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Introducing the patient: big, ivy-wrapped, and determined to stay put

…I was digging out stumps.

Big stumps: massive ones, in fact. The kind that make you have fantasies about acquiring a large John Deere tractor at short notice equipped with towbar and strong rope. The sort that halfway through, when it’s still not budging so much as an inch, you begin to wonder whether this is the one which will defeat you and stay, stubbornly, in the ground until you can come up with a more imaginative (and probably expensive) way of getting rid of it.

Midwinter is a time I find myself doing all the grunt work in the garden: the fencing, the path laying, the reconfiguring and extending and general shifting about. Not, in fact, gardening at all.

The two stumps in question are a massive Cotoneaster horizontalis on the top terrace of our stepped garden leading from the side of the house to the garage. This has been gradually getting bigger and more thuggish ever since we’ve been here: it recently acquired a topknot of brambles and this year made the decision even easier by refusing to produce more than one or two berries, which made my previous excuse that it was helping the birds entirely redundant.

The other stump – the one in the pictures – was a large hazel bole (the multistemmed bit at the bottom when you coppice it). It wasn’t unattractive, particularly: just in entirely the wrong place, being right in front of the gate that leads into my veg garden. I’ve been eyeing it with a view to obliteration for a couple of years now. But since the extension of the veg garden by another 60ft or so is now gathering pace, the compost bins had to shift up a bit: and the hazel stump was right in their way. It had to go.

Shifting stumps involves several essential pieces of kit:

  • border spade for the fiddly bits
  • fencer’s graft: a single-cast, long-handled and narrow metal spade used by fencers to dig a straight hole. Ours has been one of the most useful tools in our armoury for years now and is rarely out of commission.
  • crowbar: another essential in the toolbox
  • bowsaw and loppers: for cutting away the surface roots (and a few underneath once you’ve got that far).

The general approach is as follows.

1: Cut away all top growth so your stump looks like a stump. Mine, being hazel, was nice and straight – next year’s wigwams, I think.

2: Gingerly dig a trench right round the stump with the border spade, cutting away surface roots as you go: anything up to an inch, with the loppers, anything larger, with the bowsaw.

3: Have a cup of coffee and congratulate yourself on making a start.

4: Start work with the fencer’s graft, deepening and widening the trench and going in as close to the actual wood of the stump as you can. At this point it helps to rope in one’s spouse, if only so you can surreptitiously take a break under the guise of chopping out a few more roots.

5: As you get deeper, start sloping in your cuts so they’re going under the stump. The idea is to destabilise the whole thing by removing all soil, cutting any anchoring wood and generally working it free. This takes absolutely ages and since by now you’re completely knackered, it’s the most painful bit of all. Added to which, the stump is still refusing to move, and your language is getting worse and worse.


Conquered at last. Ouch.

6: Eventually, if you keep at it long enough, the stump starts to rock, imperceptibly at first, then more and more until it is undeniably loose. This is my favourite bit of the whole process: you get a whole new injection of energy and start doing embarrassing things like punching the air and shouting, ‘Gotcha, ya b*****d!’ at an inanimate lump of wood. It is best not to let anyone observe you at this point.

7: Shove the stump over as far as you can get it and cut away the remnants of any roots holding it in place one by one, until you’ve worked it free and can roll it out of the hole.

8: Fill the hole back in, go in and brew yourself a strong coffee, and sink into a nice hot bath. Do not plan to do anything at all the following day as your muscles will be in such spasm you will be unable to move. Return to view your handiwork with that warm glow of satisfaction that comes with a job well (if painfully) done.