The good news is that you can tackle this job on your own.

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Is your landscape looking a little tired and weather-worn? Or maybe you're simply ready for a new look. It's easy to construe lofty goals until you take a closer look at your garden beds, only to discover the deep root systems of the plants, shrubs, and small trees you'd need to remove to change your outdoor space's style. Not only can this task feel overwhelming, but not everyone has the skillset or tools to tackle such a big job. Below, Blythe Yost, a landscape architect and the CEO of Tilly, a startup aiming to bring landscape design to more homeowners, shares her recommendations for removing longstanding varieties to pave the way for new growth.

beautiful backyard flower garden
Credit: SVproduction / Getty Images

Make a clear plan—and stick to it.

"Landscape design is very labor intensive. Don't bite off more than you can chew," cautions Yost, who recommends homeowners map out a plan that outlines their goals. "Draw something out, even if it's on the back of an envelope, or put together a shopping list with the tools you need." Adds Yost, "Know where you're starting and where you're going so that you get somewhere in the end."

Take a strategic approach to removal.

To remove shrubs, begin with a pair of loppers, like these from Fiskars ($24.95, amazon.com), to cut away branches and any large roots visible to the eye. As you get down to the soil, use a pick mattock to help you "hack out" the web beneath the surface. Continue to cut the root system as it becomes more accessible; be careful not to simply pull and tug, which can strain your back. For unrelenting roots, Yost recommends utilizing a Come-Along ($31.50, amazon.com), a tool that allows you to use the support of a tree during the extraction process. Similarly, when removing the roots of small trees, remove branches with loppers—but be sure to leave enough "to give yourself leverage to twist, hack, and pull the roots," notes Yost. As for unearthing simple plants? Use a sharp shovel, such as a spade—this set from Martha's collection has everything you'll need for the job ($81.13, amazon.com)—to dig up the roots, but remember "they are not as deep as the plant is tall." Uprooted trees, shrubs, and plants should be disposed of in the same manner as your regular yard waste.

Use root killer sparingly.

If you choose to apply root killer, Yost recommends using it "judiciously;" wear protective gear, do not over-spray the area, and be mindful of runoff, she notes. Furthermore, remember that root killer is systemic and needs time to work. "It needs to be taken up by the leaves and then go down to the roots," explains Yost. "If you chop all the leaves off, you can't use it, because there's no leaf surface." Additionally, Yost has found that root killer is best suited for invasive species and works especially well in warm climates, where plants metabolize faster. Otherwise, it will take about two weeks for the root killer to reach the plant's base. If your goal is to kill the system, organic herbicides wont do the trick, she says, since they are not systemic: "Leaves will shrivel, but roots won't die."

Know when to call in a professional.

"It depends on how much of a workout you want and how much time you have," says Yost of knowing if and when to hire an expert. "Most things can be achieved on your own, but when a tree is larger than an inch and a half in diameter, it will be very difficult to remove." Getting rid of large, overgrown shrubs, which can be especially taxing to remove, often requires a professional, as well. Assessing "size and quantity are two good ways of approaching it," says Yost.

Comments (2)

Anonymous
July 11, 2021
I agree to the truck or tractor approach as being far superior to the other ideas. Don't trim the shrub back first, it is has set to wrap a chain around it. A winch does an ideal job, but a slow steady pull by a heavy truck works too. This pulls up the root system pretty much intact. It leaves a [filtered] with the soil ready for planting.
Anonymous
July 11, 2021
Best way to remove shrubs or small stumps is to wrap a loging chain around them and hook it to the hook on the front of your 4 wheel drive truck or tractor. With the chain slack, back up fast and put in neutral before chain is tight. This is called redneck gardening.