 19,000,000 ug/L depending on fish species, with an average of around 3,000,000 ug/L in general, or approximately 3g per litre of pond water.

      The SDS (safety data sheets) for this product state the following – Environmental Fate:This material is not persistent in aquatic systems and does not contribute to BOD. It does not bio-concentrate up the food chain.

      BOD refers to biochemical oxygen demand is the the amount of dissolved oxygen used by microorganisms in the biological process of metabolizing organic matter in water, so bacteria will not use oxygen in the water to break this down.

      You probably don’t want large amounts of Epsom salts in your pond water. and I would hope you don’t have runoff going straight into your pond. The best way to prevent rain washing out the Epsom salts from a stump is to cover it with plastic.

      1. Thank you for your prompt and thorough response. I now feel confident about cautiously proceeding with the task at hand.

  6. We would like to plant another tree on the place of a very large english laurel tree which we plan to cut and stump-kill as you’ve recommended. Would it work to plant another tree (e.g., maple) on this spot while the stump(s) are dying off over the next 6 months? Could we potentially plant a new tree within a biodegrading cedar box on top of the dying stumps? Or would the epsom salt kill the new tree such that we’d need to wait until next year to plant? Thanks for your helpful post!

    1. Hi Tim, when killing tree stumps, it’s best to wait for the process to complete before replanting for a couple of reasons. The Epsom slats used to kill the stumps needs time to dissipate once the stump starts breaking down and releasing it into the soil, otherwise the salts will burn the roots of the new tree. Once the trees are dead, a heavy watering will get rid of most of the Epsom salts from the soil. When the roots of the stump begin breaking down, the bacteria in the soil will use any available soil nitrogen for the task, in a phenomenon known as nitrogen draw-down.

      I like to dig in some manure around a dead stump to break down the old roots, and give it time to do its work, this improves the soil considerably for the new tree.

      Please realise that the waiting time using Epsom salts is much shorter than the waiting time for synthetic chemicals used to kill trees and tree stumps. One common chemical used for the purpose is triclopyr, and that is mainly broken down by microorganisms in the top 12 inches of soil. When it gets deeper into soil where there is less oxygen, it can persist for years. It is persistent and usually takes two months to break down to less than 50% of the applied concentration once it’s in the soil.

      Planting on top of an existing dead stump is a bad idea as the new tree roots will have to push past the barrier of the stump itself (and will get into the Epsom salts), and grow through the dense network of dead roots to get into the soil. There’s a reason why people pay tree removalists to grub out stumps, using a machine to grind out the stump and roots in a day, it’s a fast solution, but it’s not a cheap solution.

      With tree stump removal it’s a case of Cost-Time-Environmental impact, choose two of the three!

      1. Thank you for your thoughtful response, its much appreciated! We are weighing the pros and cons of keeping this impressive old tree, with its unfortunately toxic seeds and branches for our kids and pets. Your comments are very helpful!

      2. Hi Tim, the English laurel or Cherry Laurel (Prunus laurocerasus) contains small amounts of cyanogenic glycosides in its leaves that aren’t hazardous,in those quantities to pets or people. There are higher concentrations in the unripe fruit and seeds which are a concern. This tree is a member of the Rosaceae family, along with other stone fruit, and with that said, the seeds of apricots, cherries, peaches and plums, which are in the same family, also contain the same compounds. According to the PFAF website the fruit is allegedly edible when ripe. As long as children or pets don’t eat bitter unripe fruit or chew the seeds, or livestock don’t graze on the leaves, then these trees are okay in the garden as these are commonly planted hedging plants. Usually the concerns are around their ability to spread into wilderness areas and outgrow native vegetation. Hope this helps!

  7. I just love your article on how to kill a tree stump without poisonous chemicals. I’m so glad you found another solution! I enjoyed reading it and learned a lot. It is great to hear people are finding ways to live more sustainably so the earth can keep spinning.

