Stumperies may be a throwback of a bygone age, but they’re once again about to command a place in the British garden, creating a cornucopia of planting opportunities and providing a haven for wildlife.
So says award-winning garden designer Chris Beardshaw, who has been scaling the country in search of examples of these Victorian features, similar to rock gardens but created from upturned stumps, logs, roots and pieces of bark, originally designed to display the spoils of intrepid Victorian plant hunters.
In the course of his own travels, Chris, who lives near Cheltenham, visited the home of the first UK stumpery at Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire, as well as the most famous stumpery, that of Prince Charles in the grounds of Highgrove, which will feature in the Great British Garden Revival on BBC Two tonight.
“Stumperies were the original vehicles that really excited people about ferns,” Chris says.
“Their development coincided not only with an amazing array of exotic ferns coming into the UK from around the world but also the realisation of how ferns propagated themselves.
“It was appropriate for women to be interested in ferns because the plants’ lack of flowers and the lack of obvious sexual parts suited the sombre, demure Victorian approach to gardening.”
A stumpery is a collection of roots from hardwood trees that have been grubbed out of the ground, originally as a result of land cleared from estates. As informal native woodland was pulled up or repositioned, huge roots were left lying around which could be used as a framework in shady woodland areas. It made use of architectural and dramatic timber which was decaying, interplanted with ferns and other shade-loving plants and bulbs.
So, how do you create a stumpery in your own garden? You’ll need to plant in shade, Chris advises, either under a hedge or tree, or in the shade of a building.
“You are replicating the forest floor. Before we became too polite and tidy, a woodland would have been a complex mix of young plants, mature plants and a lot of rotting material.
“Think of a stumpery as a marriage between the more formal parts of the garden and the wilder areas or the wilder landscape that surrounds it. It’s that wonderful union of the two. Piling logs or stumps or branches is very good for hedgehogs and beneficial for insects and reptiles.
“A stumpery is part of a cycle of life in the garden and as part of that decomposition you get many edible fungi growing.”
You can buy edible fungal spores – dowels impregnated with fungal mycelium. Knock them into your stumps and in years to come you should harvest mushrooms.
“Today you can be as adventurous as you wish,” adds Chris. “You can use one stump or hundreds of stumps. The rotting timber replicates the native woodland – rich in organic matter, with moisture-retentive soils and the stumps create lots of cracks and crevices in which ferns can excel.”
If you live in the countryside, logs and stumps should be easy to find, or ask farmers, tree surgeons or the Forestry Commission. Windblown trees may also be used.
Hardwoods such as oak, sweet chestnut and beech are the best to use because they take longer to rot, although Chris has used conifers for stumperies.
“Stumperies can be really surreal places and are great when associated with ponds and water gardens, underplanted with hostas and astilbes as well as carnivorous plants.”
To make a stumpery look natural, you need to bury two-thirds of it in the ground.
“The root plate should be lying on its side so that the trunk of the tree is also on its side and in doing that you are really replicating a windblown tree, where the plate is standing vertically rather than horizontally across the ground.
“That means that you can create little crevices and divots around the plants and it’s into those little spaces that you can plant.
“Use ferns as the mainstay and then you can interplant with many winter bulbs such as winter aconites, snowdrops and species daffodils and scilla.
“Then you can include typical woodland dwellers like epimediums, uvularia and hostas.
“It’s about creating a framework. A stumpery isn’t just for spring or summer months, it’s great for having that continuation of bulbs flowering before the tree canopy opens up, so early spring bulbs are very rich.”
* Chris Beardshaw presents Great British Garden Revival on BBC Two tonight at 7pm.