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cheapest method of removing volunteer trees

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May 30, 2013, 04:16 PM
Pat W
cheapest method of removing volunteer trees
Hello, I have purchased a home that stood empty about 4 years. During that time the neighborhood ash trees treated any broken ground with lots of their seeds and my new home has a multitude of saplings growing up against the house exterior and foundation. The largest of these saplings has a trunk that measures 3 1/2 inches in diameter. There is also a mammoth arborvite that is partially blocking my front side walk and door which also must go.

I would like to remove the trees in such a way that their roots are also removed. After removing the trees I want next put in a small patio and lots of shrubs plus perennialm
May 30, 2013, 05:03 PM
Hello, Pat, and welcome to this forum.

Do you know if there's any removal effort by your city, county or state for the ash trees? Michigan had a program to remove them because of infestation by the emerald ash borer. Getting a professional tree removal company to do the work would be the easiest; I'm not sure whether or not there would be any charge to you. Something to check out.

I've just used a bow saw to take down shrubbery next to my house. If you have a chain saw and are comfortable with that, that's an option. If the saplings are very small, with less than say 1/2" diameter, you might be able to just pull them out. Depends on your soil. With clay soil, pulling is not an easy option.

Getting to the roots against the foundation is a lot harder as you'll only be able to dig out on 3 sides. An easier option, if you don't mind waiting for the tree to die, is to kill it by girdling it.

You can cut the tree to some low level such as 1 foot, although I would cut it to about 3' and use the strangle method described below.

Using a bow saw, knife, or anything sharp that you're comfortable with (and don't mind getting sap on), remove the bark of the tree all the way down BELOW the soil.

Dig as much of the soil out as you can around the base and make sure that the bark is removed and the inner trunk exposed. Optional is splitting open the subsurface portion of the trunk. Then replace the dirt. Without the outer trunk skin, the tree will eventually die, as will the roots.

I would do this with the 3.5" diameter tree.

Another option, or a complimentary method, is to strangle the trees with morning glories. I learned this by surprise when using a mulberry, an aggressive tree, as a trellis for my MGs. In the course of one summer, they wrapped all around the mulberry and killed it. Mulberries are difficult trees to kill, so I was delighted that I had trailing vines of lovely flowers and a dead mulberry.

For saplings with some space around them, you can dig out the roots, but this is very, very tedious. Cut the tree off at about 3 - 4 feet from the ground, leaving enough of a trunk to rock it. Optimally, dig out an area roughly the equivalent of the width of the tree's branches. Then cut the roots.

I've used any combination of an axe, or a splitting wedge and maul and sometimes a shovel to cut the roots. Because the roots typically spread in several directions, this is probably the most time consuming aspect of the removal. And it's tough to get the lower roots and those against a building. This is where the rocking comes in, as sometimes you have to do that to loosen the lower roots enough to get access to them. And sometimes you just can't get them all. But at least remove as many as you can.

Another possibility it to just solarize the area after cutting the saplings and trees off at or below soil level. Plastic laid out will generally cause anything beneath it to die, but I've never tried it with trees and their roots. And roots don't die as quickly as plants do, so this may take a longer time to be effective.

Arborvitaes are fairly easy to cut down with bow saws, or chain saws. I probably should have asked if you've ever dropped any trees before?

I have no experience on creating patios so I can't offer any advice.

As to perennials, what climactic zone you're in, the soil type, sun/shade conditions and of course your own personal preferences of time and color will come into play. You might want to plan that for next year if the ash trees are so prolific that a lot of roots are left and you're not up to digging them out. Otherwise, they can interfere with the ability of perennials and shrubs to survive after you plant them.

There may be chemical methods, but I take down all my unwanted trees without them, so I'm not knowledgeable in those methods.

Root removal is not an easy task. If there's enough space you might rent a rototiller and chop them up, but before you do that make sure to call MISS DIG so you don't hit utility lines.

This message has been edited. Last edited by: GardenSprite,
May 30, 2013, 05:35 PM
Times 5
A hand saw for the smaller ones and a chain saw for the bigger ones. Then saturate the ground with water and just dig out the roots. That's what I would do.
May 30, 2013, 06:04 PM
Pat W
I'm impressed thank you for your quick response to my question. Unfortunately both of you confirmed my suspicion that was going to take brute force to get these trees out and sadly I have zero experience with a chainsaw. You have convinced me this will need to be on a two year plan. One to kill the trees and the second to dig the roots out. Is there anything out there that will promote the rotting of the roots and speed up the root removal?

My goals with planting are threefold 1) I want to improve curb appeal, 2) create a bird sanctuary and 3) use plants that are drought tolerant;because we don't tend to get much rain here in south central Minnesota after mid-June.
May 30, 2013, 06:36 PM
good ol' boys cut down the tree, dig around the roots, cut a few of the bigger ones, then run a stout chain under the biggest mess of them, link it to itself, and toss the free end over a trailer hitch. then shift into low, and pull the devil out.

if it's a big root ball, additional cutting and occasionally spiritous beverages come into play.

sig: if this is a new economy, how come they still want my old-fashioned money?
May 30, 2013, 07:43 PM
Times5, I'm curious why you would saturate the ground. That would make the soil cling to the roots so you'd lose soil as you remove the roots. And wet soil is heavier to shovel out. Am I missing something?

