Beginning a New ‘Stump Garden’

Tree damage in our area after the October 2018 hurricane swept through.

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This has been a very bad year for our trees.  Our community sustained major tree damage when a hurricane blew through in October, and even more damage when heavy wet snow fell very quickly in early December, before the trees were prepared for winter.

There appeared to be just as much, maybe more damage, from the December snow.  At least that was the case in our yard, where we lost two old peach trees.

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December 10, 2018, a few days after a heavy snow toppled both of our remaining peach trees. We couldn’t even work with them for several days because everything was frozen solid.

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We found trees and limbs down all over our area again today, after a severe line of thunderstorms pass over us around 3 this morning.  There were tornadoes in the area, and we were extremely fortunate.  We had a mess to clean up, but no major damage to our trees.

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I know many people whose beautiful trees have been reduced to stumps over the past several months.  Depending on how the tree breaks, you may have a neat platform, sawed off cleanly, or you may have a jagged stump left where the tree broke.

A stump is still another opportunity to respond to a challenge with resilience, seeing an opportunity instead of a tragedy.  There is nothing personal about a tree knocked over by gnarly weather and so there is no cause to sulk or lament.  Once the shock of it has passed, and the mess cleaned up, it’s time to formulate a plan.

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Our peaches in bloom in 2017

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Maybe easier said, than done.  I’ve pondered the jagged stumps left by our beautiful peach trees for the last four months.  The trees hadn’t given us peaches for many years, although they bloomed and produced fruits.

The squirrels always got them first, and the trees had some health issues.  Now we see that the stumps were hollow, which is probably why they splintered when they fell.  But we loved their spring time flowers and their summer shade.

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The jagged remains of a once beautiful peach tree, that once shaded our fern garden and anchored the bottom of a path.

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Now, not only do I have a stump at the bottom of our hillside path, but the main shade for our fern garden is gone.  I’m wondering how the ferns will do this summer and whether other nearby trees and the bamboo will provide enough shade.  A garden is always changing.  We just have to keep our balance as we surf the waves of change.

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Native ebony spleenwort transplanted successfully into this old stump.

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Stumps are a fact of life in this garden, and I’ve developed a few strategies to deal with them.  The underlying roots hold water, and they will eventually decay, releasing nutrients back into the soil.  I consider it an opportunity to build a raised bed, maybe to use the hollow stump as a natural ‘container,’ and certainly an anchor for a new planting area.

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I planted ‘Autumn Brilliance’ ferns in Leaf Grow Soil conditioner, packed around a small stump, for the beginnings of a new garden in the shade in 2015.  This area has grown to anchor a major part of our present fern garden.

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This particular new stump forms the corner of our fern garden, and I very much want trees here again.  And so I gathered up some found materials over the weekend and began reconstructing a new planting.  First, I found some year old seedlings from our redbud tree growing in nearby beds, just leafing out for spring.  I didn’t want the seedlings to grow on where they had sprouted, because they would shade areas planted for sun.

Tiny though these seedlings may be, redbuds grow fairly quickly.  I transplanted two little trees to grow together right beside the stump.  They will replace the fallen peach with springtime color, summer shade, and all year round structure.  Eventually, they will also form a new living ‘wall’ for the jagged opening of the stump.

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I planted two small redbud tree seedlings near the opening of the stump.

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I had two deciduous ferns, left from the A. ‘Branford Rambler’ ferns I divided last fall, and still in their pots.  I filled the bottom of the stump with a little fresh soil, and pushed both of these fern root balls into the opening of the stump, topping them off with some more potting soil, mixed with gravel, pilfered from one of last summer’s hanging baskets.

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This is a fairly fragile planting, still open to one side.  It will be several years before the redbuds grow large enough to close off the opening in the stump.  And so I pulled up some sheets of our indigenous fern moss and used those to both close off the opening, and also to ‘mulch’ the torn up area around the new tree seedlings.  Fern moss always grows in this spot.

But fern moss also grows on some shaded bricks in another bed.  It is like a little ‘moss nursery,’ and I can pull off sheets to use in various projects every few weeks.  It renews itself on the bricks relatively quickly, and so I transplanted fresh moss from the bricks to this new stump garden.

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After pushing the moss firmly into the soil, I wrapped some plastic mesh, cut from a bulb bag, over the opening in the stump, and tied it in place with twine.  I was hoping for a ‘kokedama’ effect, but the rough contours of the stump thwarted every effort at neatness.

I’ll leave the mesh in place for a few weeks, like a band-aid, until the moss grows in and naturally holds the soil around the roots of the fern.  Something is needed to protect the soil during our frequent, heavy rains.

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I will very likely add some more ferns or other ground cover perennials around the unplanted side of this stump over the next few weeks, just to cover the wound and turn this eye-sore into a beauty spot.

The ulterior motive is to make sure that foot traffic remains far enough away from the stump that no one gets hurt on the jagged edges.  Could I even them out with a saw?  Maybe-  The wood is very hard, still, and I’ve not been successful with hand tools thus far.  Better for now to cover them with fresh greenery from the ferns.

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The second peach stump stands waiting for care.  I noticed, in taking its photo, that it is still alive and throwing out new growth.  It is also in a semi-shaded area, and I plan to plant a fern in this stump, too.

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The stump garden begun in 2015 with a pair of ferns has grown into this beautiful section of our fern garden, as it looked in May of 2018. The tall ‘Autumn Beauty’ ferns in the center are the originals, shown in the previous photo.

