Tag Archives: dead wood

The Stumpery

Italianate gardens are not really my cup of tea – in my mind, it’s all stuffy formality. But a woolly event at Ickworth House in Suffolk drew me to one such garden and whilst there, I decided to have a gander around the grounds. There was a Victorian-style stumpery which I liked immensely, and I must’ve spent more time wandering around there than the rest of the garden put together!

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As I wrote in a previous post (Vintage Rot, 29th July 2014), dead wood is incredibly valuable for biodiversity. In the Victorian period, stumperies proved popular and were inspired by the Romantic Movement’s extolling of the natural, a reaction against classical forms. We find echoes of these “Victorian horticultural oddities” in the modern logpile, created to invite into our gardens those critters we drive away with our tidiness. The stumpery at Ickworth is divided into two parts which, taken as a whole, constitute one of the biggest in the country. There is evidence of  a 19th century stumpery at Ickworth, but the Eastern and Western Stumperies visitors experience these days were created in the late 20th and early 21st centuries: the Eastern Stumpery was developed in the 1980s and the Western extension began in 2012.

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The focus of the stumpery is, of course, the deadwood: the stubs are chiefly oak, sweet chestnut and yew. But the planting which surrounds these gnarls of lignin and stellate root remains are of intrigue too. The first plant to leap to mind as suitable is the fern, partly for its love of shade but also because it was the subject of a Victorian obsession. There are over 60 types here, including the Tree Fern – I think of these as elevated ferns, a fern on its own pedestal. Thalictrum sits alongside the ferns, its foliage resembling the Maidenhair Fern Adiantum capillus-veneris, though it is actually a member of the Buttercup family.

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Variegated Cherry Laurel

Several types of Box were grown, including the polychromatic Buxus sempervirens ‘Silver Beauty’. I hadn’t realised there was such a thing as a variegated Box, nor a bicoloured Cherry Laurel which surprised me as I wandered around the Eastern Stumpery. Variegation is a good thing for shady gardens as they lighten what might otherwise become an oppressive gloom. Asarum europaeum is also valuable as it has lustrous foliage that are good at catching and reflecting what little light there is in the shadows.

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In flower were Periwinkle (Vinca minor) and white Dame’s Violet (Hesperis matronalis), in one place trained through a trellis-like tangle of dead branches. Welsh Poppies (Meconopsis cambrica) dotted their way through sunny dapples, and created a colourful contrast to the grey of the basalt columns that were a mini feature – these distinctive hexagonal rocks were from the Giant’s Causeway and given to the estate in the 19th century by a naval officer.IMG_1205

The Western Stumpery indulged the ethereal aspect of Victorian attentions, creating a “mysterical” atmosphere where you might encounter dragons or fairies. A dragon slumbers there, so be careful you don’t step on its tail.. or something. Aw, c’mon, get into the spirit of things!

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Look out! This dragon sleeps with one eye open..

The pocked and contorted bark of Quercus ilex, the Holm Oak, lends itself well to the eldritch atmosphere, and if that’s not enough to send you running to the cafe for tea and scone of the month (lemon and stem ginger – yum) then perhaps the rain might. Time to exit the Stumpery, and wish more gardens had one.

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Vintage Rot

Ambling across Tooting Graveney Common recently, I spotted this fabulous deadwood trunk.TGC standing deadwood

What is so great about it?  Two things.  It was a grafted tree and the graft union is still evident.  I’ve never seen this before in examples of deadwood, so I found it intriguing.  Secondly, and more importantly, standing deadwood is a precious habitat due to its scarcity.

Deadwood of any sort is crucial, as ‘vintage rot’¹ supports a huge variety of life. It is estimated that in the UK, 1700 insect species need this kind of wood at some point in their life cycle, and some of these number amongst the most endangered in Britain today. And different species require different types of deadwood. ‘The Vandal hand of tidiness’ as Oliver Rackham put it, combined with health & safety paranoia, means that standing deadwood is bound to be rarer than the prone sort.  Gardeners and park staff can try and compensate for their tendency to tidy up by creating log piles. While this is beneficial, it cannot substitute the vertical stuff, which is why it’s so pleasing to see something like this.

Of course, not all dead trunks behave in the same way.  I saw a TV programme the other day called ‘The Seven Wonders of the Commonwealth’.  In it, Anita Rani visited the oldest desert in the world, the Namib, where the average annual rainfall is as low as 2mm, and temperatures can soar above 50C.  Rani  went to ‘Dead Valley’, home to dead trees that are thought to be nearly a century old.  As there is so little moisture, this means the wood cannot rot.  I wonder if there are any specialist creatures that make use of these hard, dry boles.  It’s certainly a striking image, these ancient dead trees silhouetted against the ochre tints of the desert sands.

FOOTNOTE:

¹  A phrase borrowed from Ken Thompson

FURTHER READING:

Roger Deakin, Wildwood: A Journey Through Trees (Penguin: 2008)

Ken Thompson, No Nettles Required: The Truth About Wildlife Gardening (eden project books: 2007)

The Seven Wonders of the Commonwealth, BBC2, 20/07/2014

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