Pat, it might not necessarily be "brute force", depending on how many saplings there are and the size, but otherwise you've got a good plan.

It would help if you could post a photo of the trees so we can get some idea of their size. Also, what is your soil like? If you have clay soil, it'll be much harder to remove the roots than with sandy or loamy soil. The type of soil you have might need some soil amendments as well, especially if it's clay.

Congratulations on your desire to create a bird sanctuary. Are you familiar with the Birds & Blooms magazine?

If not, you might want to glance at it and see if it offers tips that you could use to attract the kinds of birds you want. Then you could plant accordingly.

If there's a Minnesota agriculture department or some type of extension service, they might be able to help with information on the native birds and plants for your area.

What plans do you have for a bird bath and bird feeders?

Generally drought tolerant plants would be those with thick leaves, such as the succulents, including aloes. What you might want to do is start ordering gardening catalogues and choose those plants suitable for your zone and for the minimal rainfall.

These sources might also be of help:

As to promotion of root rot and removal, I've read that white vinegar poured into slits on the trunk base will seep into the roots and help kill them, but I've only tried white vinegar on weeds. Using a rototiller would break them up but that might be difficult so close to your house. Other than that, the only other natural remedy I can think of would be solarization, by which you'd place plastic over the area and choke out air, but I've only used this technique on plants, not roots.

A copper sulphate solution is effective in killing tree roots, but that's not something I would use for mass application.

I did find this article on the use of vinegar and citrus based weed killers. But vinegar would change the pH of the soil, requiring remediation before you could plant, and it's not clear if they're effective on roots.

This message has been edited. Last edited by: GardenSprite,
May 31, 2013, 10:16 AM
Pat, one use for portions of the arborvitae is wreaths for birds nests. I have a lot of grapevines, from which I make wreaths, then fill them out with evergreen cuttings and herbs.

One year I made a wreath of arborvitae cuttings. Several years late, a robin created her nest there. I had the opportunity of getting a few glimpses of the babies until they fledged.

If you don't have grapevines, the bare wreaths can be purchased at crafts stores like Michaels and Jo-Ann Fabrics and Crafts. Or you can gather wild ones if that's allowed in your state.

Just make sure to put the wreaths where the birds can come and go freely. Mine was on the front porch, and Mrs. Robin became very upset every time I opened the door to come out to get the mail.
May 31, 2013, 02:47 PM
Pat W
Thank you once again for your prompt replies and really good suggestions.

Ash trees - I was unable to locate any information stating that Minnesota has a program to remove ash trees from private property. Instead there was information on disposal sites for ash borer infected wood.

Soil - I have lots of good old fashioned clay soil and when it is free of trees I am planning on amending it with sphagnum moss and compost.

Wreaths - What a great idea; I never would have thought of doing this. Is there an optimum size of wreath that the birds liked best? You mentioned stuffing the wreath with herbs and nesting materials; was there anything else that the birds seemed to like?

Bird References - "Landscaping for Wildlife" by Carrol Henderson is my all time favorite book for what I am planning on doing. It has lists of native plants, shrubs and trees; the locations where each variety will grow; how they support the biome and which birds will be attracted to the different types of vegetation. Right now I have a cement bird bath but am looking for design that does a better job of providing fresh water; especially in the winter.

Photos of my dreaded ash trees are coming. Right now the wind is blowing ferociously and they won't stay still.

Take care and thanks again for all of the good information you have sent to me. Pat
May 31, 2013, 03:10 PM
Pat, thank you for the kind message. It's a pleasure to provide information for someone as appreciative and quick to respond as you are! So many people never stop back to thank us or provide updates.

Is there any sign your unwanted ash trees are infected? Hopefully not, as disposal will require more effort in your yard remodeling project.

No contest with your plans to amend the soil. If you start composting this year, especially with grass clippings, you'll have nice compost by next year. You can also just lay out grass clippings and leaves over the winter.

You may be aware that oak leaves don't decompose as rapidly as other leaves, so if you use them, be aware that they'll still be there next year. Maples will usually decompose over the winter; for some reason mine didn't last year and they're killing my thyme, so I need to pull them off.

My exterior wreaths are generally about 14 - 16" in diameter, not by design but just because that's about the diameter that's easy for me to wind the grapevines.

For wreaths specifically for a nest, I would probably stlil make the wreath about 16" or so wide, but I would add more grapevines to create a larger base all around, i.e., thicker so there's more area to support the nest.

I would expand it generally from about 3" wide to 4 or 5" wide so the nest can be well anchored. I would also wind it less closely, leaving plenty of spaces for nesting material to be anchored.

Still, the robin managed to build a nest that curved around the wreath I did have. She was a good builder!

I eventually removed the wreath after the babies fledged because the postal carrier refused to deliver my mail, and don't remember for certain, but I believe that the robin brought grass and other lightweight materials and stuffed them inbetween the rounds of grapevines.

