As a southwest gardener, wandering into a northwest woodland garden is an exciting experience. Here are the shade plants of azaleas, jack-in-the pulpit, mayflower, hostas and rhododendrons. There are great varieties of tree bark textures, conifer needles and dazzling shades of green. Discovering the Stumpery Garden in the Rhododendron Species Garden in Federal Way, WA was a surprise, full of wonderous wood and glorious green. Here I had my first encounter with what is described as a “Victorian period garden romanticizing nature.” The intention is to show the wild side of nature using tree roots and stumps placed upside down or on their sides. The wild nature of hefty, twisted tree roots presents a vastly different, and somewhat dramatic view of trees. The ends jut up and out, their trunks ripped at the ends, lying in varying stages of decay, arranged in fences, circles or as a single focal point. The root pockets become natural planting spaces for a variety of ferns.
After the initial shock of such an idea I fell under the spell of this magical garden filled with hundreds of lacy ferns and woodland plants growing in wood. Sunlight shot through the filtered shade, creating spotlights on different plants. Yet only a short distance away the space is in complete shade. Conveniently, a long cedar log had been sliced in half providing a bench to sit and survey the amazing “wild side” of trees. The tree stumps will decay in time, but in the years it takes there is a habitat for all manner of little forest creatures to thrive.
Certainly in the northwest tree stumps are in bountiful supply. The creative thinking to gather them together into such a garden requires considerable vision. In 1980, HRH Prince Charles created a stumpery at Highgrove House using sweet chestnut roots. His father was not impressed! It is reported “When the Duke of Edinburgh first laid eyes upon the stacked-up tree roots of the High Grove stumpery he turned to Prince Charles and said, ‘When are you going to set fire to this lot?’”
Yet over time the wild wood scraps become magically green with ferns, mushrooms and moss. The Victorians were mad for ferns and an upturned root mass created the perfect growing conditions for these plants. Where today many gardeners turn to pots and plant stands to create height and ideal growing mediums, the Victorians realized the pockets within the roots gave them good drainage, variation in placement, and added height to allow the ferns ample space to drape their verdant leaves. A collaboration between the wildness of nature and the gardener created the ideal combination of forest and fern garden. In Washington state “The Hardy Fern Foundation Stumpery is constructed primarily with Doug fir, holding over 140 pieces of wood, and is the largest public stumpery in the world.” (http://rhodygarden.org/cms/)
There is something to be admired in repurposing a length of downed tree with its tangle of roots attached. In the Tizer Gardens, in Jefferson City MT, I found another terrific use of old tree roots. Here the dead tree trunk was turned upside down and planted back into the ground leaving the root mass up in the air. Summer annuals of geraniums, impatience and snapdragons were then planted in soil pockets among the roots, presenting an eye level view of a raised garden. The gardeners added the perfect touch of whimsy by creating a smiley woodman face.
Trees offer us so much throughout their lives: the shade, their colors, their cooling power. When a tree dies or even when it must be removed, it is generally considered a problem to be dealt with. Once you have seen a stumpery you might view things from the wild side and find a place in your garden for such a special growing feature. Over time, its beauty will emerge, just as all things do in a garden.