Stumperies are a thing, overseas if not so much in New Zealand. After all, Prince Charles has one at Highgrove. So has Wisley, the Royal Horticulture Society’s flagship gardens. Indeed, many of the best gardens have a stumpery. The first deliberate construction of old tree roots and stumps is attributed to Biddulph Grange in Britain, where the keen owner wanted to display his fern collection but other shade gardens through history must have had incidental stumperies. They are hailed these days as ecological havens.
When you think about it, the stumpery is basically a naturalistic alternative to trendy insect hotels. But instead of being a confined hotel, it is more like an entire estate.
Our stumperies have rather more pragmatic origins than caring for the under-appreciated critters of the garden. In the area we call the rimu avenue, it has evolved over decades. The rimus are so grand and large now that they suck all the goodness and moisture from the ground around them. Our stump and log constructions are a means of getting informal raised beds so we can establish underplantings, including epiphytic plants like vireya rhododendron species and zygocactus, the so-called chain cactus. It adds a lot more interest and gardening potential to have these elevated areas and pockets for planting amongst the tree stumps and trunks.
When we have dug out the stumps of larger plants, these are re-sited to shade areas, sometimes placed upside down so the roots give more visual interest. There they can gently decay, but in the process they add some structure and height to otherwise flat areas dominated by very tall trees.
The more substantial stumpery efforts come on the other side of the garden where we have venerable old pine trees. As with the rimus, they are up to 140 years old. Unlike the rimus, they lack a good grip below ground and from time to time, one falls. Four plus a gum tree of the same age have done so in recent years. They cause surprisingly little damage when they fall but were we to try and extract the enormous trunks, it would create a swathe of destruction. We do a cleanup of the foliage, the side branches and the prodigious quantities of pine cones but leave the main trunk where it fell and simply work around it, chainsawing back to clear paths where we need to.
When our instant stumpery installations arrive, they are invariably covered in epiphytes – native astelias and collospermums in particular. We thin these if required but basically leave it to nature to colonise these new areas, adding in special plants to add interest. The ferns just arrive. Dendrobium and cymbidium orchids add seasonal colour and settle in readily. Clivias are often happy at the base. Hostas tend to need more soil than is offered in these situations, but rogersias and farfugiums have settled in well. Hippeastrums and scadoxus are bulbs that we find are happy in this environment and common old impatiens seeds down and adds some summer blooms.
You don’t need a large area to establish a stumpery. Many suburban homes will have a dark and narrow back border (usually the home of the wheelie and recycling bins and the garden hose). As long as you have half or metre or more in width and are not scared of wetas, you can bring in a smaller stump or length of tree trunk and start establishing shade loving plants around it. A little shade garden will contribute far more to a healthy eco-system than gravelling or paving and can be genuinely low maintenance. Fewer weeds grow in shade and once plants are established, it becomes a self maintaining system with the falling leaf litter and gently decaying wood feeding the soil. I did pause to wonder if a very small stumpery became stumperesque in style, or maybe a stumpette?
Amusingly, according to the information board on Wisley’s stumpery, “Not everyone appreciates an artistic garden feature. When the Duke of Edinburgh first laid eyes on the Highgrove stumpery, he allegedly turned to Prince Charles and said, ‘When are you going to set fire to this lot?’”
First published in the May issue of NZ Gardener and reprinted here with their permission.