Country Living (UK)
STEP INTO THE STUMPERY
At Arundel Castle, spring flowers sparkle among twisted tree roots in an enchanting garden created from the casualties of the great storm of 1987
Among twisted tree roots, an enchanting garden thrives at Arundel Castle
Vivid and irresistible, the Stumpery at Arundel Castle in West Sussex erupts in May with purples, pinks, blues and acid greens, as flowers, tendrils, leaves and fronds weave themselves in and around a scaffold of upturned roots, as bleached and bony as the remains of horned beasts. Created in 2014 by visionary head gardener Martin Duncan and his talented team, using casualties of the great storm of 1987 collected from across the Arundel Estate, this is an intensely gardened corner of the walled garden, with the soaring Gothic revival traceries of the town’s cathedral as a spectacular backdrop. A stumpery is an arrangement of tree stumps and the plants that might grow among them on the woodland floor, and although Arundel’s is on a grand scale, a garden of any size can be sprinkled with a little bit of this sylvan magic. If stumps are in short supply, they can be supplemented with logs, driftwood and bark to create a similar effect, and although stumperies have traditionally been created for shady areas that mimic woodland conditions, there are other possibilities, as Arundel’s technicolour example so brilliantly shows.
Shade-loving plants, including tree fern Dicksonia antarctica, are arranged against the wall here, but as the majority of Arundel’s Stumpery enjoys plentiful light, it is suitable for an eclectic mix of plants. Euphorbia characias subsp. wulfenii, or Mediterranean spurge, with its large, rounded heads of chartreuse ‘bracts’, rubs shoulders with sun-tolerant ferns such as Dryopteris wallichiana, the alpine wood fern, which has dark, scaly midribs. Alliums, including Allium hollandicum ‘Purple Sensation’, pop up among the super-sized, puckered blue-green leaves of Hosta sieboldiana var. elegans. “Visitors sometimes think the allium flowers belong to the hostas,” Martin says. “We’re trying to make something unusual and fun, a contemporary version of a traditional feature.”
A Victorian invention, the first stumpery was created at Biddulph Grange in Staffordshire in 1856, described in
The Gardeners’ Chronicle as ‘a rustic root garden’, where hundreds of stumps were packed closely together to a height of three metres each side of a woodland walk. The idea soon caught on but was short lived, although in recent times, Prince Charles’s theatrical version at Highgrove House, designed by Isabel and Julian Bannerman, has sparked a resurgence of interest.
Dead and rotting wood provides an important habitat for many invertebrates and consequently draws the birds and small mammals that prey on them, including hedgehogs, so this is a great way of attracting wildlife to any garden. Arundel’s Stumpery is home to rare stag beetles that lay their eggs in decaying wood, so called because the male’s large jaws resemble antlers. “Although they will rot away eventually, the stumps are hardwood, mostly yew, sweet chestnut and oak, so they will last a lot longer than softwood species such as horse chestnut,” Martin explains.
It took him four days to arrange the stumps, aided by a contractor with a mini-digger: “We turned all the big ones upside down and sank them about a metre into the ground. You have to bury enough of the stump to make it safe and look natural.” Three were interlocked on a mound of earth to create a three-metre-high centrepiece that echoes the traceries of the cathedral behind. Spaces between the roots were then packed with soil and masses of leaf mould. Bracken has made an appearance and Martin thinks that this may be because some roots still held onto soil and stones from their original locations. “I don’t mind. I quite like its structure and we just keep on top of it by regularly pulling bits out,” he says.
Small plants such as wild strawberries and primroses seed themselves into cracks and fissures, and a colony of London Pride Saxifraga x urbium thrives in a shallow trough between silvery,
pointed roots as if scooped up by a pair of lignified jaws. Martin likes to encourage colonisers by scattering seeds of field poppies and cornflowers into the stumps. They are well populated with mosses, lichen and fungi now, too – the fruiting bodies that pop out from time to time are a clue to the process going on inside.
For early spring colour, Martin brings delicate species tulips on in pots and drops them into gaps, and in early summer, Dierama pulcherrima, or angels’ fishing rods, cast their arching stems of pink flowers into the mix among martagon lilies and lupins. So many plants are packed into the Stumpery that weeds are not much of a problem. Copious leaf mould is added every year and dead foliage and flowers are tidied up when necessary.
In 2017, three liquidambar trees, Liquidambar styraciflua, were added to the Stumpery, part of a group that was used to decorate the Cathedral for the wedding of the Duke and Duchess of Norfolk’s eldest son (Arundel Castle is the seat of the Dukes of Norfolk). They bring some dappled shade and wonderful autumn colour to the garden as their star-shaped leaves turn orange, crimson and purple before falling.
“Children seem to like the Stumpery a lot. I’ve heard it called the Hobbit garden and the Harry Potter garden. I think it allows them to use their imaginations and disappear into another world,” says Martin, who likes this area of the garden best in winter when the stumps stand out in all their glory. Garden cats Tilly and Pippin enjoy it, too, sharpening their claws on the rough wood. Whether on two, four or even six legs, this dream-like garden has something for everyone.
FOR MORE INFORMATION on the gardens at Arundel Castle in West Sussex, visit arundelcastle.org.