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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

Jonathon Engels

The financially unfortunate combination of travel enthusiast, freelance writer, and vegan gardener, Jonathon Engels whittled and whistled himself into a life that gives him cause to continually scribble about it. He has lived as an expat for over a decade, worked in nearly a dozen countries, and visited dozens of others in the meantime, subjecting the planet to a fiery mix of permaculture, music, and plant-based cooking. More of his work can be found at Jonathon Engels: A Life About.


  1. Wow, I’m honoured that you used me as inspiration for your stumpery. What you have done is amazing work, it looks fantastic lets hope more people carry on the victorian stumpery. All the best

  2. Hi Jonathon. Hugelkulture is definitely the most exciting! I am sharing a block with my daughter and her partner. They are busy scraping every fallen leaf and twig from their area and I am greedily burying their refuse under mine. I could not believe my luck when they ordered taken to the tip half a shed full of perfectly wonderful old logs. The mini-dozer had them buried in the garden in no time. I am expecting a great crop of vegies from this heap next spring.
    Please follow with photos from yours next season.

  3. I’ve not been able to make Hugelkultur work on my sandy — Moreton Bay edged — garden soil. But since all we’ve got is sand — and the only rock that visits is Pumice stone from far off Pacific volcanic eruptions, I turn to the wood to do more than it is its garden norm.
    Along the coast here and the main sand islands –especially Stradbroke and Moreton Islands — beaches can be one long stumpery as the weather uproots and moves whole trees and their roots about.
    So its’ easy to collect intricately shaped roots and stems — half way to drift wood.
    I find that settled in the garden on my sand it is much easier to grow stuff around a dead tree root , trunk or branch than just relying on the ‘soil’.I get relationships going…before the termites eat the display.
    I also use branches and stuff to lean against elevated ponds. I elevate the ponds to over 60 cm high to keep the cane toads out, but native frogs appreciate the entwined dead branches as a climbing frame to water.
    I run these wooden sculptures above and over the pond and what hapeons is that stuff grown in soil and stuff grown in the water mix it by clambering over the driftwood like structures.

    The no Cane Toads allowed pond:Driftwood Pond. I thanks for the heads up: it’s a stumpery.

    1. Here Latitude 28.3 coastal, Pleurotus sp an edible fungi (the white oyster mushroom) has naturalised on logs we have recycled in seedsavers food forest. Spores in the air are inviting themselves and we eat them. We just provide the habitat. Love your gardens.

  4. I’ve heard that having wood stick out of the bed wicks water away from the core, I wonder if you’ve experienced this on any of your beds?

    1. I do recall reading something that told me to cover it all. I’ve not had any problems that I know of, but at the moment, it’s rainy season in Panama, i.e. there is no lack of water really–anywhere. It’s one of the reason we are using hugelkultur, an attempt to have thing lifted a bit off ground level. Have you ever heard from anyone who actually had problems?

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