How to dig thru tree roots

Recommended Tools For Digging Through Roots And Rocks

Editor: Greg Baka

This article was written by the staff

You never know what you will find when you start digging. As you dig deeper you will come across varying soil conditions. Rocks, tree roots, old foundations, or other obstructions may be buried underneath your lawn or garden. If so, one tool will not be sufficient for the job.

The shovel you started with may need to be supplemented by a "digging bar" when you hit a patch of unexpected rocks. Or an axe or mattock may be needed when you uncover large roots. It is best to have tools for each of these conditions on hand when starting a new digging project. That way, no matter what you uncover, you will be prepared.

Common digging tools and their uses:


Are round-point diggers that have a broad scoop, a sturdy dished blade, and either a short or long handle. These are also called "Combination Shovels" since they can be used for both digging and scooping.


Are square-edged, flat-bladed digging tools with either a short or long handle. The straight blade is designed to allow you to stand upright while using your body weight to push the blade down into the ground. They are most commonly used for gardening and landscaping work.

Grub Hoe

These are for chopping up sod, tilling garden soil, and sometimes for trenching. They have a strong head that is heavy enough to allow good soil penetration. They come in 4 inch and 6 inch widths, with long sturdy handles.


Are heavy-duty tools designed to dig through soil, rocks, and roots. There are two versions, but both have a 2 to 4 inch wide digging blade on one end for breaking up soil. A pick mattock has a sharp pick point on the back end for breaking and moving small rocks. A cutter mattock has an axe blade on the back end for cutting through roots.

Pick or Pickaxe

These are heavy-duty tools designed to break up rocks, compacted gravel, and even concrete. Picks have short 36" handles and heavy steel heads (4 to 7 pounds). They usually have two ends, with one being a sharp pick point. The other end can be either a chisel shape or another pick point. These tools can also be used for prying rocks out of the ground, after they have been loosened.

Digging Bars

There are two types: San Angelo bars and Spud bars. Both are a long (4 to 6 foot) heavy metal bar that is slammed straight down into soil to break it up. San Angelo bars are intended for rocky soil, since one end is a sharp point and the opposite is a chisel. Spud bars are used for chopping roots and for digging post holes. The blade end can loosen soil and chop roots, while the opposite end is a tamper for packing soil around fence posts. Neither is meant for heavy prying! (see Pinch Bars below)

Pinch Bars

These are basically long of pry bars, usually 4 to 5 feet long. They have a tapered, wedge-like end used to penetrate tight spaces. Some are straight, while others have a curve at one end that increases the leverage. They can be used for moving rocks, prying apart concrete, and even for ripping apart stumps.

Axes and Hatchets

These are single-bladed tools for cutting wood and roots. A hatchet is short for one-handed use, while an axe is long for two-handed use. Using them in soil can quickly damage them, so cheap models are best.


Is your soil good, rocky, or root-y?

Tools for good or average soil

Good soil is fairly free of rocks, compacted gravel, and large roots. For digging purposes, it doesn't much matter if it is clay, loam, or sandy. Although a heavy clay soil will be more difficult than a light sandy soil.

A typical round-point shovel is great for this type of soil, and for many of the small around-the-house digging projects. Such as adding plants into a flower bed, planting a bush or tree, or digging out a space for a patio or fire pit. While a spade will work better for certain gardening or landscaping projects like spading the soil or edging flower beds.

Grub hoes are great for projects that require you to loosen large areas of soil to a shallow depth. They are also especially good for trenching projects due to their ability to break deep soil and drag it up and out of the trench.

If your soil hardens due to lack of moisture and a high clay content, a mattock will come in handy to break through the hard layers.

Specialty digging tools like post hole diggers and augers will also work best in good soil. Rocks and roots will stop post hole diggers real quick.

Tools for rocky soil or hard-packed clay

In order to use a shovel in hard-compacted or stone-filled soil, you will first want to break up the soil with a pick mattock or a digging bar (or even both). If you will only be working near the surface (less than 9 inches deep), a pick mattock will suffice. But when digging deeper you find the San Angelo style digging bar to be a real back-saver.

A pick mattock has the heft and physics to break apart the toughest ground. The pointed can also penetrate between and around rocks to allow you to pry them from the ground. Remember to use both ends. With the blade end, loosen and move soil aside to expose more rocks. Then with the pointed end break and loosen around the rock to make it easier to pry out.

