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Stump gardens a use for storm wreckage

The Garden Coach

A reader sent in a question about one of the items on my “to do” list in my last column (Nov. 10, Lakeville Journal) about storm wreckage. He wanted to know, “What’s a stump garden?”

The one I’ve been working on for the past year is hefty but pretty simple. I had sections of a big tree scattered haphazardly where they had been cut at the edge of a woodland garden. They were too gnarled for me to split and it was too costly to have it done professionally.

It was difficult and dangerous to roll them down my steep slope to a place where a log-splitter might be used. And they were right in line with favorite views. I got really sick of looking at the big hulks and stepping on small cylinders that rolled underfoot.

So a young, strong friend helped cluster them neatly into a pile behind a large boulder and arrange them into a pleasing low-profile sort of order. We tucked smaller ones into a tumbled-down stone wall as unobtrusively as possible, figuring that they would soon sport a coat of moss and lichens like the surrounding stones and would eventually decompose and become a fertile bed for ferns. Whenever I had a little extra soil or was moving half-rotted leaves or wood chips, I’d toss some over the pile and give it time to settle into the voids.

Moss is starting to grow on the decomposing logs and I’ll be planting ferns, special mosses and other woodland plants next spring.

But the question got me curious. I knew stump gardens had a history and I had recently seen a small attractive arrangement of logs and plants in a shady corner of a Portland, Ore., garden whose owner had embraced the challenge to let no waste leave her small city yard.

I’ve always been fascinated by upended trees, where the root structure is revealed, and by moss-covered logs in the dark forest (called “nurse logs”) in which the next generation of forest trees and understory plants have taken root. But I feel little need to import them to my own yard.

Victorian excess doesn’t suit my cottage in the woods and what I have is lots and lots of branches and felled trees. The trees that uprooted in the recent unseasonal snowstorm have short stubby roots, nothing very picturesque, in fact they do look like rubbish.

But there are plenty of twisty branches with lots of character that can be integrated into woodland gardens in interesting ways. Perfectly straight timbers look unnatural in an informal setting, but are useful for containing compost bins, for defining parking places, geometric garden beds or boundaries and for stacking neatly in a woodshed.

Crooked curvaceous branches fit into uneven terrain in a way that, even when they are “placed,”they look like they belong there.

Most of what fell during the snowstorm is too heavy for me to move, but I’ve been able to lift one end of some and pivot them to recline across steep slopes.

Seeing logs stair-stepping up the slope rather than being scattered helter-skelter gives me a reassuring sense of order, a sense that this is where a domestic landscape and a wild one can productively coexist.

The logs slow down the passage of water, allowing it to infiltrate the soil. They slow erosion, collecting debris that decomposes, enriching the soil, creating habitat for all manner of living creatures and making for places to walk that almost approach being level.

Although this is an informal setting, I am mindful of what I learned from ecological landscape designer Larry Weaner, that gardening with nature isn’t a style, it’s about emulating the patterns and processes of nature.

The more I brainstorm as I face the mess, the more I remember gardens I have photographed across the country where owners made something wonderful out of felled trees and broken branches. I’ll share some of them in a later column. If readers have creative ideas for using storm debris, please email them to me for a compilation of suggestions for resourceful gardeners.

© Karen Bussolini 2011 All Rights Reserved

Karen Bussolini is an eco-friendly garden coach, a NOFA Accredited Organic Land Care Professional . She can be reached at www.kbgarden@charter.net or 860-927-4122.