Here’s an easy, no dig method for removing small trees from your garden

A rogue palm tree that needs removal

No matter where you live, you’ve undoubtedly run across a tree that “volunteered” itself to grow in an inconvenient location in your garden. While the species vary (here in the west it’s a combination of native oaks and willows and non-native eucalyptus, palms and pepper trees), the problem is the same — trees that easily seed just about anywhere.

A lot of times a new tree might be just fine (who doesn’t like a good, sturdy oak?), but other times they’re pests that lift sidewalks, invade sewer lines, crowd out other plants, and even create life threatening hazards (the eucalyptus is basically a roman candle in a wildfire).

If you catch a seedling early it’s easy enough to remove, but if you let it go a while that seedling becomes a sapling and it gets problematic. Chop it to the ground and it will regrow from side shoots that are even tougher than the original plant. Try and dig it out and you can end up trenching half your yard and still not get the whole root system — assuming digging is even an option. Volunteer trees have a tendency to grow along fences, cracks in hardscape, on steep slopes and other hard-to-reach places.

Fortunately, I’ve got a pretty cool garden hack that removes unwanted saplings completely and permanently without digging, chopping, using chemicals, hiring the kid next door, or any special equipment whatsoever — all features that make this solution a winner in this lazy (but inventive) yardsman’s book. Here’s how to do it:

What you need:

Basic supplies – an empty coffee can and some charcoal

  • Empty coffee can with both ends removed
  • Charcoal briquettes (enough to fill the coffee can)
  • A large clay pot, metal bucket/pan or similar fireproof container to transport hot coals
  • Garden shears, pruners, or small saw
  • Trowel or similar small shovel
  • A few rocks, pieces of broken pottery or similar fireproof material
Instructions
  1. Remove all the branches and root suckers from the tree with your shears and /or saw. Then cut the trunk down to about 1 inch (2.5 CM) above the soil line.

    Palm with the fronds removed

  2. Using your trowel, make a shallow trench in the soil the size of your coffee can all the way around the trunk stump.
  3. Place a few rocks or pieces of broken pottery in the trench around the stump. You don’t need a whole lot, just enough to keep the coffee can about ½-inch (1.25 cm) off the ground. Then place an open end of the coffee can on the rocks/pottery and center the tree stump in the opening. Make sure the can is balanced so it doesn’t tip and there’s plenty of air gap between the soil and the bottom of the can.

    Coffee can over the palm’s trunk

  4. Use your barbeque, a charcoal starter or something similar to get about a half a dozen pieces of charcoal burning. Once the coals are hot, transfer them to your clay pot / bucket or pan and take them over to your can and stump setup.
  5. Dump the burning charcoal into the coffee can making sure the coals are spread evenly all the way around the stump. Let them sit for a few minutes to make sure they’re burning nice and hot. The air gap at the bottom of the can should act like a chimney, pulling air from below to keep the coals burning. Once you’re sure the coals are burning well, fill the can to the top with the remainder of your (non-burning) charcoal.

    The coffee can loaded with hot coals

  6. Now wait. Over the next several hours the charcoal will burn from the bottom up basically turning the stump itself into charcoal. The ash will settle over the stump and it will continue to smolder until there’s nothing left to burn. I generally like to wait 24 hours just to make sure that everything is completely cool.

    Coals burned down to ash

  7. Once it’s all finished and the can is cool to the touch, you can remove it. You can remove the ash pile and what remains of the stump too, or simply bury it in place like I do.

    What remains of the palm tree 24 hours later

Tada! No more tree!

It really doesn’t get any simpler or easier than this. Next time you’ve got a tree you need to remove, try it out.

Watch the tree removal video
author avatar
Sage Osterfeld
I’m just a guy with nearly an acre of dirt, a nice little mid-century ranch house and a near-perfect climate. But in my mind I’m a landscaper survivalist craftsman chef naturalist with a barbeque the size of a VW and my own cable TV show. I like to write about the stuff I build, grow and see here at Sage's Acre.