HOME IMPROVEMENT : At the Root of Stump Removal


Turn a large, healthy tree upside down and you'll find that, minus the trunk, the root system covers as much area as the canopy.

Take away the canopy and the trunk, and you have the stump, a fighting fur ball of roots that will struggle till death and beyond to keep on growing.

So who ya gonna call when you want remove the stump to make it easy to mow the lawn, or discourage roots from busting up your patio?

The degree of difficulty varies in removing a stump. Up to 5 years old, the tree can be taken out by hand without too much trouble, says Zachary Hahn, owner of Zax Stump Removal in Fullerton. After the tree has grown for 10 years or so, you'd have a better chance of digging to China.

The homeowner with a mind to chop the old stump out himself had better free up the next couple of weekends and be willing to endure back pain. To make it easier, dose the top of the stump with salt four to eight weeks before digging into it, says Bill Thomas, the arborist owner of the Brea Tree Co. The salt creates a chemical imbalance, killing the stump and roots.

Professional stump specialists use a stump grinder to break up the root crown into separate roots. The grinder spins a circular blade that chews away at the stump, working back and forth in a flurry of dirt and wood chips. "It's not a high-tech thing," says Victor Eggers of V&E; Tree Services in Orange.

Many firms won't quote a price for a stump removal sight unseen. What can sound like a simple job often turns out to be a logistical nightmare. Instead, the stump specialist visits the site and gives a free estimate.

Hahn--who uses a 20-horsepower mid-sized stump grinder--prices his work according to difficulty of access, the type of tree and the depth to which the homeowner wants the stump removed. As a guide, he tells the homeowner to measure the diameter of the stump. He charges $2.50 to $3 per inch of diameter for hardwood trees and pine, which isn't hard, but its sap gums up and slows the machine. For fruit trees, which have the hardest wood, Hahn charges $3 an inch.

For a softwood tree such as the palm, yucca or bird of paradise, Hahn charges about $1.70 an inch.

It typically costs $50 to $80 to remove a stump, Hahn says. He charges a minimum of $55 for a front-yard tree and $65 for a back-yard tree.

Much of the challenge comes in getting equipment to the stump. The stump specialist earns his keep by removing the stump in some very tight quarters. Innovation pays off. Stump grinding machinery ranges from 400-pound hand-guided lightweights to outright heavy equipment. What the specialist gains in grinding power with a big grinder, he tends to lose in access to tight areas, but Hahn once snaked his 8-foot-long, 1,500-pound behemoth through an apartment and into an enclosed patio.

Hahn will take the stump down 12 inches. If it's a two-foot stump, he cuts it off two inches above the ground with a chain saw, and then goes down 12 inches from there.

How deep the stump specialist goes may be the key to success. In many cases, one has only to go down about four inches to clear the surface and discourage the root so that it won't cause trouble again. Hahn prefers to dig deeper so he doesn't get callbacks.

Some trees simply don't want to die.

"About 2% will be sprouters," Hahn says. Even when the crown is shredded to the individual roots, a tiny percentage of roots will sprout and revive to cause problems. He will grind away surface roots for $4 a foot.

He suggests not replanting in the holes left by the old root. Fertilizing the new growth would only encourage the old route to sprout.

In some cases, a stump can serve a utilitarian purpose. A stump on a hillside will prevent erosion, says Jim Paramore, district manager for Davey Tree Surgery in Westchester.

He suggests cutting the stump flush with the ground and leaving it, particularly if it's in an area where no one will trip over it.

Not every tree stump will refuse to vacate its premises. Roots don't easily penetrate heavily compacted soil, including the clay seen in parts of Orange County. When he examined a eucalyptus the wind had blown over, Paramore found the root ball was no more than three feet in diameter and the roots were scraggly bits that went down only three or four inches. "It looked like a pencil stuck in the ground," he says.

Such trees can present a liability problem if they do damage when they fall.

Yucca trees are by far the most common of the trees Hahn removes.

"I think everybody went to the desert in 1960 and bought a yucca," he says.

While the yucca is a soft plant, it can knock down walls with its base. Part of the problem is that the yucca's roots keep growing, even if the canopy is pruned.

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