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Quite often the stumps disappear entirely after such treatment.  The new perennials grow up as the old stump decays, enriching the soil and holding moisture to anchor the bed.  And of course all sorts of creatures find food and shelter in the decaying stump and around the new planting.

This is a gentle way of working with nature rather than fighting against it.  It calls on our creativity and patience, allows the garden to evolve, and offers opportunities to re-cycle plants and materials we might otherwise discard.  It allows us to transform chaos into beauty; loss into joy.

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Woodland Gnome  2019

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“Don’t grieve.
Anything you lose
comes round in another form.”
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Rumi
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The fern garden in late April, 2018

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Reliable Beauty: Ferns

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Once the first few fronds of our hardy ferns poke through the warming soil, and begin to unfurl themselves, I finally trust the change of season to spring.  Tight fiddleheads are appearing in pots and beds, under shrubs, and along the bank, and we always celebrate their appearance.

Emerging fronds show up so subtly; one might not even notice them at first.

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Japanese painted fern emerges deep red, and lightens to show some green with silver markings as the season progresses.

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Especially those coming along under larger plants, or in secluded corners of the garden, may escape my notice until I go in search of them.  But like a child hunting Easter eggs, I make my rounds of the garden in search of my favorite ferns, re-emerging after their winter’s rest.

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Christmas ferns emerge among Hellebores in our back garden.

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Some hardy ferns remain evergreen.  The Christmas fern, Polystichum acrostichoides; holly fern, Cyrtomium falcatum; and our Autumn Brilliance fern, Dryopteris erythrosora ‘Brilliance’,  maintain a presence through the winter.  They are growing a bit raggedy by April and I sometimes cut off their old fronds as they break or fall.  But you never lose track of them.

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D. ‘Brilliance’ emerges a beautiful copper, but its fronds eventually fade to medium green.

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While D. ‘Brilliance’ is a hybrid, the Christmas fern is one of our most common native ferns.  D. ‘Brilliance’ can be found easily in most garden centers each spring.  It can be a little harder to locate starts of the Christmas fern, however.  This spring I found them, bare root, at a big-box store and stocked up.  I have about a dozen of them started in little pots, ready to plant out when I find a spare hour for planting.

Holly fern is also easy to find at garden centers and big box stores either bare root in late winter, or already growing in a pot in the spring.

These are all clumping ferns.  While they will grow a bit wider and taller over the years, they won’t go wandering through your garden without your assistance.

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D. ‘Brilliance’ in June

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Like other perennials, ferns have their own sequence for when they first appear each spring.  One of the earliest ferns to emerge is the beautiful hybrid Athyrium niponicum, ‘Pictum.’ 

Known as the Japanese painted fern, there are now several beautiful hybrids with various color patterns and with beautifully curled and divided fronds.  These are such a dark shade of burgundy as they emerge, you might not even notice their fiddleheads at first.

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I keep a clump growing in a low trough by the kitchen door, and watch it daily each spring, waiting for the first signs of life.  These fronds have often fallen away by early spring, and unless you remember where they are planted, they will surprise you as they unfold.

The Athyriums, known as ‘lady ferns,’ may spread year by year.  They have good manners, however.  Chances are you will divide them before they move beyond where you want them to grow.  I particularly enjoy the hybrid A. ‘Ghost,’ which is a lovely silver grey.

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There are many beautiful ferns that grow well in coastal Virginia.  We have an interesting selection of native ferns here, and we grow several of them.  Maidenhair fern, royal fern, cinnamon fern and sensitive fern are a few easily grown natives.

But we also collect several imported ferns, hybrids and cultivars, as well.  Can one grow too many ferns?

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Although ferns generally appreciate at least partial shade and consistently moist soil, they are much tougher than they appear.  Once established, many varieties can stand up to some sun and survive, with mulch and a little supplemental water, during drought.

Do your homework before you plant, however, and keep in mind the gardener’s mantra, “Right plant, right place.”

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It is easy to grow most ferns, if only you site them to meet their needs.  Given good soil, a bit of shade, and sufficient moisture, they happily grow on year after year.  In fact, if they are sited in their ‘happy place,’ you will see new ferns crop up nearby from either spore or spreading.

If a fern seems to be struggling, then simply dig it up and move it.  Often, a fern will go into dormancy during summer’s heat in order to survive if it is getting too dry or too much sun.

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September 2017

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I tend to buy the smallest pots of ferns that I can find.  In  our wooded garden, with so many roots everywhere, I like to start ferns small and let them grow and find their own way among the already established plant community.  This nearly always works. 

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It is also kind to build a raised bed for your fern installation, as long as you keep it hydrated.  I also grow some in pots, and keep them going year to year.

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Hardy ferns can stay outside in their pots all winter.  I bring the tender ferns in to the house each fall and set them out again when the weather has settled in spring.

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Emerging holly fern in early March.

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Ferns are beautiful just by themselves, and I am cultivating a collection of them on a steep bank in the shade in our back garden.  But they also add a graceful note when grow with bulbs and perennials or under shrubs.  Medium sized ferns are a good ‘shoes and socks’ ground cover in the front of a shrub border and under trees.

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Ferns lend a peacefulness and serenity to the garden.  These easy plants hold the soil against erosion, require minimal fuss or maintenance, and have a long season of beauty.  Deer and rabbits rarely touch them.

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They make me happy, and I keep planting more with each passing year.

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Athyrium ‘Branford Beauty’

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Woodland Gnome 2018

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