I've also used boxwood for wreaths, but that wreath was untouched, perhaps because it was closer to the door and may have inferred a hazard to the robin.

I've seen fallen bird nests in the yard that were composed of bits of stringy type plants, but I never determined what the plants were. Offhand, I don't know of anything else that may attract them except a safer environment. This was the first time one nested in one of my wreaths.
I was surprised that they nested in such an open space.

There's a large boxwood next to my front porch that frequently is filled with a lot of little sparrows. It's so deep they can get inside and apparently feel safe. The boxwood is too thick inside for a cat to get in.

Given that there are 8 cats that visit my yard, I think this would be a factor in a good nesting site. I've noticed that sometimes they hide in the large arborvitae I have in front as well.

The other nests I've seen are in large trees, in crooks of branches generally about 100' off the ground.

If I were to add anything to the wreath, it might be oregano because it's thick and could support a nest. Artimisia makes a nice wreath as well, but it does have a menthol type aroma which may deter the birds.

In fact, as I think of it, that may be why the birds preferred the arborvitae - it has only a moderate evergreen aroma.

I do know that they love the mulberries in my yard, but I would never recommend getting mulberry trees because they're so aggressively invasive.

I think they also dine on my black raspberries. Something eats all my grapes, every year, but it may be the squirrels as well as the birds.

I'll have to check out the book you referenced; it sounds like a good manual.

There are heated bird baths, with I believe coils that can be plugged in to keep the water from freezing in the winter. I'm not sure where I saw them but can check my garden supply sources if you're not familiar with these coils.

And don't be discouraged about the large tree removal project. It will all come together and will be an experience to remember in the process. I've been battling unwanted junk trees for years; at one point I decided to use them in my landscaping. Now I'm going to use them as trellises for my morning glories and as a base for a wattle fence.

I also plan to build a large Robinson Crusoe trellis to block out one of the neighbors (visited by the feds some years ago). So junk trees are turned into an asset.

This message has been edited. Last edited by: GardenSprite,
May 31, 2013, 07:59 PM
Times 5
Originally posted by GardenSprite:
Times5, I'm curious why you would saturate the ground. That would make the soil cling to the roots so you'd lose soil as you remove the roots. And wet soil is heavier to shovel out. Am I missing something?

Garden, I live in a part of the country that doesn't get a lot of rain. The ground is hard to work with and water makes it more "accessible" to a shovel or tiller. True, the moist soil may cling to the roots, but at least a person gets to that point with water. I used to live where there was a lot of rain, but being in an arid climate changes the game a bit. Cool
May 31, 2013, 11:51 PM

Thanks for the explanation, which makes perfect sense now that I think about it. Hard soil is hard to work with. Backbreaking and frustrating work.
Jun 06, 2013, 09:14 PM
I too live in an arid climate and water is your friend when digging for sure. I bought a shovel with large teeth on it, and it works great for roots. I also though have used the good old boy method or even a come along to remove larger trees.
Jun 06, 2013, 10:16 PM
Mosternaz, I don't believe I've seen a toothed shovel. Does it look like this, or is it a square bladed shovel?
Jun 07, 2013, 10:57 AM
yes, that is it. For my hard dry AZ soil, it works wonders. It will cut through small roots and really helps to loosen the soil.

this is mine.,default,pd.html
Jun 07, 2013, 12:31 PM
Thanks Mosternaz. I think this needs to become an addition to my collection of gardening tools. I've been stabbing a roots for years; this shovel ought to make that a lot easier.
Jun 07, 2013, 04:45 PM
As far as removing the trees that have a 3.5 inch diameter, that isn't really big. I would just dig around the trunk to below the soil level and cut it as low as you can, then cover the stump with the soil. It will eventually rot. The smaller trees can be cut with a lopper
Jun 07, 2013, 05:52 PM
Pat W
You all are the very best! Thank you for your continued help and suggestions about how to best get rid of my junk trees. It is easy to see that a shovel with teeth could cut through the roots easier than a toothless one.

Photos have been requested and there is one attached to this e-mail. Sadly, there was only enough space for one even though there are 3 areas having junk trees in them. The three areas are in front of the house by the front entrance, behind the house (photo) and in a garden patch located in the back yard.

Thanks again for your help and suggestions. Pat

Jun 07, 2013, 09:38 PM
Pat, thanks for the photo. This isn't too bad a tree to take down, even if it is taller than the house. If you're not ready to tackle the whole tree, you could start with the easiest to reach lower branches and clear them out, or alternately cut the ones that are most accessible, leaving the tallest branches for the last so you can see exactly what you're doing and make sure you angle the cuts the right way.

And if you're uncomfortable tackling the larger and taller branches, plant morning glories in pots or in the ground at the base of the tree and twine them up the trunk; they should take care of killing the tree for you and save you some work.

I think you could provide links to photos loaded elsewhere on PhotoBucket or a similar site. Simply_Me has given some good instructions on other posts, but skimming through them now I can only find the ones in which he references using offsite storage for photos and linking them here.

But that would give you an opportunity to post more than just what will fit into an answer box.