On large to medium trees, the roots can be very pesky to remove. Trees have lateral roots that grow outward in addition to the taproot that goes straight down. Depending on the size of the tree, the lateral roots can stretch 30 feet and longer. Follow a few simple guidelines to safely remove tree roots.
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One way to remove tree roots is to let herbicides do all the work. This method will work if you do not plan on replanting a tree in that spot right away. Remove the stump below the grade and inject a stump-killing poison, or spray the poison on the exposed trunk. Check your local nursery for the herbicide best suited for your tree and area. The poison will eventually cause the roots to rot away.
For small trees under 10 feet, the roots can be removed with a shovel. Use the round nose of the shovel to dig around the root ball. Leave about 7 feet of trunk in place for leverage. As you dig, feel around for lateral roots that extend from the root ball. In small trees, the lateral roots are small enough to chop through with a shovel. Cut through the laterals, then find the taproot with the shovel. Small trees will not have extensive tap roots, and you can lodge the shovel underneath the tree. Use the shovel to pry the remaining root ball from the ground. At the same time, use the trunk as a lever arm to get the root ball out by pushing down on the trunk.
Larger trees require the use of power saws or pruning saws in addition to a shovel. Leave 6 to 7 feet of trunk attached to the root ball for leverage. Expose and chop all the roots with a power saw or hand saw. Saws recommended for this job include a manual pruning saw, a "saws all" with a wood blade, and a chain saw; however, using a chain saw on roots can dull the chain. Push down on the trunk to wiggle the root ball free. Always use goggles, gloves and ear protection when working with power saws.
The towing method uses the power of a truck or other large vehicle to loosen the roots and haul them out. Only use this method under the supervision of a tree removal expert. Once in awhile, the tree roots will not budge even after you have cut all the lateral roots. Attach thick rope or chain around the root ball, and then attach the chain or rope to the trailer hitch of the truck and gently dislodge the tree with the power of the truck. Alternatively, you can attach the rope or chain to the trunk to lever out the root ball. Use good-quality chain and rope, and ensure that a sturdy hitch is attached to the frame and not just to the bumper of the vehicle.
Stump grinders, machines that are designed to grind out roots, are available for larger trees. Rent a stump grinder from your local tool rental shop--the rental rate is about £52 per day as of May 2010. Use safety equipment like a face shield, goggles and gloves when working with stump grinders. Roll the heavy machine onto the stump. The grinder has teeth that are propelled by a motor. The teeth grind the stump and the roots into sawdust. Experience is not necessary to operate a stump grinder, but expert supervision is recommended.