Monday, December 28, 2009

Organic Stump Removal

If you have ever had to have a stump removed, you know it is a long, difficult, often arduous or expensive process. There are many methods. You can use harsh chemicals, which slowly dissolve the stump over 4-6 weeks, while you try to keep the kids and pets at bay. Oh, and you will probably need to let the stump sit around for a year after you cut the tree down before this one will work. There are stump grinders, which are expensive and noisy, but produce a handy pile of wood shavings. Then there is the fun way: dynamite. It is kind of dangerous, though, and you had better have a hired expert and all kinds of permits.

If you aren’t in a big rush, though, you could just eat the stump. How’s that, you say? Well, it turns out that most trees have 1/3 to ½ of their total body mass under ground. Think about how much wood there is down there. It shouldn’t be too hard if you just cut up the top part of the tree. We are talking about hundreds or even thousands of pounds of wood. Now you and I can’t really get at all that wood, but there are other things that can. Many of the tastier gourmet mushrooms excel at stump removal. They will get in there and decompose that stump over several years, all while producing periodic clusters of tasty mushrooms. When they are done, any wood that is left over will be well decomposed and easy to dig out or bury. All that wood that is left over underground just gets turned into soil.

First, the cautions. There are two main difficulties with growing edible mushrooms on a stump. The first is contamination. You can put whatever edible mushroom on there that you want, but if some other mushroom beat you to it, you are just out of luck. Sometimes a wild mushroom will act like a mycorrhizal mushroom for the life of the tree. In doing so, it will grow its fibers throughout the wood of the tree. When the tree dies, it switches to saprophytic mode and begins decomposing the tree. When this is the case, it can be hard to supplant the original mushroom with the one you want growing there. Ditto with a parasitic mushroom that either killed the tree or was working on it when you cut it down. Also, tree roots have a LOT of surface area. That is their purpose. They contact the soil to get what they need out of it. That same soil can also have a lot of decomposers in it. When the tree dies and stops resisting the rot, it is just about guaranteed that something is waiting in the wings to move in, and there are lots of contact points for it do just that.

The second difficulty is related to the first. When you put an edible mushroom on your stump, you need to be able to identify it when it comes out of the ground. You need to know what it looks like and key features that distinguish it from other similar mushrooms. It is also an extremely good idea to be familiar with similar mushrooms and know which are poisonous. Joining a local mycological society is a good idea, or even finding a mycologist at your local university (assuming they are friendly and willing to help). Whatever you do, don't just eat whatever pops up on your stump. It is better to ignore the mushrooms and just have your stump removed than to get poisoned.

The first and most important step to stump removal with mushrooms is to pick the right mushroom for the job. The first thing to remember is that each species of mushroom has certain preferences for what types of wood it decomposes. If you put the wrong kind of mushroom on your stump, it will either fail to grow or not grow strong and be prone to competition from other kinds of mushrooms. The second thing to remember is that while certain types of mushrooms, such as shiitake and oyster, grow very well on logs, they may not be the best suited for growing on stumps. A stump is a unique and highly competitive environment. You are better off to pick a stump specialist. The third thing to consider is that, all else being equal, pick the mushroom that doesn't have any poisonous look-alikes. It will make identification easier.

Here are a few likely candidates:

Agrocybe aegerita (Black Poplar Mushroom or Pioppino Mushroom)
Flavor-wise, this is my personal favorite, being both mild and complex. It tends to prefer warmer, more humid environments and is native to the southeastern United States. It has a strong preference for members of the poplar family, so stumps of poplar, cottonwood, and aspen are good bets. It will also work nicely on willows and maples.

Hypholoma sublateritium (Brick Top Mushroom or Cinnamon Cap Mushroom)
This aggressive decomposer of wood can be pretty productive. I got a mushroom kit with this one on it several years ago and it has the distinction of having exceeded the theoretical maximum for mushroom production. The flavor is strong, but it made the best cream of mushroom soup I have ever had. Be careful, though, as there are look-alikes that are poisonous. It tends to prefer oak and chestnut stumps, but can probably be grown on many others.

Grifola frondosa (Hen-of-the-Woods Mushroom or Maitake)
G. frondosa is a strange one. It seems to be particularly good at not only keeping competitors at bay, but actually pushing out previous inhabitants of stumps it desires. It then seems to take its time in decomposing the stump. There are stories of majestic oaks whose stumps will produce seasonal clumps of these mushrooms for decades. It is a wonderful edible mushroom as well as a powerful medicinal mushroom and I have seen it selling at specialty stores for as much as $30/pound when fresh. It prefers oaks, but can also be grown on elms, honey locust, maples, and beech.

Laetiporus sulphureus (Chicken-of-the-Woods Mushroom or Sulphur Tuft Mushroom)
This orange mushroom is called the Chicken of the Woods because it supposedly has a texture and flavor so similar to chicken that it can be substituted for chicken in recipes. This mushroom is a bit less picky than some of the others and can be grown on a wide variety of woods, though it tends to prefer oaks. There is a closely related sister species called L. conifericola that prefers conifer trees, particularly hemlocks.

Trametes versicolor (Turkey Tail Mushroom)
This one isn't actually an edible mushroom, being too tough to chew. It is, however, a powerful medicinal mushroom, being the source of at least one of our common cancer fighting drugs. It makes a lovely and refreshing tea. I add this one to the list because it is the least picky of all of the types of mushrooms here. It can be grown on any type of hardwood and most kinds of conifers, including juniper, pine, fir, and spruce.

As far as method, it is actually pretty easy. The easiest way to inoculate a stump is with mushroom plug spawn. In essence, it is a small wooden dowel that has the particular mushroom you are looking for growing on it. You drill a hole in the log and pound it in, sealing the hole with wax when you are done. The more plugs you put in, the better, so one every few inches, especially in the outer rim of the wood, just inside the bark. A single stump can take over a hundred plugs. If you don't have access to plug spawn, you can also drill a larger hole and pack in some sawdust spawn. It becomes harder to protect, though, as many critters will get in and munch on your spawn. Earthworms and pillbugs particularly enjoy mushroom spawn. Another method is to cut off a round of the stump (assuming it is tall enough) and pack an inch or so of spawn on the open cut. Then nail the round back on top. A little burlap or wax around the edge should provide enough protection until the mushroom can become established.


  1. Your blog is like an encyclopedia for those who want to know more about this. Thanks for the interesting information.

  2. If you recently cut down a tree and are looking to remove the stump for a low cost you can rent a tree stump remover for the day and chop up all of the stumps get a stump grinder.

  3. Stump removal takes a little bit longer then cutting down the tree itself, this is because it is a much more rooted in part.

    -Samudaworth Tree Service
    Tree Pruning Brooklyn

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  5. This is very interesting, Edmund. Indeed, having mushrooms eat away a tree stump is perhaps the most organic way to go. I mean, no noise and no chemicals involved. Using harsh chemicals might also be a harmful choice. Your points are interesting. Although at the end of the day, it would still depend on how fast you want the stump removed. Using mushrooms would be good if you’re not in a hurry, but if you are, then I guess hiring professionals would be a good choice.

    Armando Lindsey

  6. Thank you so much for sharing this. This will be very helpful, especially to our friends out there who are planning on having tree stumps around them removed. I particularly like the part where mushroom is used, in that I think it's an organic and natural way to remove tree stumps.
    Richard Smith

  7. Very cool article. I found the points you made to be great! Tree Service Brooklyn NY

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