We had a living hawthorn tree when we took on our plot. Blocking access and wasting space it was choked with ivy. The stems of the ivy were as thick as tyres, spiraled up the trunk and twisted into giant nests between the branches. It took about a year to get the tree down to knee height. I was going to use the stump as a seat, or carve out the middle and use it as a planter
After a growing season of walking around it, tutting, and aiming the occasional kick, I decided that it had to go. Online research led me to expensive stump removal services, or hire of heavy tools and machinery. Even advice about burning it out involved drilling into it, (our extension leads didn't reach) and injecting it with dangerous chemicals or fuel. Perhaps I could just burn it out?
The wooden remains of the old garden shed were stacked nearby. The timbers clearly had woodworm and various rots, so there was fuel aplenty. As the only gardener in the family, and a lady one at that, I decided to try to get rid of the obstruction without using any heavy tools, machinery or chemicals.
Firstly I dug around the stump to a depth of about a foot. The burn I was planning was going to be slow, but the lower down I could get the fire the better. I put dry paper and good kindling at the base of what looked like an empty moat and a couple of pieces of my oldest, driest wood. As the fire built up, I added the fuel as close to the side of the stump as possible.
The first burn shrank the stump by about a third and dried it out considerably. Handily a crack in the centre widened and one side of the stump, the opposite to where I had the bonfire, had a hollow base. Perfect spot to start bonfire number two.
I had recently watched a BBC programme, called Victorian Farm, which covered charcoal making. The system involved burning wood, incredibly slowly, by reducing the oxygen supply. As my intensive fire right next to the tree had only reduced it, I wondered about slow burning methods.
We have an old rusting metal dustbin with no base. I knew it would come in handy one day. When my fire had roared for over an hour, I put the dustbin over the top of the now shrunken stump. Any type of metal cylinder should do. I shoveled all the hot embers from around the stump and over the top of it. Then I pushed them down the gap, with the spade, between the stump and the dustbin suround. After putting the last of the hot embers on top of the stump, I covered the whole top with damp leaves and then sealed it with a couple of shovel-fulls of damp soil. I left it alone, after ensuring the site was not accessible to children/animals, to cook.
I checked on the slow burner, once or twice, and threw on some more leaves and soil. After two days, not only was the tree stump burned to ground level, but the embers were hot enough to ignite a few dry leaves thrown on top. The remains were charcoal. Obviously this process has not removed the whole depth of the stump but it did lower their remains to a foot below the surrounding soil level thanks to my initial digging.
After leveling the soil I built a raised bed on top that will be fine for shallow rooting plants. The organic growing above will assist decomposition of the remains below while the area remains productive. The drainage may be poor in one third of the bed but the amount of charcoal I mixed into the soil below the bed will keep it fresh. I've topped the bed with compost, worms, and a layer of leaves to keep them busy. At the very least the slugs will hate it.
The idea for this chemical free method of stump removal was an adaptation from the ancient craft of charcoal making. I picked out the pieces to save for outdoor cooking but left the smaller fragments in the soil. I was going to save the ash for fertiliser but decided not to as much of the old shed remains I had burnt were painted, probably with old toxic paints.
While I'm glad to see the back of that old hawthorn tree, I have decided to make room in a better position for a new tree to replace it. We don't have space to grow trees to fuel our open fire but coppicing one willow tree, or hazel, for charcoal, seems worth trying now. Small scale production of charcoal is achievable on an occasional basis. I don't have a lot of steel forging on my regular to-do lists, but charcoal is a perfect fuel for outdoor cooking. Charcoal is also beneficial in growing mediums, as an artists' material, and even as an ingredient in some types of food and medicines. When, as in this case, it is the by-product of a chemical and machine free method of stump removal, then getting rid of the dead wood seems well worth the effort.
Readers regularly send in their solutions. Subscribe to Permaculture magazine and learn how to make May Whistles in issue 72.
Wendy Ogden writes a blog called On the Edge all about writing, gardening, scenery and living by the sea.