Ye Olde Stumperie

Phil Peters
Adam's County Master Gardener Program

While on a trip to Merrie Olde England this past May, my wife and I had a chance to revisit Kew Botanical Gardens outside London. After spending several hours walking about, overwhelmed by the scale and the beauty of it all, we sat down to take a breather. Not far off we noticed a dark corner with the requisite signage announcing yet another garden attraction. Investigating, we found it was called the Stumperie.

The staff had created an intriguing garden in this shadowed niche. The 'bones' of this small garden were decaying tree stumps and rotting fallen logs. Numerous ferns and a variety of hostas gave the area color and dimensionality. The overall effect was the soothing calm of the forest floor.

It didn't take my wife, Barbara, long to decide that that was exactly what she wanted. Of course, she knew just the place for it. All she needed were some tree stumps. Did I know where she could get them? Silly girl! She knows by now that she married a packrat who never gets rid of anything that may somehow, in some way, be useful some day. Naturally, I had two or three hidden under some poison ivy near the shed. And, just as naturally, it wasn't long after our return that I was hard at work pulling out these now valuable relics of an orchard long gone and dragging them to the selected spot.

Barbara spent a week moving them from place to place. Fortunately these were not mighty oaks. Each stump had to be placed just so. When she decided on the proper placement and the ideal angle as viewed from the path, we cleared the area of brush and roots, covered it with a thick layer of newspaper (recycle is the name of the game around here,) and she covered this with about 8 inches of topsoil, making sure to work in the stumps and roots so it looked like they had been there for years. When the plants were in we covered the area with a layer of mulch to hold the moisture.

With the basic structure of her garden in place, it was time to select suitable flora to accompany it. The area we had chosen is shady, receiving sun light as it filters through the surrounding trees. It is also in a well-drained area of the yard. Since my wife had already created a garden in another partially shaded part of the yard, she had a good idea of the kind of plants that she wanted and that would grow on this new site.

Ferns were a logical starting point since they populate a fair part of the shady part of our lot. The ferns were chosen to give a variety of different leaf textures as well as a variation in color and shape. Ostrich fern (Matteuccia struthiopteris) gives height to provide a vertical structure. Japanese painted fern (Athyrium niponicum 'Pictum')offers a pleasant delicate variegated leaf with just enough variation to stand out in a shady area. Small, it can hold its own. Asparagus fern (Asparagus setaceus) provides a softness of leaf structure and a rich deep green color. And Christmas fern's bright green leaf, combined with its height makes a nice grace note.

You cannot mention shade garden without including hostas in the mix. There are so many varieties of hosta that one cannot help but find ones that will suit the available site. We looked for ones that would provide pleasing leaf color with a texture that would complement the ferns we had chosen. The solid green leafed varieties (Hosta Halcyon) did the best in our woody area. The one variegated hosta 'White Christmas' that had a white leaf with a green border did not fare well at all. Despite applications of slug repellent and frequent attention, it was attacked repeatedly (the others weren't), and it did not grow as well as the rest. It seems that this plant would do better in a spot with more available sun. When choosing hostas, be particularly attentive to the plant's mature size. Don't pick plants that will take over the entire area when they are fully grown.

Solomon's seal (Polygonatum odoratum variegatum) has a pleasant arching structure that, when in flower, will dangle its white bell-like flowers over one of the fallen logs. White penstemons will jab white spikes of flower into the dark background when in flower. The whites of these flowers will contrast vibrantly with the surroundings.

To add a bit of color and to attract and hold the viewer's attention she chose columbine (Aquilegia spp.) and a pink penstemon and a fringed bleeding heart (Dicentra eximia). These also provide a much different leaf shape and also add height, though none are so tall as to overwhelm the small garden area. A natural for this shady area is the ever popular impatiens. They are available in many colors and it only takes a few plants to brighten up the dark area and make it more cheerful. My wife chose some white and pink varieties. As the summer went on they thrived and spread out, making themselves quite at home and filling out the garden quite nicely. Our wooded area now an intriguing and tastefully colored spot to attract the visitor to the back of the property and encourage him/her to relax and enjoy the calm.

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