The Victorian Stumpery Meets Hugelkultur: Timeless Matchmaking With Permaculture (Panama)

The Inspirational Stumpery by Jane-Ann Liddle

I’m crazy about hugelkultur. I love the concept of burying old fallen and felled trees to provide years of slow-release compost for crops to come. I love using waste material for something useful. I love not having to turn or move compost about. I love the chance to sculpt a really raised bed, something behemoth — hulking if you will — that makes a beautifully bountiful mound of vegetables. I love telling people about it, how it works, how by building it up and making it curve, all sorts of microclimates are created, how from the same square footage, hugelkultur makes it possible to grow so much more and to harvest without having to bend over all day to boot. Then, I found something that made me like it even more.

Sitting in our common area on the farm one afternoon, my wife Emma stumbled upon a friend’s Facebook post. This friend is crazy about her own thing, the Victorian and Gothic period, and in her element, she’d built and posted a photo of a Victorian stumpery. Emma showed me the picture, and we were instantly — as should be the case with stumperies — enchanted. Our reasoning may have been different, but we had to have one. Luckily, we were in the process of creating several new no-till beds, as well as in possession of an unexpected amount of tree stumps and logs. By that evening, I was sketching out plans for a stumpery of our own.

Traditionally, as was often the case with Victorian hullabaloo, stumperies were for aesthetics, with very ornate stump displays that involved upturned root systems, stacked stumps held together with steel rods, and lots of ferns. Often, beautiful hunks of wood would simply be splayed about in poetic arrangements with nary a shovel of soil or plant growing on them. Suffice it to say, stumperies of the pre-permaculture era were hardly about sustainable living or efficient gardening. If hugelkultur happened, I can assure you it was by accident alone.

Like permaculturists the world over, my plan was a little different. Firstly, while I enjoy a good bee-enticing flower as much as the next guy, and even the occasional upturned and fully exposed stump, I was building beds for food as much as (more than, really) visual stimulation. And, as long as stumps and logs were in mix, I didn’t want all that composting power to be wasted on mating displays. After all, I’m no peacock! (Actually, stumperies are great animal habitats.) I wanted stuff growing, and in fact, I was building it amongst several plantain trees, a couple of papaya trees, and a struggling pepper plant — these were all to be incorporated into the design. From these tenants, the stumpery began to take shape.

In the belly of the hugel-stumpery

Hugelkultur became a big part of the stumpery design. Rather than the stumps being bare, I decided to bury most of them, as well as make my displays a little less flashy. The exposed parts of stumps would function as a visual, but I’d also be finding uses for them, such as gradually raising the bed from about ten centimeters off the ground to above waist-height, creating stump stepping stones from which to tend to the garden, and bordering parts of the bed to prevent erosion. This meant my stumps would be accomplishing multiple tasks (visual stimulation included) and, by their arrangement, creating lots of microclimates to take advantage of.

The space I was working with was roughly nine meters squared, three by three, with the four corners represented by well-developed plantain trees. A papaya tree was just beyond the front (eastern) edge and another was just within the left (southern) boundary, the windier side. In between the papaya trees was a perennial pepper plant about thigh-high. Using these factors, I began to bend and curve the bed into shape, staying low until clear of the pepper plant, sweeping out to the papaya tree in the front and collapsing in so as not to disturb the papaya tree to the south. The shape was nice and organically arrived at, the borders pleasingly non-linear. It was time to start filling it in.

Mulching the stumpery layer by layer

In order to make the stumpery rise slowly, I built three separate hugelkultur platforms, each one helping to create another:

  • The lower level started a couple centimeters deep and consisted of small branches, a few centimeters in diameter, stacked and mortared together with twigs, broken down leaves, and raked up soil. The front was held in place with some attractive logs, and in the back, a temporary border was formed by a long piece of horizontal tree trunk that was to be buried upon building the later levels.
  • For the middle section, I dug down about a 20-30 centimeters, piling the topsoil atop the lower level. After that, I stood some stumps vertically, to eventually function as the stepping stumps (Emma’s turn of phrase), then filled in spaces around them with large chunks of tree, leaves, and twigs. At the outer edges, I put more stumps to contain everything, and at the back, another but fatter tree trunk.
  • For the highest part, roughly a meter, I first dug down and used the topsoil to close off the middle section. Then, I created a back wall out of a line of vertical tree stumps and started stacking wood in the remaining cavity, again stuffing the nooks and crannies with leaves, twigs, and compost-y soil. I used the original dirt from the lower level to cover it over.

Baby plants sprouting

After a little more compost and leaves, the stumpery was ready for planting. (Ideally, as with hugelkultur, the bed could do with a few months of curing, but we lacked the time or patience.) In order to keep the visible stumps visible, we opted for ground covering plants. We filled in the lower level with a few more pepper plants, as well as garlic and basil. In the middle, where the stepping stumps are, we’ve planted some sprigs of basil and a perennial ‘spinach’ called Malabar, which is a vine and one of the few salad-y leaves that grows well here in the tropics. Lastly, at the top, we’ve planted cucumbers with the intention of letting them tumble down and spill over the edges. We’ve spotted the outside with lemongrass and hibiscus trees, another nutritious salad leaf for the tropics, as well as some delicious tea.

Everything is still young in the bed, but it was a really fun project and does supply a little bit of eye candy in the garden. Since constructing it, the anemic pepper plant has made a massive recovery and is now full of peppers, and the female papaya tree has started giving fruit, which it had not done. Hugelkultur and the Victorian stumpery seem to be getting along splendidly, a marriage for the ages. On the other hand, Emma has taken to wearing a corset and massive hoop skirts and using antiquated turns of phrase, which has required a little getting used to.

A reconstituted pepper plant with harvesting stumps