A digging bar is really useful, but not many people know about them. The San Angelo style bar is the one you want for busting loose rocks and breaking up hard clay and subsoil. It has two working ends, one end pointed and the other end with a narrow chisel blade. It is used by plunging it straight down into the ground, then wiggling it around to loosen up surrounding soil and stone. Keep stabbing and wiggling until there is enough loose soil and rock for you to scoop it out with a shovel or post hole digger.

Remember that a digging bar is ONLY for stabbing and wiggling, NOT for prying. You do not want to bend this long bar. When you come across the inevitable rock that is too large to easily move, use a pinch bar to pry it. Since a pinch bar is a basically an extra-long crowbar, it is built for heavy-duty levering and prying.

Tools for digging through roots

No matter what kind of soil you find yourself digging in, if there are trees or bushes nearby you will find lots of roots. By keeping the edge of your shovel or spade sharp, you can cut through smaller roots. But when they are thicker than your finger, you will want to use a better tool.

If your hole is shallow, a cheap hatchet works well. If the root is really big, a saw may be the easiest thing to use. Limbing saws have the right shape and teeth to cut roots, as does an electric Sawz-All with a long coarse blade. Be aware that soil does quickly wear out saw, axe, and hatchet blades.

But for most digging jobs in root-infested areas, the Cutter Mattock and the Spud Bar will be what you want. As mentioned above for the pick, you will find that the cutter mattock is best for shallow digging (less than 9 inches deep), while the spud bar is best for deeper holes.

A cutter mattock has the weight and design to break apart the toughest soil. The axe end can also chop through the roots that your shovel is stopped by. Remember to use both ends. With the blade end, loosen and move soil aside to expose more roots. Then with the axe end cut the root at the edge (or both edges) of the hole.

The type of digging bar that is best for roots is called a Spud Bar. One end of this long tool is a wide sharp blade. Keep it sharp for easy root cutting. It is used by plunging in straight down into the soil or onto a root. It will take multiple hits to cut larger roots.

Remember, do NOT pry with a spud bar. It is not built for that. Prying roots rarely works anyways, but if you need to, use the mattock or a pinch bar. Also note that there are spud bars made specifically for ice fishermen. You do not want to buy an ice-fishing model for digging work.

You may find once you have removed soil from around a root, that it is no longer held firmly in place and moves away when you strike at it. A solution for smaller roots is to use cheap loppers or pruners to cut them.


A digging project always requires effort and muscle, but with the right tools you can make it easier. When a project is coming up, first go dig a test hole in the target area. If you find roots or rocks, then go get a matching mattock or digging bar. You don't need all the tools at once, just the ones that will be best for your hole's depth and obstructions. These type of tools last a long time, so eventually you will acquire a great collection.

Click to learn about our:

  • Digging Shovels
  • Sharpshooter Shovels
  • Picks and Mattocks

Dig Around and Trench Through Tree Roots | Davey Blog

In our landscape, trees remain a constant comfort. After all, they’ve been there for years, decades or even centuries.

That, of course, means trees don’t budge, even when we may need them to. If you’re starting a construction project, like installing a fence or irrigation system, tree roots can be a challenge.

Lacretia, a Davey blog reader, recently asked, “How can I dig a 3-foot deep trench line near my 100-year-old oak without damaging it?” Below, read the best way to go about this and learn when it’s likely not a good idea to trench through tree roots.

The Best Approach for Digging a Ditch around Tree Roots

Digging a trench around a tree or through tree roots takes a lot of planning, a little math and some help from your arborist.

How do I go about protecting tree roots during construction?

Ideally, trees should be healthy and in good shape before you begin a construction project. In other words, the roots should be well-watered, the canopy free of any dead or diseased branches and the soil stocked with nutrients.

You should also prepare the construction site by checking for any underground utility lines. Contact your utility company, and they’ll help point these out.

What are the guidelines for digging a ditch around tree roots?

Tree roots spread much further than what we can see above ground. Whenever possible, it’s best to start digging as far away from your tree as possible.

If you want a more exact distance, try this!

  1. Measure the diameter of your tree. Wrap a measuring tape around the tree, four feet from the tree’s base.
  2. For young trees, multiply the tree’s diameter by 3. For mature trees, multiply the diameter by 5. That number will help you determine a safe place to start digging.
  3. For example, if your mature maple tree has a diameter of 2 feet, start digging at least 10 feet away from the tree in all directions.

Is it safe to dig through tree roots?

Digging through and cutting tree roots isn’t something to take lightly. Cutting critical roots can interrupt the tree’s water and nutrient uptake, leave permanent damage to the tree's structure and stability, or, in the worst case, cause the tree to die.

