The Stumpery Garden – A Perfect Place for Ferns and Woodland Gems

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Robert Pavlis

A stumpery garden is a way to take your shade garden to a new level. It is the perfect place for ferns, hosta and all other shade loving plants. It’s a gardening style that lets you be as artistic as you want to be. Now cover all that with lovely moss and a great habitat for insects, toads and mushrooms, and you start to see the wonders of a stumpery.

Its the next big gardening craze and in this post I’ll tell you all about it, and show you how to design and build your own.

The Stumpery Garden - A Perfect Place for Ferns and Woodland Gems
The Stumpery Garden – A Perfect Place for Ferns and Woodland Gems

What is a Stumpery?

A stumpery is a special garden that uses stumps, logs and pieces of wood to create a special environment for plants. The wood is as important, if not more important than the plants.

Small stumpery, photo by Michael Garlick
Small stumpery, photo by Michael Garlick

The first documented stumpery  was built in 1856 at Biddulph Grange in England. The British became fascinated with ferns and the stumpery was created to show off their collection in a natural setting. This style became very popular in the UK and even Prince Charles of Wales created a stumpery in his garden at Highgrove.

Plant Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

In the 1900’s they fell out of fashion, but they  are starting to make a resurgence with the increased interest in shade gardening.

Traditionally, the stumpery is a planned arrangement of unearthed tree stumps. The goal is to make it look natural or at the very least, very artistic. Getting large stumps as seen in some of these pictures is difficult today, and so they are now replaced with logs and drift wood. Any wood that is at hand can be used, but the more architectural they are, the better. And old is much better than new.

The wood pieces are set in a pleasing arrangement so they form lots of nooks and crannies which are filled with soil and then planted. Ferns are an obvious choice, but even smaller hostas and other woodland plants can be used. Add a few snowdrops and scilla for an early spring bloom.

Stumperies look best in a shade or part shade location where moss can eventually cover the whole thing. They make a perfect habitat for all kinds of insects, toads and fungi.

Some of the pictures show large stumperies, but they don’t have to be large to add interest. They can work well in any small garden that has a corner for plants and a couple of logs.  They can be very natural looking, or be more sculptural, showing off that special piece of wood.

A stumpery can convert an average looking shade garden into one with real character. Once the wood is enveloped with moss, it adds age to the garden, something that is very difficult to accomplish with plants alone.

Stumpery in wooded area; photo by Peter Barr
Stumpery in wooded area; photo by Peter Barr

Selecting the Perfect Spot for a Stumpery

There are no right and wrong place to put a stumpery, but the following will give you some guidelines.

These garden look best in shade or part shade. This makes them suitable for ferns and other woodland plants and it reduces weeds.

If you already have an old tree or tree stump, the base of these are ideal.

Stumpery root sticking out of the ferns
Stumpery root sticking out of the ferns

A slope is a great place for a stumpery because you can see to the back pieces of wood without the need to get really big ones. If you don’t have a slope, don’t worry. Just place smaller pieces near the front and larger ones at the back to make it look like you have a slope.

Many of the plants that will do well like a very humusy soil. If you don’t already have this, consider adding organics like peat moss and compost.

Building the Stumpery

Start by removing any plants from the area, including weeds. It is much easier to work without plants than to try and work around them. Amend the soil if it is needed.

Placing the Wood

Gather your wood. You can use just about any wood here. If you don’t have any, talk to an arborist and see if they can give you some cut offs from a tree trunk. If you are near a beech, look for driftwood. Even a log or two from a local forest will make a great addition.

Gather all of your wood before starting the project, even if you have to wait a while to get it. It’s much easier to do it all at once than over a period of weeks or months.

Take all of that wood and arrange it in a pleasing way. Keep large stuff to the back of the bed. Look at each piece of wood and decide which should be the front. The most interesting side should face you visitors.

There are no rules here, but I like a more natural look. So I try to hide any parts that look manmade, like the straight cut from a chain saw. I want the more natural, broken ends facing the front.

Bury parts of some to partially hide them. This is especially important if your pieces all look the same. Make each one face a different direction. It is amazing that you can take two identical logs and make them look very different just by laying them down differently.

Try to create pockets that you can fill with soil. This will give you various heights for planting even if your ground is level.

Every few minutes, take a step back and look at your creation from various angles. What does it look like to the garden visitor? If you were a toad, can you see a nice place to hide? Then move things around to make it look better.

Here is a good suggestion. Don’t finish this part of the project in one day. Even when you think you are done, sleep on it and have another look in the morning. After a bit of a break you will see things differently.

Stumpery with lots of ferns; photo by Leonora (Ellie) Enking
Stumpery with lots of ferns; photo by Leonora (Ellie) Enking

Adding Soil

Add soil to fill in any pockets that you have created. Ideally you will have various levels of soil. In effect you have made a bunch of mini-raised beds with the pieces of wood.

Use top soil, so it does not settle too much. See this link for more information about different kinds of soil: Topsoil, Compost, Triple Mix – What’s the Difference?

Adding Moss

You don’t have to add moss. In some climates it will find your stumpery even if you don’t want moss. In other locations you might want to add some yourself.

I think moss is an important part of this garden. A bare log is not nearly as interesting as a moss covered one.

The moss does one other important thing. Right now your garden has that sparkly new look. Add some moss and the whole thing ages by many years and that is the look you are going for.

How do you add the moss?

There are many online suggestions about blending up a moss, milk, yogurt smoothie and painting it on. This method does not really work well except in very humid areas.

You can tie sheets of moss on with string or fishing line. This works well. Once the moss clings to the surface on its own you can remove the sting. I have not tried this next one yet, but you can glue it on with crazy glue, which is water soluble.

Planting

Now add your plants. Ferns look great here, but you can add whatever you want. If you already have a shade garden, split some of your favorite plants and use them.

The only caution I would make is that when the plants are fully grown, you still want to see some of the wood. You always want to see your creation. Large hostas are OK if you have tall pieces of wood. If not, then stick to smaller hostas. The same goes for other plants.

Water it all in and wait for things to grow. The moss will grow faster if you water it regularly, but once it is established it does not need any special care.

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

3 thoughts on “The Stumpery Garden – A Perfect Place for Ferns and Woodland Gems”

  1. I have a great many very large stumps I was going to burn…. I live in South Eastern Ontario if anyone wants them.

    Reply
  2. I have started a Stumpery beside my new house in Sligo Ireland
    The area is 40/30ft and I have 6 v large logs and also rocks that were on the site
    I have mosses. Lichens. Ivey, ferns and spring bulbs

    Reply
    • I know it’s a while since you posted . I just saw it now. Hoping to plant some ferns in two tree stumps.in my small garden in Wexford. Do you have any advice re which fern types might do well in stumps?
      Thnas
      Catherine

      Reply

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