Creating a wildlife haven one plant at a time

Thursday, January 28, 2016

A Stumpery Garden, Going Back to the Roots

A stumpery is an intentional arrangement of woody material like tree trunks and root wads that serve as structural elements for plants in a shade garden.


The first known stumpery was created by marine artist, botanical illustrator and gardener, Edward William Cooke in 1856 at Biddulph Grange, a very forward thinking garden in the day; in fact, the earliest example of a garden being divided into a series of smaller rooms. Land clearing had left debris and chaotic piles of wood, which visionary Cooke created into 10' walls on either side of a path and planted them out with ferns. These stumperies where the vehicle that launched the obsession with ferns in Victorian England. That, and people realized how ferns reproduced themselves and it was considered more appropriate for ladies to collect and grow ferns because of the lack of obvious reproductive parts. The fern-crazed Victorians repeated the concept of a stumpery across Britain in the 19th century.


Last summer, several gardening friends came together for the illustrious Festival of Flowers in Greenwood, South Carolina. We made a detour to visit the garden of Billie and John Elsley, who have a show stopping woodland garden. In this post, I'm sharing images of their amazing stumpery garden. We've left stumps in our woodland garden for years, but I was not familiar with the term 'stumpery' until I met the Elsleys. I love the term and feel very connected with its English roots.

Perhaps you have tree stumps that you don't know what to do with, or branches and logs from a felled tree. Here is some inspiration to get your creative juices flowing.


In this woodland setting, stumps are intentionally arranged to create a habitat for ferns and other shade loving plants. The proper placement of logs and stumps can create a unique topography providing a variety of different conditions, not usually found together. Deep shade, a little sun, wet soil, fast draining soil or areas for epiphytic plants can be made suitable with various pockets within the stumpery.


Limbs are placed deliberately throughout the Elsley's garden providing an additional dimension to the natural setting that is packed with an exciting mix of woodland plants. It really turns the shade garden into something magical.


Not only do these carefully excavated stumps provide an exciting artistic element, reminiscent of driftwood,  they also become a haven for wildlife. Tree stumps are usually dense and take a long time to rot. As they decompose they provide habitat for a succession of creatures such as beneficial insects, wood-boring beetles, decomposers, and invertebrates and amphibians to live on and around the wood. Lichen and moss and fungi may begin to grow on stumps and you could even plant a climber or rambling plant to intertwine throughout the structure.


Stumperies may be a throwback to a bygone age, but these inverted tree stumps and roots create a cornucopia of planting opportunities while providing a beneficial environment for wildlife. I think it's time for this concept to be reintroduced into the American landscape.

Huge thanks to Billie and John Elsley for opening their garden to us for an impromptu, private tour. And it's always fun to tour gardens with friends Julie from Garden Delights, Julie at Southern Wild Design , Daricia with A Charlotte Garden and our gracious host Janet, Queen of Seaford.

For more inspiration and examples of stumpery gardens see my Pinterest Board

24 comments:

  1. I have a few areas of stumpery in the garden - and now I know what to call it! I love the look of old logs and branches, especially when they have been worn down by the elements. And that is just too funny about the Victorian ladies and the ferns!

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    1. Right! I couldn't resist including the story of the Victorian's view on plant anatomy. Hilarious!

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  2. I love that you wrote about this garden, because I've been meaning to do the same! The Elsleys' garden is my dream--and like you, I wasn't familiar with "stumpery gardens" until we visited them. We also have many stumps and trees down throughout the forest, but somehow, I don't think ours will end up looking quite as cool as theirs do! Thanks for sharing about our visit--it's always a pleasure to tour gardens with you friends!

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    1. We will have to exchange design tips this summer while we create our stumperies Julie. I've already picked an area, the hard part will be moving the stumps there. Can't wait to see what you do!

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  3. Beautiful post! Theirs is a really interesting garden...one to emulate.

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    1. We spent a good while there but I could have stayed all day and meandered through the garden. There was a fascinating plant everywhere one turned. I'm still in awe of how tall their big leaf magnolia is.

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  4. Oh gosh, you've given me a wonderful idea about how to deal with one overgrown area of my garden! Thanks! I don't have the stomach (or the budget) to dig it all up and start over, but this might be the perfect solution! I think I might throw in some potted plants and maybe a few ornamental objects. The ferns and other shade plants are already in place. Great idea!

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    1. Looking forward to seeing your end result Beth! Sounds like it'll be fabulous. I'm so glad that this inspired you!

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  5. I too never heard of a stumpery garden. This is interesting that there is a name for this way of using live plants and dead trees. I have seen ferns planted among dead trees for interest, but did not realize it was a type of gardening.

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    1. That was me too! I love the term and it is nice to have a name for the style of landscaping.

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  6. At first I thought "stumpery" was a clever word you had coined yourself. Who know it had such an interesting history? I don't have stumps per se, but I do like to use larger fallen limbs in the garden as ornamental elements.

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    1. Oh, I'm not that clever Jason! Limbs and/or stumps do make interesting focal points in gardens. My goal is to use them in more creative/artistic ways this year. Sounds like you already do. Bravo!

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  7. Fascinating! I love how it became more appropriate for ladies back when to collect ferns - so funny! I feel like I've been to a stumpery garden somewhere, though I can't think where. It is such a great idea - pretty and wildlife-friendly!

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    1. Stumperies made a comeback when Prince Charles installed one at Highgrove. I don't know that the movement was that big in the States but the largest stumpery in the U.S. is in Washington State.

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  8. I'm stumped as to why I've never heard of this before... Very cool idea and what a gorgeous garden! But personally, I like plants with obvious reproductive parts. ;o)

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    1. Isn't it a cool idea! I'm definitely putting one in.

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  10. I have a number of rotting stumps, and now I can officially call it a stumpers! I love the term. I had to laugh at the Victorians choice of ferns because of their inconspicuous reproductive parts. It's a good thing they never saw my amorphophallus konjac, whose parts are worthy of a porno spread.

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  11. OK. I hate these high-minded word police who never heard of stumpery and corrected it in flash without my notice! Fortunately the program did not know what to do with amophophallus knojac!

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    1. Oh yes, they can be most annoying but it looks like you stumped them!

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  12. What a wonderful garden and I love the idea of a stumpery. Too bad my stumps are now in the full sun. Eventually the new trees will grow but not before the stumps are gone sadly. But I have a spot that might work....hmmm!

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    1. Are the stumps too big too move Donna? I would love to move some of mine closer together but they are either way too big or decaying and would collapse.

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  13. LOL at the Victorian ladies growing ferns. That's just ridiculous. :)

    I never knew stumperies were a thing! My mother never would have approved, as she actually used to go out and pick up sticks in her wooded yard.

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"Don't wait for someone to bring you flowers. Plant your own garden and decorate your soul"

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