• Nurse Logs in your garden

    by  • March 18, 2011 • Design, Garden, How to, Projects • 6 Comments

    I first noticed the beneficial qualities of rotting logs when I gardened in the suburbs. The tree trimmers left stacks of logs next to the street trees and I promptly snagged as many as I could for flower beds edgings. As they broke down over the years, I could see that they were home to bugs and seedlings, and eventually settled down completely into the soil as ‘compost’.

    Here in the mountains, I see the fallen and cut tree trunks on the banks along the high country roads and see the ferns and mosses growing inside and alongside them. Trees are always falling across the roads up there so in any stretch of bank, you will see several, fallen and pointing down the slope.  The forest crews don’t bother to remove them and they decompose over time. 

    Log on the bank creates a natural woodland look.

    Log on the bank creates a natural woodland look.

    When driving up on Peckinpah Mountain and noticing a fallen log too close to the road, I have no qualms about acquiring it for my own garden.  I do the same for rocks that ‘may be a hazard’ to motorists. Tractor Man knows that he’ll be called upon to heft one of these logs or rocks into the truck bed and says every time, “If I knew you wanted all this stuff, we would have taken the work truck.”

    Three year old nurse log will eventually decompose completely

    Three year old nurse log will eventually decompose completely

    To add to the natural look of my garden I set a 4 foot long log at an angle on a bank that would prevent water from rushing down out of the rain gutter pipe. This log has lasted about three years and now has broken down into pieces of wood worked upon by microbial life and the elements. There is a small oak seedling growing there.

    Driftwood from a nearby lake is home to a Dudlya

    Driftwood from a nearby lake is home to a Dudlya

    What to do with your nurse log
    Finding and placing a nurse log under the drip line of a tree can give you a shady place to plant small ferns, bulbs and seedlings where they will thrive in the damp rich humus. The log acts as a sponge, holding enough moisture that it doesn’t need much off-season water which would harm the shading tree. It provides mycorrhizae, disease protection and nutrients to the seedling and namely, acts as its ‘nurse’.  

    How it works
    With time, weather and the work of microorganisms, the lignin in the wood of the nurse log breaks down forming small breaks in the log which fill with leaf litter, moss and mushrooms and becoming seed catchers.  Tiny plants can begin to grow. The decaying wood provides moisture and nutrients for a variety of insects. In the wild, new tree seedlings can start easier if they can last long enough  to form a root structure that grows down through the nurse log to anchor into the soil on either side.

    Nurse log filled with muscari bulbs

    Nurse log filled with muscari bulbs

    In your garden
    Nurse logs create interest as seen in this log located along a sidewalk in Volcano, a tiny town off Highway 49 in Northern California. This log is planted with muscari bulbs and should be charming when in bloom. You can plan a garden around a couple nurse logs or hollow logs creating foresty homes for your woodland plants.  Hollow logs, when you can find them, make wonderful ‘pots’for plants in a rustic and natural garden. 

    Hollow log waiting to be planted

    Hollow log waiting to be planted

    In my garden, many of the banks and slopes were scraped raw by the machinery during house construction. By observing the native habitat here in the mountains and adding logs and branches to the banks help to ‘naturalize’ these areas. Nurse logs and hollow logs will always be appropriate here and I know they can only add to the nutrients in my clay and decomposed granite soil. Remember due to decomposition, your logs will be temporary. Always be looking for replacements!

    Three year old hollow log holds ajuga and a tiny bulb

    Three year old hollow log holds ajuga and a tiny bulb

    Fun facts about Nurse Logs:

    • An artist named, Mark Dion has installed a large nurse log from a nearby watershed into a glass walled greenhouse-like building called the Neukom Vivarium at the Olympic Sculpture Park located on the boardwalk along Seattle Harbor.
    • There is a Facebook page for Nurse Logs. You can ‘like’ it!

    Share and Enjoy

    About

    Sue Langley, a passionate gardener and photographer lives and gardens with her husband and Corgi, Maggie on 7 acres just south of Yosemite, Zone 7 at 3000 feet. She also manages the Flea Market Gardening Facebook page and website.

    6 Responses to Nurse Logs in your garden

    1. March 18, 2011 at 11:29 am

      Our ‘nurse logs’ are the vine prunings. Seems to be dense heavy wood, not planning on decomposing. But it gives lizards and snakes and frogs and mice somewhere to hunt for bugs, and hide from the cat.

    2. March 18, 2011 at 11:29 am

      Our ‘nurse logs’ are the vine prunings. Seems to be dense heavy wood, not planning on decomposing. But it gives lizards and snakes and frogs and mice somewhere to hunt for bugs, and hide from the cat.

    3. March 18, 2011 at 11:48 am

      What a great way to encourage some bio-diversity in a garden! I have a giant compost pile in my back yard that attracts all kinds of fantastic creatures: grass snakes, geckos, birds, bugs etc. I even saw a rabbit munching on some veggies once.
      But, I have to say, your garden logs are much nicer to look at than my mountain of compost.

    4. March 18, 2011 at 11:48 am

      What a great way to encourage some bio-diversity in a garden! I have a giant compost pile in my back yard that attracts all kinds of fantastic creatures: grass snakes, geckos, birds, bugs etc. I even saw a rabbit munching on some veggies once.
      But, I have to say, your garden logs are much nicer to look at than my mountain of compost.

    5. March 19, 2011 at 1:48 pm

      Diana, interesting using vines and also interesting that they don’t decompose. It’s nice that you have lizards, snakes, frogs and mice. I keep some small brush piles where the quail can hide. These don’t decompose much as they don’t have much contact with the ground which is a factor with nurse logs.

      Welcome, Jdandanna! I have a compost pile too. Not a pretty sight, but useful, huh? I wish you could see the mountain roads and how lush they look, even with the downed trees. I’ve tried to mimic that look a bit on my bare bank.

    6. March 19, 2011 at 1:48 pm

      Diana, interesting using vines and also interesting that they don’t decompose. It’s nice that you have lizards, snakes, frogs and mice. I keep some small brush piles where the quail can hide. These don’t decompose much as they don’t have much contact with the ground which is a factor with nurse logs.

      Welcome, Jdandanna! I have a compost pile too. Not a pretty sight, but useful, huh? I wish you could see the mountain roads and how lush they look, even with the downed trees. I’ve tried to mimic that look a bit on my bare bank.

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