Stump up for a better garden

Stumperies may be a throwback of a bygone age, but - perhaps thanks to the current trend for all things retro - they could once again command a place in the British garden, creating a cornucopia of planting opportunities and providing a haven for wildlife.

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The Stumpery, Highgrove gardens, Gloucestershire

Stumperies may be a throwback of a bygone age, but - perhaps thanks to the current trend for all things retro - they could once again 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 anyway, 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, Beardshaw visited the home of the first UK stumpery at Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire, as well as the most famous stumpery in the country, that of The Prince of Wales in the grounds of Highgrove House, as featured in the Great British Garden Revival on BBC Two on January 9.

"Stumperies were the original vehicles that really excited people about ferns," Beardshaw enthuses. "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 (many fern collectors were women) because the plants' lack of flowers and the lack of obvious sexual parts suited the sombre, demure Victorian approach to gardening."

A stumpery is essentially 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, if you're feeling inspired, how do you create a stumpery in your own garden?

You'll need to plant them in shade, Beardshaw advises, either under a hedge or under a 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 and it's this rotting underlayer that we are really exploiting.

"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 fungi growing, some of which are edible."

You can buy edible fungal spores - dowels impregnated with fungal mycelium. Knock them into your stumps and in years to come you should harvest successive crops of edible fungi.

"Today you can be as adventurous as you wish," adds Beardshaw. "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 pretty easy to find, or inquire at your local woodland management, farmers, landowners and the Forestry Commission. Windblown trees may also be used. If you live in an urban area, contact a tree surgeon for spare wood.

Hardwoods such as oak, sweet chestnut and beech are the best to use because they take longer to rot, although Beardshaw 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 on January 9

Best of the bunch - Mahonia

These evergreen flowering shrubs bring a burst of sunshine to the border in winter, with their pretty spikes of fragrant yellow flowers above rich, glossy leaves, followed by purple or black berries. They are tough and sucker freely, so keep them in check if you don't want them invading the space of others. There are many varieties of mahonia, which range in height from 90cm-2.4m (3ft-8ft), so choose carefully. Recommended hybrid groups include M. media 'Charity', which bears lovely yellow spikes in winter, while glossy, wavy-edged foliage is produced by M. wagneri 'Undulata'. For a real contrast, try M. aquifolium 'Atropurpurea', which has purple leaves in winter. Most mahonias grow in any reasonable soil and will even survive in shady spots.

Good enough to eat - curry leaves (Murraya koenigii)

Have some fun with edible houseplants while you're hibernating this winter and, if you're still waiting to make that turkey curry, look no further than the Murraya, whose leaves will give you a home-grown curry flavour better than any take-away.

Not to be confused with the silver-leaved curry plant, the Murraya is difficult to find in the UK but if you have access to an Asian supermarket which stocks it, you can take cuttings from the fresh stems. Strip all the leaves off, plunging the stems into a bowl of water for a couple of hours. Then cut the branches into 15cm lengths and dip the ends in rooting hormone powder, then plant them in moist, gritty compost. They'll do best in a heated propagator, but otherwise use a clear clingfilm over the pot to keep in the moisture and warmth. Pot on later into ericaceous compost with added grit.

Curry leaves like humidity, so grow them indoors all year round in a sunny, draught-free room. When you are ready for your curry, snip off the lower leaves and add to your dish.

Top buy - anti-bramble gauntlets

If you're tackling prickles and other tough sharp plants this winter, you'll need more than basic gardening gloves to help you in your task. These heavy duty leather anti-bramble gauntlets should keep your hands and arms free from scratches and scrapes. Made in the UK from full hide leather (£40, nutscene.com, 01307 468589).

What to do this week

  • Order seeds now to be sown in January or February as you may have to wait some weeks for delivery.
  • Continue to protect vulnerable plants from frost and wind damage.
  • Firm in any autumn-planted shrubs and border plants lifted by frost.
  • Plant lilies in patio pots, keeping them in the greenhouse to develop.
  • Use cloches to protect alpines from damage by winter cold and rain.
  • Avoid walking on lawns or pruning fruit trees if covered by frost.
  • Continue to plant fruit trees and bushes, choosing disease-resistant varieties where possible.
  • Check greenhouse heaters are in good working order.
  • Take cuttings from conifers.
  • Start keeping a gardening diary and record book and update it each week.
  • Dig up chicory roots, pot up and cover to force chicons to develop.
  • Enrich soil with compost where beans are to be grown.