New Life in Dead Trees

Recently, the ghosts of trees have been moving along the Atlanta BeltLine. Hollowed logs and gnarled stumps have been converging on Reynoldstown Glade. These rescued relics are to form the base of a stumpery, a style of gardening that intersperses plants with woody materials like old stumps and tree trunks. The materials for the glade come from around Atlanta where they have been removed due to construction. Felled trees often end up being mulched, but they can also take on a new life as furniture, wildlife space, construction components, or landscaping components. Instead of mulching these sculptural skeletons, our goal is to use them as habitat and art.


A wall of logs and stumps in Reynoldstown


Just because a tree has been chopped down doesn’t mean it is dead. Once a log hits the ground, opportunities open up for a host of wildlife to inhabit a new home. Creatures like metallic beetles, quick millipedes, and lazy grubs make their way into the loosening bark. The ground beneath the log becomes a safe shelter for chipmunk burrows, shy salamanders, and dainty frogs that rest in the moist environment. Dead trees also continue to provide food resources. Colorful mushrooms begin decomposing the trunk and releasing nutrients. Brave woodpeckers and curious chickadees find important nourishment tearing apart old bark to find insects underneath. Standing dead trees provide equal opportunity for wildlife to enjoy. Bare branches are perfect lookouts for hawks, holes provide homes for cavity nesting birds, and birds from woodpeckers to warblers scout for insects beneath craggy bark.

An incredibly diverse plant community also flourishes in a stumpery. Stumps provide a variety of micro-environments for plants: plants that need dry soil could be planted in a crevice on the top of the stump, and water loving plants could be planted in the moist shade at the base of the roots. Plantings around old stumps flourish as the stump decomposes and returns nutrients to the soil, unlike plantings around living tree roots that have to compete with the large tree for resources. Stumperies provide a living space for nontraditional plants, such as mosses with their vibrant color and soft textures that thrive in shady stumperies. Stumperies are curated works of art. Smooth swooping roots contrast with soft mosses, craggy stumps hide shade in their cracks while frilly fern leaves poke out to shimmer in the light.


Sprout growing on a mossy stump


Trees Atlanta will be adding over 80 species of forest plants to the Reynoldstown Glade Stumpery. Irises, coral bells, viburnums, and ferns will be planted, contrasting the meadow grasses that characterize other parts of the Atlanta BeltLine Arboretum. When the stumpery is finished, roots will reach skyward from upended stumps creating cubbies and seats, and a habitat wall of stacked logs will wind along the trail. It will bring the elements of designed wildness to the Atlanta BeltLine as the first public stumpery in Atlanta.

Located between Kirkwood Ave and Wylie Street, the stumpery will be a unique addition to the landscape of the BeltLine. Watch the progress as the tree roots crawl in and keep your eyes open for new plantings when you visit. Construction of the stumpery will be finished by the end of February thanks to our partners at New Urban Forestry and Royal Landscape and Gardens. We couldn’t have done it without these teams helping locate, transport, and install the key woody components of the stumpery. In the spring and early summer, new plants will be appearing as we add understory trees, flowering shrubs, ferns, and woodland perennials.


Stacked logs and ferns


Homeowners can embrace their own tree stumps in a number of ways. The “living-dead trees” can provide habitat as a pile of sticks, curated collection of stumps or logs, or a sculptural standing dead tree. Standing dead trees may be as scary to homeowners, but if dangerous limbs can be trimmed or the height reduced, these trees live on as home and grocery for many species and are no threat to the human home. Stacks of logs can function as a mini stumpery; moss can be draped over the top, and plants can be added to dirt-filled crevices between the logs. The creatures that call a stumpery home are not eager to move into a human house; creatures attracted to a damp, shady, nutrient rich stump have no desire to explore a climate-controlled building.

If you would like to help with more hands-on care of the stumpery or learn some of the techniques that you can incorporate on your own property, join us for a workday. The stumpery will be officially completed with the installation of a moss garden with help from Annie Martin (known as Mossin’ Annie) during a workshop in May.


A log with a smiley face painted on it


Published February 18, 2020

Written by Rachel Bergman