Where to start with today’s topic, of deliberately putting woody garden debris to use? It’s way easier than dragging stuff to the street and a lot simpler than composting. And it can be downright artistic.
Creating special places for fallen limbs, logs and stumps is a hot trend in botanic gardens worldwide, but has been done for centuries on smaller scales.
Anyone here besides me couldn’t afford to have an old tree trunk ground into sawdust, and just planted Liriope, ivy and moss around it? And added a little gnome or concrete mushrooms to clue in neatnik neighbors? I prompted some frustrated neighbors with a broken-limbed fallen tree in their front yard to do just that. They went on to festoon it with holiday lights, too!
As a natural focal point in my mid-level bare shade garden, I’ve propped up the top sections of cut-down cedar and cypress trees, some 15 feet tall, and hung Spanish moss and allowed woodland vines to clamber them. Then, I added three wizened old stumps, which now sport mosses and interesting mushrooms.
This inclination was inspired 30 years ago by Mississippi Delta native Neal Odenwald, professor emeritus of the landscape architecture school at LSU. He had connected the trunks of backyard trees with curing rows of fallen debris, big stuff at the bottom and smaller limbs and leaves on top, which quickly composted into ideal soil for azaleas and other shade plants. It cut his lawn mowing, leaf raking and limb dragging time by half.
This is sometimes called hügelkultur, a German term for building raised beds by piling all sorts of wood topped with leaves and a little compost or dirt thrown on top to kick it off. My urban guerilla gardener friend Jessie Yancy does it in his jumbled garden, and it works.
An easier place to start is to simply leave a dead tree in place, as long as it won’t hit anything when it falls. In forest ecology, this is called a “snag” and provides crucial nesting and food sources for many dozens of important creatures from owls, flying squirrels and honeybees to beetles, grubs and everything that they eat or are eaten by.
The most atmospheric approach of all is to place one or more tree stumps upside-down or sideways to show the twisted, gnarly root structure, with added logs, driftwood or large pieces of bark and plant stuff around them. In a word, it’s called a stumpery.
There are re-created ones in nearly every big flower show, all in good company — Britain’s Prince Charles has an incredible one, and I have visited and photographed dozens in creative smaller gardens, including across the United States. View photos and my short stumpery video on my blog.
The acknowledged first stumpery, a Victorian horticultural oddity in north England, was created in 1856 by one of the founders of the Royal Horticulture Society as an exaggeration of the glories of Nature. I was overawed on my first wander through its prehistoric-feeling walls and arches of tightly packed stumps covered with mosses, ferns, hostas, ivy and all sorts of other woodland plants.
So, I’ve joined that tribe of fervent naturalistic gardeners who line paths with limbs, pile wood in mounds or walls, or display unusual pieces, roots-up, all accented with woodland plants. Mine “grows” after every wind storm; it’s gonna be a real task for my children to clean up or burn down when I’m gone.
Meanwhile, I have a little slice of real nature that looks good and is an inviting habitat for toads, beetles, lizards and other creatures — including me.
• Felder Rushing is a Mississippi author, columnist, and host of the “Gestalt Gardener” on MPB Think Radio. Email gardening questions to email@example.com.