Stumped by a Stumpery?
Deborah Snow, Master Gardener
Have you thought about planting a Stumpery in your yard? A what? A Stumpery is basically a stylized shade garden. The garden uses stumps and logs as habitat for shade-loving plants; mainly, ferns, mosses and lichen. Colorful mushrooms may eventually grow and add color and character to the wood.
When I tell people how excited I am about creating my own Stumpery, almost everyone asks, “What is that?!” As any gardener, I’m learning along the way. I tell them it’s basically a stylized shade garden. The garden uses stumps and logs as habitat for shade-loving plants; mainly, ferns, mosses and lichen. Colorful mushrooms may eventually grow and add color and character to the wood.
So, how did this garden style get started? It came from a Victorian tradition of growing ferns among tree stumps. One of the first documented Stumperies was at Biddulph Grange in England. It was designed in 1856 by Edward William Cook, an artist and garden designer. Estate owner, James Bateman, was a wealthy horticulturalist who exemplified the Victorian passion for collecting plants from around the world. They created the Stumpery by stacking tree stumps into 10 foot high walls and filling the crevices with ferns and other plants. Due to the popularity of ferns during the Victorian era, the Stumpery was adopted as the garden space to display their collection.
The Stumpery was emulated throughout England. One of the most famous Stumperies was created by Prince Charles of Wales, now King Charles, and is still a featured part of the gardens at Highgrove, his home in Gloucestershire. I did see a Stumpery in England but you don’t need to go that far. We recently toured a Stumpery at the Missouri Botanical Garden in St. Louis. I highly recommend a visit there if you’ve never been.
What inspiration does a Victorian tradition from England have for American gardeners? A Stumpery is a workable concept for a modern garden. There is beauty in the architecture it provides. Its unique design lends itself to beneficial growing environments for shade-loving plants. Ferns are an obvious choice but any woodland plant could be included. It’s always evolving and that’s exciting to me! As the stumps and logs gradually decompose, the peeling bark provides habitat for insects that will feed the birds and frogs or pollinate the plants in the garden. Then come the mushrooms! I can’t wait for that.
Next, I’ll talk about how to create your own Stumpery. It can be large or small. It can consist of several unearthed trees showing the roots or simply make use of logs or driftwood. You will use the arrangement of logs and stumps as an organizing feature. The wood will be equally important as the plants. Shade or part shade will work best and, if possible, plant on a slope for the best viewing. Along the edge of some woods would be perfect.
My Stumpery is still very young. I put it together in the fall of 2021 and have added more wood and plants this last season. I’m sure it will get bigger as I learn more and find interesting pieces of wood. I’m always on the hunt. Friends have even contributed stumps.
I will share the steps I used to get started. First, I chose and cleared the site. Next, I gathered some wood. I laid cardboard as the base to smother any weeds. I used logs as an outline and piled a mix of garden soil and compost inside. I created a mound since I didn’t have a slope. I partially buried some interesting stumps in and around the mound and covered it with wood chips for mulch.
Now I was ready to plant. I’m such a plant collector and all that summer, before I started to build, I collected mostly ferns. I looked for varieties I didn’t already have wherever I went. Any time I saw something differed or unique I bought it. Also, I transplanted some ferns from my other gardens. So now I had a nice selection of plants to tuck in and around the wood. I planted ostrich ferns as a backdrop and started some mosses inside some hollowed out pieces of wood. I have continued putting in plants and stumps all this next season. And of course, me being me, I had to put a fairy garden piece in as well! I’m sure that will grow in the future. The garden looks mostly brown still but should be showing more green in the spring – I hope.
I have struggled to keep it wet enough to get the mosses going. They don’t like this hot dry weather pattern we are stuck in. I’m hoping for a rainy spring and I’ll place more mosses. I’m researching best practices for moss and hope to do better next year.
So, now you know what I know and I hope you are inspired to get out and build one of your own or at least find a stumpery to visit. There are lots of beautiful photos online to give you a better sense of what a mature Stumpery will look like. Good luck and happy gardening.
Photo credits: Deborah Snow (all)