Learn the secrets of the stumpery…

Head Gardener Martin Duncan shares the secrets fo the stumpery at Arundel castle – and explains how to make one at home

Arundel Castle's stumpery has a magical woodland look

by Liz Potter |
Get the look - magical woodland
Get the look - magical woodland ©Abigail Rex

The gardens at Arundel Castle in West Sussex lie in the shadow of two imposing buildings: the castle and cathedral. Given this dramatic backdrop, the garden needs atmospheric design and planting to create a bold presence in its own right. The Stumpery manages just that – it’s a fabulous mix of raw and twisted botanical shapes, combined with architectural plants to create a magical, otherworldly place.

How did the design come about? I designed and created The Stumpery Garden in 2014, in an area where there had been just two yew cones and some grass. I’d tried a smaller stumpery in a border next to a wall, which the Duchess really liked, so we extended it to cover a larger area.

What was the inspiration? In October 1987 the south of England was devastated by a great storm, which brought down large numbers of ancient trees. At Arundel it created years of clearing up for the estate foresters, resulting in magnificent stumps being left where they lay, which sparked my imagination. We chose the best oak, yew and sweet chestnut stumps, which were brought to the garden.

How did the planting scheme come together? I placed the stumps individually and, with the help of the estate foresters, gardeners and a contractor with a mini digger, we dug 50cm (20in)-deep holes to secure the stumps upside down in the ground, with their impressive architectural roots revealed.

What are the key plants? My aim was to give our visitors the feeling of walking through a magical woodland, so we chose plants that would grow through the stumps and cascade onto pathways. We’ve also added some trees, including small acers and six liquidambars that provide height and fantastic autumn colour. The stumpery has a yew hedge surrounding it, clipped into points that echo the cathedral spire behind; the towering flower stems of Echium pininana have a similar effect. Dicksonia antarctica (tree ferns) provide fabulous lushness and an exotic feel, as does Paulownia tomentosa (foxglove tree), which is pollarded in spring to encourage it to produce massive leaves.

How do the seasons progress here? We have snowdrops and winter aconites, mini daffodils and species tulips such as T. clusiana, T. sylvestris and T. turkestanica for early spring. Then alliums take over – ‘Globemaster’, A. cristophii, white-flowered ‘Mont Blanc’ and more unusual ones such as ‘Spider’ and A. vineale ‘Hair’.

For summer interest we have lupins, delphiniums, rusty-orange foxglove Digitalis ferruginea and thalictrums. We also sprinkle wildflower seeds, such as poppies and cornflowers, in among the stumps. These add to the naturalistic feel, and they’re great for bees and butterflies.

There’s a real diversity in the planting because part of the stumpery is shaded and the rest gets more sunshine.

What maintenance does the stumpery require? We protect the tree ferns over winter with straw and horticultural fleece. It’s important to give their trunks a little bit of moisture to stop them drying out. The echiums are biennial and aren’t completely hardy, so we pot up any self-sown seedlings from the gravel in late summer to keep safe in the polytunnel and guard against losses.

We also mulch with tonnes of leafmould each autumn to provide the perfect growing conditions. For pristine, hole-free hostas we use a nematode control that’s watered onto the soil around the plants in spring when the soil temperature is above 5C (41F).

How could readers create something similar on a smaller scale? Gardeners need to check their soil type and pH because that determines which plants will do well. The soil here is alkaline, but if you’ve got an acidic soil, a stumpery with heathers and small azaleas could work really well too. You can also pile up smaller stumps and use dainty plants such as primroses. Partly burying stumps in the ground helps it look natural – as if they were originally part of the earth. Visitors often ask if they were grown like this!

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