Drawing on their love of ferns and the history of traditional stumperies, Pat and Walt Riehl of Vashon Island have created a modern version of this woodland garden. Among the many attractions are a tunnel entry and grottos full of tree stumps with their gnarly roots reaching for the sky.

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PAT AND WALT Riehl’s new stumpery on Vashon Island, the largest in the country, is a deep green curiosity of a place. It looks as if Tim Burton’s fantastical imagination ran headlong into the Victorian fern craze and they tumbled down the rabbit hole together. The result of such an unlikely collision? A garden where fern-encrusted tree stumps are turned topsy-turvy and left with their gnarled roots sticking up in the air.

Edward Cooke created the first stumpery in the mid-1800s in Staffordshire, England, by piling tree stumps 10 feet high. When Prince Charles created a secret stumpery at his Highgrove Estate in the 1980s, he resurrected a centuries-old interest in the pairing of stumps and ferns.

The Riehls caught the fever and have spent the past few years transforming 1,200 square feet of scrub alder woods into an enchanted forest. The idea of stumperies is rooted in the 19th-century British Romantic Movement that exaggerated the glories of nature. The Riehls’ stumpery pays homage to this wild romanticism by amping up the dense, mossy nature of a rain forest. They may have been inspired by trips to European stumperies, but the Riehls have created a quintessentially Northwest woodland garden with quite the dramatic twist.

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After touring Wales, Germany and England with fern expert Martin Rickard, Pat recruited him to come to Vashon and help design their garden. At least a hundred madrone and Douglas fir stumps later, Rickard hints that the Riehl stumpery may have surpassed Highgrove’s in size. “Prince Charles’ stumps are better than mine,” sighs Pat, “because they’re older and mostly cedar.”

The Riehls bought their Vashon property in 2006. Ridding their woods of nettles and thistles was the first step toward a stumpery. Pat planted Japanese maples on the fringes and big-leafed rhododendrons along the path leading down into the woods. It’s only when you pass through a tunnel lined with tree stumps and enter into the shadows of the garden that you get the full impact. Here are hefty stumps waving their roots in the air as if performing some prehistoric nature dance.

In fact, the stumps were rescued from Vashon construction sites and carefully placed by Rickard to form the contours of the shady garden. Paths wind through, around and between the reclining giants. Woodland plants like epimedium, hosta and a variety of specialty ferns grow between roots and along the edges of the paths.

Stumperies may be steeped in history, but with tree stumps salvaged from construction sites and ferns well-suited to woodland conditions, they’re also ecologically modern.

While the Riehls’ property is more like a movie set for the Mad Hatter’s tea party than a typical island garden, the issues are familiar. “The slugs hide in the nooks and crannies of the stumps,” laments Pat. “Then they sneak out and devour the hostas.”

Tree ferns (Dicksonia Antarctica, D. squarrosa and D. fibrosa) are the garden’s pampered glory, growing up to form a lacy understory beneath the taller trees. In the winter months, Pat wraps them snugly to protect them from winter cold. Encased in layers of laminated paper topped with foil, the ferns appear swathed in white dressing gowns, emerging in spring to stretch their magnificent fronds into fluffy umbrellas. “I just love the tree ferns,” says Pat. “They’re really what got all this going.”

Valerie Easton is a Seattle freelance writer and author of “The New Low-Maintenance Garden.” Check out her blog at www.valeaston.com. Daniel Houghton is a former Seattle Times photographer.

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