When beginning or considering a construction project, start by determining what tree roots you shouldn’t cut.

It’s not a good idea to cut the roots of already damaged trees. Also, roots that are more than two inches wide or close to the trunk should not be pruned, cut or dug through because they help anchor the tree.

Tree age and species will also affect how the plant reacts. Before attempting to cut tree roots, talk to your arborist about what may or may not be safe for your tree. Your arborist can prune the roots for you, or you can follow our step-by-step guidelines for DIY root cutting. Remember, proceed with caution!

Click to read more about how Davey arborists handle tree roots during construction.



  • Root Protection

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Removing Tree Roots Above Ground: Will It Harm Or Kill The Tree?

Winter is coming, and it’s the best time to safely prune the roots of your tree. Learn how above ground roots can be cut without hurting your tree

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How to uproot trees: tips and tricks

Sat, 12/09/2015 - 13:03 | Comments: 0 | Author: OLCHUKS

Everyone who has had to get rid of tree stumps and roots on their site knows how difficult this process is. Knowing how to uproot trees quickly and inexpensively can be needed in a variety of situations: if the tree has already outlived its usefulness, if you need to free up a plot for construction, or just update the landscape design.


  • Step-by-step instructions for removing tree roots
  • Chemical uprooting
  • Mechanical methods

Step-by-Step Guide to Remove Tree Roots

To complete this task, follow these steps:

  • Estimate the scope of the work. The larger the tree, the more difficult it is to remove. The size of the roots often depends on the type of tree. Assess the terrain and soil where the tree is growing. All this will help you determine the next steps or estimate the costs if you contact a specialized company.
  • Prepare all necessary equipment: shovel, hacksaw, axe, etc.
  • If the trunk of the tree has a large enough diameter and is strong with strong roots, you will have to dig a hole around the trunk. Moreover, the pit should be 3 times larger than the trunk itself. Depth is determined individually. You will see the first roots, start cutting them off. It is very important to get to the main, central root. If it remains intact, pulling out the tree will be extremely difficult.

In the case when the previous point did not give any results, you can resort to the next step - to apply special equipment. If you have a tractor, it will be very easy to pull out an already dug up tree. Tie the rope to it, the other end to the tractor and pull. If the roots have already been cut, the tree is removed the first time. However, this effective method has its own characteristics. Firstly, not every site can bring a tractor. Not everywhere there is an entrance to the site. And secondly, the site itself must be large enough so that the tractor can then also turn around.

If the tractor is not brought to the site and the tree with roots is still there, try to wash away the soil around the roots.

Fill the hole with water from a hose, then the soil will become loose, it will be easier to pull out the stump. But remember that you can’t get very close to the tree, there will be slippery liquid mud under your feet. There is a high chance of slipping and falling into a hole. In case of an unsuccessful fall, there is a possibility of fractures.

Chemical uprooting

Chemical methods of tree removal do not require much effort. You won't have to drag, pull or cut anything. However, these methods have their own characteristics. For example, they do not act instantly. We'll have to wait until the chemical turns the roots into dust.

These methods are especially popular when removing trees in the city, where it is not possible to dig and pull special equipment. Basic methods:

  • Potassium nitrate. This method does not require any effort at all and is inexpensive. But it will take a long time to wait. If the roots are very large and deep, like those of coniferous trees, it will take more than one year to wait for the complete removal of all roots. To uproot a tree in this way, cut the tree as close to the ground as possible, make holes in the soil around the trunk with a diameter of at least 5 cm, the depth will depend on the scale of the roots. Pour 100 g of saltpeter into each hole and fill with water. To prevent the substance from washing out, plug all the holes with a stopper. For a while, you can forget about the stump. It is better to do this in early summer and leave everything in this form until spring. And in the spring, if the tree was small, you can complete the procedure. Pour combustible material into the holes and set it on fire. The fire will destroy the remnants of the roots, it remains only to dig.
  • Ammonium nitrate. Ammonium nitrate is good because it not only destroys the roots, but also fertilizes the soil well. The same procedure is carried out as described above, only nothing needs to be set on fire at the end. After the roots have dissolved, this soil can be used to grow flowers.
  • Common salt. A simple and affordable means of removing unwanted roots. Take coarse table salt, pour it into the holes and leave it for the winter. A small stump will take about 300 grams of salt. Then just fill the area with earth. The stump will decompose itself. Nothing can be planted in this area, the soil is too salty. But for changing the landscape, this method is perfect.
  • Special products from the store. You can buy a weed remover, pour it on a fresh cut of a tree and wrap it up for the winter. After about a year and a half, the remains of the stump can be easily removed. No new growth will appear.

