Stumperies are not Gordian Knots of the pop-quiz world. Instead, stumperies are garden features that use large branches and tree trunks as their anchor points.
While visiting the Missouri Botanical Garden, I was delighted to discover an entire section of the gardens dedicated to stumperies. Coming around a curve in the path, I was met with a cool, green peaceful bit of gardening that featured logs, branches, sheets of bark, tree trunks, and skyward bound tree roots, surrounded by wispy ferns, colorful lichens, and fuzzy mosses. The effect was soothing and peaceful - and who doesn’t need more of that these days?
Originally described as a “Victorian horticultural oddity”, stumperies use branches and other large pieces of tree to create habitat for a wide variety of shade-loving plants, growing them more closely together than might otherwise be possible. First created in 1865 England, stumperies often use storm-damaged or diseased trees to create a unique shade gardening space, rather than going to the trouble of disposing of those trees.
Personally, I had an ancient apricot tree whose trunk had been regularly sprayed with a sprinkler for years before we bought the property. Rot had taken over the tree and the root system was pretty much nonexistent. Rather than waiting for it to fall over on somebody, we tipped it over and moved it to a corner of the yard, where it now serves as a new growing space and a good place to sit.
Stumperies are based on what naturally occurs in a forest. As a tree ages, it eventually falls. When it does, it slowly decomposes, absorbing rain water, improving nearby soil structure, and acting as a ‘nurse log’ to plants that have adapted to growing on rotting wood. To design your own stumpery, you must look at each piece of wood and bark as an artistic component. Try different arrangements until you have achieved something you like. Don’t worry, there are no wrong answers. Here are some tips to creating a healthy stumpery:
Plants used in stumperies
The most common plants found in stumperies are mosses, ferns, and lichens. Hostas, hellebores, epimedium, rhododendrons, bleeding hearts, and some bulbs can also thrive in a stumpery.
You can encourage moss growth on logs and stones by smearing them with yogurt [or that carton of soured milk from the back of the fridge]. You can also install shade-loving edibles, such as arugula, basil, blueberries, bok choy, celery, chervil, chives, cilantro, fenugreek, garlic, ginger, kale, lettuces, Malabar and other spinach, mint, mustards, nasturtiums, onion, parsley, potatoes, raspberries, sorrel, tarragon, and tomatillos. The perennials will continue indefinitely, and you can allow some of the annuals to go through their full lifecycle and propagate themselves!
Benefits of stumperies
Stumperies create micro habitats for local flora and fauna, increasing your garden’s biodiversity. Beetles, toads, and lizards often find sanctuary in all the hidden nooks and crannies provided by a stumpery. Of course, slugs and snails and other pests do, as well. But birds enjoy the extra perches and snacks, so it all balances out.
Stumperies can be a good way to put old wood to work in the garden. They can hide eyesores, make use of neglected corners, and create a whimsical woodland that adds some tranquility to your day. If you don’t have stumps readily available, you can always contact local arborists and construction companies. Very often, they will be happy to provide you with all the material you need for free. [That way, they don’t have to pay to dispose of such large items.] Which reminds me: keep in mind that, eventually, the trees and branches that make up your stumpery will disappear and need to be replaced.
After writing this post, I think I will have to create a more formal stumpery with my apricot trunk. I’ll keep you posted.
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!