Next time a storm knocks over a tree in your yard or a neighbor’s, think like a prince…Prince Charles, that is. The Prince of Wales is an avid gardener and at his country estate, Highgrove, in Gloucester, he has brought the “stumpery” back into fashion.
Traditionally a stumpery, placed in a woodland setting, is an arrangement of tree stumps turned upside down or sideways to show their root structure. Think of a pile of driftwood artfully arranged, and you’ll get the idea. Then, humus is placed between the roots and planted with ferns and other shade-loving plants.
Stumperies have also been described as Victorian horticultural oddities and were popular in 19th century English gardens. The first was built by artist and gardener Edward Cooke in 1856 in Staffordshire. He stacked the stumps 10 feet high along both sides of a garden path and artfully planted ferns between the root structures to create a magical fairyland effect along the path.
“The stumpery is not only a happily eccentric and atmospheric part of the garden; it is also a monument to the elegant forms created by trees,” comments Prince Charles in his “The Elements of Organic Gardening,” which emphasizes gardens that are both beautiful and environmentally sound.
Charles’ own stumpery was built in the ’90s as a refuge for his hosta collection, beneath a canopy of sycamore trees. It also features a pair of small classical temples carved from green oak that rest on either side of a grassy clearing dominated by a giant oak tree. This glade is fenced in by the interlocking tree roots interplanted with hellebores, ferns and euphorbia. The entryway is stacked with sweet chestnut stumps that form an archway. The overall effect is a mysterious, magical world.
Prince Charles’ stumpery was an inspiration to Deborah Silver, a Detroit-area landscape designer. Silver had a client who wanted her to site a bronze sculpture of a bear sitting on a beaver dam. She turned to her extensive collection of gardening books, including the Prince’s “The Garden at Highgrove,” where she first read about stumperies. “Ideas are fueled by exposure,” Silver comments, “what better home for a bear than a landscape that suggested a primeval forest?”
“The first order of business was providing water for the bear and his beaver dam. As the property had a natural fall, it wasn’t hard to visualize a stream bed, falling over a cliff of rock, to a pool below,” states Silver. “The entire landscape was designed around the bear. Outdoor sculpture of great size asks for a compelling and convincing landscape.” Silver put a unique twist on the design by placing many of the stumps upright with the roots splaying outward on the site’s slope. “Some sculpture is best in a big open area, but representational sculpture comes with a story. The landscape can represent that story,” she adds. Since this area is sunny, instead of ferns and hostas, she used dwarf evergreens for year-round interest and clematis to soften the upward trunks. “This was a construction project of considerable length, involving large machinery and many tons of rock, plumbing and filtration,” Silver explains.
Silver also recalls that farmers in Michigan’s Thumb area pile up their dead tree stumps on the edges of their fields or property lines. “These natural fences are wildly beautiful,” Silver adds. “All manner of seeds blow in, and soon the fence is a living thing. A friend of mine convinced a farmer in that area to part with some of his stumps.”
Many home gardeners don’t have the resources for such an extensive stumpery, but even a single stump in an unused shady area of your yard can provide a unique ecosystem and pleasing design. Debris from a heavy storm can also provide the elements from pieces of bark, logs and stumps, or even driftwood works well. Spray the stumps to clean the dirt off the roots, and clear the area of grass and weeds. Enrich the soil with humus, then mulch to keep the weeds down. Artfully place your wood elements, then choose from the many ferns and hostas available today. Other plants to consider are blood root, wild ginger or woodland phlox. You will have created an area that even a prince can admire!
Rita C. Henehan is an author, freelance writer and photographer. Visit her website at michigangardenerscompanion.com for plants ideas suitable for a Michigan stumpery.