Mechanical methods

Mechanical methods are more labor intensive, but you don't have to wait long. You can get rid of hated stumps quickly and immediately. To make the work efficient, get a pick, a special tool for uprooting. Ordinary shovels will dull quickly.

Methods of mechanical uprooting:

  • Manual method. This method requires great strength and perseverance. However, among gardeners and gardeners, it remains the most popular due to its cheapness and availability. It does not require any special skills. You need to have time in reserve and strong assistants. The time of year doesn't matter. It is enough to dig and cut off the roots until the stump is pulled out. If you act correctly, even the deepest roots can be removed, and you do not have to wait a year for this. However, if there is no experience and skill, injuries are possible.
  • Excavator. A very fast and efficient method. However, it is advisable to hire special equipment only if there are a lot of stumps and enough space on the site. For example, if we are talking about a park or an orchard, then this method can even be called economical. But in the event that there is not enough free space, there is a lawn, paths, fenced areas nearby, then it will be impossible to use such bulky equipment. If you do not plan to plant new trees, then the holes after the excavator will need to be covered with earth.
  • Pneumatic crusher. A crusher is a device that enters the ground by about 30 cm and cuts the roots into small chips. For hard-rooted trees, this is a great way to remove. It is compact in size, acts quickly, does not dig deep holes. However, it enters the soil shallowly, roots may remain in the ground, which then sprout. If the site is contaminated with something, large debris, stones can lead to breakage of the crusher.
  • Winch. This is almost a manual method of removal, but here a simple mechanism called a lever comes to the rescue. The stump needs to be dug up, some roots cut off. Then tie a cable to it, and wrap the other end around the tree and attach it to the winch, and then pull it. If the stump is dug very well, it will fly out of the pit quite unexpectedly and abruptly. So you have to be careful not to hit anyone. This method, although it sounds simple, but requires certain skills. If you do not have any, it is better to hire specialists. This will make it easier, faster and safer.

The best method has to be chosen according to specific conditions: the size of the stump, the thickness of the roots, etc. In any case, you will have to make a lot of effort to solve the problem.

More information can be found in the video.

Category:Trees | Trees

Destruction of the roots of trees and bushes: the best means and methods

Renovation of the garden is invariably accompanied by cutting down old trees and planting new ones. But after that, one problem appears: stumps remain in place of the removed plants, which not only spoil the appearance of the garden, but also reduce the potential area for new plantings.

This article will describe the main ways to destroy the roots and stumps of trees, and step-by-step instructions for the mechanical and chemical removal of wood residues will help clear the garden of old stumps.


  1. What is the purpose of removing tree roots
  2. Preparation for destruction of tree roots
  3. Methods for removing tree roots
    1. Mechanical uprooting
    2. Chemical removal of tree roots
  4. How to remove roots yourself
    1. Safety when removing roots and stumps

What is the purpose of removing tree roots

Removing an old stump has not only aesthetic, but also practical value. As a rule, they appear on the site after the old tree has already been cut down and disposed of. Just removing a tree from the site is easy, while removing its overgrown roots and large stump is much more difficult. Many people use the old proven mechanical uprooting, but there are a variety of chemicals on the modern horticultural market that make this process much easier.

See also: Do-it-yourself drip irrigation

If the root and part of the trunk do not bother you, you can turn it into a kind of garden decoration by planting flowers inside it or decorating it in any other way at your own request. However, there are times when destruction is not just a whim, but a necessity. This happens if the tree was cut down due to illness. If even a small part of it is left in the ground, it can become a source of infection for the rest of the trees in the garden. In addition, the remains of an old plant occupy a usable area, because in their place you can plant a young tree or shrub, which will bring a crop in the future.

Preparing to destroy the roots of trees

Before you start removing the roots, you should decide on the method you will use for this. Wood residues can be destroyed mechanically or chemically.

If you prefer to manually uproot part of the trunk, you will need a saw, a shovel and an axe. In this case, you will first have to dig a hole around the stump, chop or file its roots and gradually, piece by piece, remove the wood from the soil.

Note: The mechanical method is considered obsolete not only because of the high labor costs, but also because some large specimens are difficult to manually remove, and the remains can only be uprooted from the soil with the help of machinery.