  8. Hi – great info about killing stumps with Epsom salt. 2 questions:
    1) How much is “enough”. I.e. how many 6×1″ holes is enough for (say) a 2′ diameter tree? We have quite a few large Eucalyptus that have been cut down, and they are pretty persistent about resprouting. The stumps are also fairly high (2 to 3′ high). We’d like to get enough holes on the first application to guarantee their demise.
    2) Another web site also suggesting Epsom salt suggests adding water after the Epsom salt – I think to speed up the absorption of the salt into the trunk. What do you think?

    1. Hi Phil,

      The aim is to get a good spread of holes across the top of the tree stump, the more the better, if you can get them around 10cm apart that should keep thinks manageable.

      The Epsom salts draw water out of the roots to dry out the stump and stop it resprouting, but if the stump is 2-3′ (60-90cm) tall, then there’s too much timber between the stump surface and the roots, making it harder for the Epsom salts to do its job. You really need to cut the stump fairly closely to the ground, then drill it and add the Epsom salts.

      If you have a closer look at my instructions, step 3 does tell you to add water – “Slowly add just enough water to each hole to moisten the Epsom salts it doesnt need to be really wet, just moist, and be careful to not wash the Epsom salts out of the holes.” Don’t forget this step!

      Hope this helps! 🙂

  9. Could Epsom salts be used in a similar way to kill blackberries? Im trying to think of a way to enable the Epsom salts to penetrate sufficiently – perhaps some modification of the cut and paint method?

    1. The stems of blackberries are far too thin to be able to get the Epsom salts crystals inside them. Perhaps if you cut them back to short stubs and tied a small plastic bag of damp Epsom salts powder over the tops of the stems, that might work? Please let us know what you try, and what does or doesn’t work!

  10. Hi. Regarding the use of epsom salts to kill a tree stump; I would prefer cutting and then grinding with a stump grinder than adding excessive salts, BUT, my question is actually this. I have a willow tree with an extensive root system that is encroaching into lawn, flower beds and gardens….so I don’t want to use or risk using an herbicide. But, I have heard willows can regrow from roots, and even if stump is removed/killed, the roots can send up new trees and suddenly instead of one tree you have a little forest! Can, or how would applying epsom salt to a trunk kill the roots without harming anything else? Not sure how effective this is for willows. And if there was reverse osmosis and the roots absorbed the epsom, killing them, would not the excessive amount of epsom (if enough to kill a tree root) then kill anything else planted where the roots were; such as in a vegetable bed filled with willow roots?

    1. Hi Norm, the Epsom salts dry up the stump and all the roots connected to it simply by drawing the water out of them. The substance doesn’t travel down into the roots, Once Epsom salts gets into the soil, it washes away immediately because it’s water soluble. It’s used as a nutrient for citrus trees when they show sign of magnesium deficiency – so it won’t harm the garden.

  11. Hi, i found this very informative and much better than use of poison. I’ve had to remove an old , straggly privet hedge and now need to deal with the stumps. Intend to replace with photinia x fraseri little red robin. Could you advise how long the process for the privet stumps to dry out and how long after photinia x fraseri could be planted.
    Many thanks.

    1. Hi Helen, the process works by removing moisture from the roots system and drying it out. As such, the drying time will vary depending on the season of the year, the climate you’re in, the size of the root system, and soil moisture levels. If you can try this and report how long it takes, letting us know how thick the tree trunks were, and what climate/season is there (or what country/state you’re in, and time of teh year/weather), that would be great! Thanks

  12. Any suggestions for Tree of Heaven? Have some growing right up next to the house. Reading that this method doesn’t work for Tree of Heaven, although I might still give it a shot anyway.

    1. Tree of heaven (Ailanthus altissima) produces a large number of suckers from its shallow roots, especially after the main stem is cut down, and it also resprouts vigorously when cut or damaged, making it difficult to eradicate. Using Epsom salts will kill off the main trunk and roots, and as a consequence, will weaken the tree’s ability to produce suckers from the rest of the root system. After using this method, keep an eye out for any emerging suckers and use a spade to chop them off below the top of the soil level. It requires a lot of energy to produce new growth, such as suckers, and if you remove them regularly it depletes the remaining energy stored in any roots that are still living. Once all the energy is depleted, no further suckering is possible.

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