Rooting In – Stumperies
by Flo Whitaker
Stumperies are making a comeback. Enhance your landscape with this unique Victorian feature and make your garden the proverbial talk of the town.
Whether it be interior design or the catwalks of Milan, trends and fashions come and go. The world of horticulture is no exception to such fickleness. Plants and ornaments that were once the latest thing are now consigned to compost heaps and car boot sales, but the ‘stumpery’ is enjoying a resurgence in popularity. Simply put, a stumpery can be defined as a garden feature that uses tree roots, stumps and logs, often combined with rocks and stones, to imitate the natural landscape. They don’t have to be on a grand scale, stumperies can be of any size. Their purpose is to create a ‘world within a world’; much in the same way as a collection of bonsai specimens conjures up the sense of a forest, yet can be fitted onto a table top.
The idea of the stumpery is an old one. The Gardeners Chronicle magazine published an article on them as far back as 1856. Some of these stumperies were vast; incorporating rockery elements with gothic follies and water features – no stately home was complete without one. A stumpery also provided the perfect growing conditions for that other Victorian craze; Pteridomania, (that’s fern collecting to you and me). Stumperies dating from the 19th century still exist and their appeal endures; an old-fashioned idea that fits perfectly with our modern attitudes to wildlife conservation and naturalistic planting schemes.
Of course, the concept of a garden feature that utilises decaying timber and old tree roots wedged upside down doesn’t appeal to everyone. When the Prince of Wales took delivery of 150 root balls to make the Highgrove stumpery, The Duke of Edinburgh was reported to have studied the huge pile of dead roots before declaring, “So, when are you going to set fire to this lot?”
Assuming you’re not Prince Philip, where to source materials for a stumpery? Garden centres are a good place to start. They sell rocks and stones in varying shades, textures – and prices! Hardwoods such as oak, beech and the naturally rot-resistant chestnut make the best stumperies. Coniferous wood will not endure for long. Make enquiries with a local tree surgeon. They often sell timber for firewood, but are left with the stumps and roots. Only buy from a reputable tradesperson. It is a legal requirement that timber with a certifiable disease must be destroyed, (usually by burning on the felling site), and not sold on to the public.
Take time to position your landscaping elements carefully – you only get to do it once. Safety should be a prime consideration. Large rocks and roots should be buried with approximately one third of their bulk underground, so a fair amount of digging is required, even with a small-scale stumpery. Smaller logs and branches can be laid on the ground and have soil piled up against them. The idea is to create ‘pockets’, of soil; allowing plants to be positioned in the gaps and crevices in a naturalistic way.
The slowly decomposing timber is an excellent habitat for wildlife; encouraging insects for birds and providing shelter and food for beetles, frogs and invertebrates. Native plants do well in stumperies. They thrive on meagre rations, so ordinary garden soil with the addition of some well-rotted leaf mould will suffice – never add manure. In damp semi-shade, the combination of ferns, violas, foxgloves and primulas is hard to beat. Astilbes, epimedium and meconopis, the exotic Himalayan poppy, will also relish the conditions. Acers will add a woodland feel and provide spectacular autumn colour.
In a hot and dry spot, think about using timbers set on end. Reclaimed gate posts or railway sleepers arranged vertically give a contemporary, maritime look. Roots and stumps will become sun-bleached and it’s easy to continue the seascape theme by top-dressing with pebbles and gravel. Lavender, thyme and rosemary enjoy arid conditions, while rock garden stalwarts such as artemesia, iberis and armeria will make attractive mounds of ground-hugging foliage. Don’t forget ferns. They are an enormous and diverse family of plants and some varieties prefer a sunny outlook. No stumpery is complete without ferns!