Weathered: A Forest Garden

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You may wonder why we leave this old, weathered, decaying stump as a centerpiece in our garden.

It was a living tree as recently as June 2013, when it was broken a dozen feet above the ground in a thunderstorm.   A double oak tree, growing nearby, was hit with a gust of wind and blew over completely, taking this tree and a companion dogwood tree with it on its way down.

What a mess it all made! 

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A freak June thunderstorm spawned waterspouts from the creek, which felled three great oak trees from our forest.

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Many more trees and established shrubs were also broken and crushed by the sheer weight of the trees.  This was such a sudden blow to our woodland garden, that it took us a while to get over the shock of it all.

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As we cleaned up over the next week, we decided to keep a portion of the stump of this beloved old oak as a reminder of the tree.  We asked our tree guys to cut what was left of the tree several feet above the ground, leaving a taller than usual stump.

I covered the exposed cut in hypertufa and tried to transform it into a bit of folk art as well as a useful pedestal for potted plants.

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A forest garden must continually recycle itself.  The trees’ leaves and branches were mulched and left in place on the newly exposed forest floor.  The roots and trunk of the double oak were buried in place.  We kept as much of the trees as we reasonably could to nurture the garden.

We collected all of the odd bits of branch and bark left behind by our tree guys, and used them to build a Hugelkulture bed around this stump.  We called it ‘the stump garden’ and began all of our gardening efforts to re-plant this entire area from this one bed.

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That was nearly five years ago, now.  While our vision of this remaining stump might have been as a bit of garden art, the creatures here saw it differently.  It didn’t take long for the stump to become a wildlife condo.

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We’ve seen skinks skittering around beneath the remaining bark in summer’s heat.  Squirrels explore it, pushing back on the loose bark, and beetles and other insects find shelter here.  Birds visit this spot to search for insects, and there is cool shade for toads.

At first, most of the bark was left intact.  There was a scar on the side that I patched with hypertufa.  With each passing year the remaining bark pulls away a little more and falls to the bed below.  Virginia Creeper climbs the stump each summer, though I prune it back from the pot.

Finally, this autumn, I’ve planted our large blue pot atop the stump with a vigorous English ivy.  I’ll let it grow on and eventually re-clothe the stump.

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Yes, it is weathered now, and ragged.  You might glance askance and think to yourself, ‘What an eyesore…’ 

I”m sure you wouldn’t say such a thing, but you might wonder why we leave the stump in its disheveled state.

There is beauty of form, and their is beauty of function.  Sometimes, the two can be as one.  We see the stump as useful and as beneficial to the web of life in our forest garden.  It may not please the eye anymore, but it is still a thing of beauty.

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Woodland gardeners are wise to leave fallen trees and branches, fallen cones and pine tags, and all of the other accumulated detrius of a forest in place, as much as possible.  These by products of trees form an important component of woodland soil.

As they slowly decay, they feed billions of microorganisms which keep the soil fertile.  They shelter insects, which feed birds, which keep the woodland animated and fill it with song.  They prevent erosion, cool the roots of growing plants and balance the PH of the soil.

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An ancient mountain laurel, Kalmia latifolia, renews itself  in our garden.  I dump our chopped up leaves around these shrubs during spring clean up to feed the soil and keep their roots cool.

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Mosses and fungi grow on decaying wood.  Small animals find shelter around stumps and branches.

Now, we don’t leave every fallen branch where it lands.  We gather them and use them elsewhere on the property.  We didn’t leave the fallen oaks where they landed, either.  But we re-used what we could of their canopy, ground up and spread as thick mulch.

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We have been rewarded for this effort with a lush re-growth on the forest floor.  The raw wood chips created an environment where seeds for new trees could sprout.  We have at least 15 new native holly trees growing now that are more than a foot high, with many more seedlings coming along.

Can we let them all grow?  Maybe, maybe not.  We have to decide for each seedling, as these little hollies can eventually grow into prodigious, full sized trees.

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Native holly, dogwood, magnolia, cedar, buckeye and blueberry have sprung up from seeds lying dormant on the forest floor.

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We also have newly sprouted dogwoods to replace those lost, and some self-sown Magnolia seedlings coming along.  There is Eastern red cedar, and a huge crop of volunteer native blueberry shrubs that have grown in as a wildlife friendly ground cover.  I didn’t purchase or plant any of these.  There are always little oak seedlings coming along, and choices must be made whether to let them grow or to prune them out.

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Our land wants to be a forest.  When our trees fell, allowing the sunshine back in, it hastened new growth of seeds which may have lain dormant in the soil for many years.  Now, all of those little plants are racing with one another, and with those we’ve planted, to see who gets the sun.

We can prune and pull and plant and try to sort it all out somehow, but that is only a temporary aberration from the garden’s eventual course.

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We found many stumps, when we first came to the garden, from where a previous gardener cut some of the greatest trees.  He wanted light for his fruit trees, and safety for the house.  Some of those stumps are decaying now back into the earth, but a few re-sprouted with new limbs.

He is long gone, as one day we will be, too. Other gardeners will come here and will either disturb the land for their own schemes, or will let the forest continue to fill the garden.

A forest weathers over time, but that time is long; longer than the awareness of any one human.  And we are wise to find the beauty and the wisdom of its ways, and to work in harmony with the land.

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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“Sentinels of trees
breathe life into bodies of earthly flesh
As their mighty arms reach to the stars
we join in their quest for Helios’s mighty power
Like sentinels, we seek our place
in the forest of nature’s gentle breath”
.
Ramon Ravenswood

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For the Daily Post’s:

Weekly Photo Challenge:  Weathered

For more about allowing  forests to regenerate and managing a woodland garden, please read:

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About woodlandgnome

Lifelong teacher and gardener.

3 responses to “Weathered: A Forest Garden

  1. Pingback: WPC: Weathered | Lillie-Put

  2. Pingback: Weathered – Allotment – What's (in) the picture?

  3. I am fascinated by regeneration in nature. It is a wondrous, unstoppable, ongoing force which gives me great faith. I had to laugh at your wondering if folks thought it odd to have an old stump in the garden. I once had a dead apple tree smack dab in the middle of the back yard for YEARS, and I would get questions about it all the time (eyesore, of course). I looked at it very differently, there was still lots of life in it – moss, lichens, fungi and insects. The hummingbird perched there every morning in summer while I sipped my tea and made a nest in its branches. I was sad when it finally came to earth after a rainstorm. The hummingbirds were, too, as they swooped around looking for their perch. Its last gift was firewood for the stove. What a giving tree!

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