The chemical method is considered more modern. The remains of wood are simply treated with a special preparation that accelerates the process of fiber destruction. As a result, in a short time, the remains of the trunk begin to crumble, and you just have to remove it.

Figure 1. Preparatory work

Depending on the chosen method, you will need some preparation (Figure 1). With mechanical removal, you need to dig a hole around the trunk in advance and prepare all the necessary tools, and in some cases, rent special equipment. If you opted for the chemical method, you will need to buy special treatment products, as well as prepare a spray gun and protective clothing.

Methods for removing tree roots

As mentioned above, roots and stumps can be destroyed mechanically and chemically. Since they are fundamentally different from each other, we will look at the features, advantages and disadvantages of each of them in more detail so that you can choose the right one for yourself.

Mechanical uprooting

This method is considered the oldest, since the process uses tools with which the roots are filed, and the stump is simply uprooted from the ground. A more modern mechanical method involves the involvement of heavy equipment (excavators, bulldozers or special pullers), but, unfortunately, not everyone can pay for the rental of such equipment. In addition, it is far from always possible for heavy equipment to enter the site.

Figure 2. Mechanical uprooting

If you don't want or can't use heavy equipment, you can also remove the stump manually. This will require some preparation. First, the remains of the plant must be freed from the surrounding earth by digging the soil with a shovel. Secondly, you need to prepare in advance the equipment with which the trunk will be removed from the ground (Figure 2).

Mechanical uprooting is carried out as follows:

  1. After the stump is freed from the soil, it must be tied with a cable attached to the winch. It is better to fasten the cable immediately under the saw cut so that it acts as a lever when tipping over. The winch can be tied to a regular car.
  2. If it is not possible to use a winch, the frame can be removed by cutting off the remains of the roots with an ax or cutting down with a saw.
  3. Once the trunk is free of lateral roots, it can be easily swung and removed.

This method is the cheapest, and with some effort, a large root can be uprooted in a day. However, this method is accompanied by significant labor costs. In addition, if you plan to carry out construction on this site, a mechanical removal method will not work for you, as the remnants of the roots may remain in the ground.

Chemical tree root removal

Chemical stump removal is simpler and more modern, although it has certain features. As a rule, saltpeter is used to destroy wood residues - a chemical with a powerful oxidizing effect, which quickly destroys not only the aerial part, but also the roots (Figure 3).

Removal of roots with saltpeter is carried out as follows:

  1. At the end of summer or beginning of autumn, several holes are drilled in the trunk. For this purpose, it is better to use the thickest drills so that the diameter of the holes is large.
  2. Potassium or sodium nitrate is poured into the holes obtained and poured with plenty of water. The liquid will dissolve the chemical and it will penetrate the wood fibers faster.
  3. The top of the trunk should be covered with pieces of wood or covered with foil, tightly tied to the trunk. This will prevent chemical vapors from escaping, and the destruction process will be more active.

The stump prepared in this way should be left until next summer. During this time, saltpeter will saturate not only the trunk, but also the roots. After that, you need to either pour a small amount of kerosene on the remains of the tree, or light a fire around the stump. The tree will begin to smolder, and all you have to do is remove its remains and dig up the site.

Note: It is important to consider that this method is not suitable for areas with peaty soil, since the roots soaked with saltpeter after ignition can cause a fire in the deep layers of the soil.

This method is good because it requires minimal physical effort, and all the remains of the tree will be completely removed. An exception can only be thick and deep-lying roots, but they will be destroyed so much that they will not be able to give young shoots.

Figure 3. Chemical destruction with saltpeter

But when using saltpeter, it should be borne in mind that in large quantities it negatively affects the fertility of the soil, so it will not be possible to grow fruit and vegetable crops in this area for several years.

DIY root removal

Another easy DIY method for removing roots and stumps is using urea. This method is also considered chemical, but its advantage is that even large stumps can be removed quickly and with minimal labor.

Preparation of the barrel for removal is similar to the saltpeter method: large holes are drilled in the barrel, into which urea (urea) is poured. Each hole is filled with water, and the saw cut is tightly covered with a film. After 1-2 years, both the trunk and the roots remaining in the soil will completely rot and turn into fertile soil (Figure 4).

Figure 4. Chemical uprooting with urea

The main advantage of this method is considered to be low labor costs. But it should also be borne in mind that when using urea to remove stumps, all wood is destroyed: not only the trunk, but also the roots that go deep into the soil. In addition, after such treatment, the soil is not polluted with chemicals, remains fertile and suitable for growing other crops.

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