Roots and Shoots: A Pile of Sticks

Reader question: What should I do with a pile of sticks?

I love this question so much. The bits of trees that fall in the yard on windy days have possibilities that are only limited by your imagination:

  • Posts for an obstacle course for chickens (contributed by my 5-year-old daughter)
  • Kindling
  • A frame for art
  • Building tools for outdoor art

Since this is a gardening column, I’ll move on to ecological purposes.

Woody material is useful for wildlife and insect habitat. Clean and tidy yards aren’t ideal from the perspective of birds, rabbits, snakes or native bees and butterflies, among others. A brush pile in an out-of-the-way area can be a place to live and have babies, a food source and a mini ecosystem for many creatures. Based on the amount of time you have, here are some ideas for your woody yard debris.

A less-than-30-minute project

Enlist youth in your household in gathering sticks and dried out stalks. Bribe them with candy or toys if necessary. Use a wheelbarrow or other collection device and then find a place in the yard where you won’t mind a brush pile. Dump sticks. Arrange them if you must — or don’t. If you have extra compost, leaves or other yard debris, mix it in. Go about your day.


A pile of forsythia we removed became the base for brush-pile habitat in our woods. (Photo by P. Doan)

Two to three hours

Use the woody material as a bottom layer of a garden for vegetables or plants. The practice of Hugelkultur, a permaculture approach that translates from German roughly as “hill culture,” uses logs and sticks to create rich soil. As the woody material decomposes, it adds a steady source of nutrients to the soil. The branches and logs act as a filter to hold and drain rainwater. And finally, the soil will breathe and no tilling is necessary.

Add curves and break up flat landscape spaces with small mounds. A small pile of sticks can be placed in a shallow hole or on top of the soil. Slightly burying the sticks gives you soil to plant into. Again, compost, shredded leaves and other organic material can be added on top of it. Plant directly into the mound.

A weekend project

If you have the time and energy for a serious enhancement, hugel mounds can become new features in a sustainable landscape. Follow the same basic steps in layering and consider different shapes and placements based on what your priorities are for the landscape.

One possibility is to dig a shallow trench, fill it with logs and branches, then put the soil over the top. This kind of curved berm along a slope can also be a filter for stormwater, making a natural buffer to slow down runoff and let it soak into the ground.

A tall, pyramid-shaped mound can be an innovative design for planting vines and trailing plants. This will require shaping your material or finding something to contain it and hold the shape. Pallets placed on their ends as a container will also create ledges or shelves for plants. Cut out sections for larger openings. This could be a statement piece in a landscape or a less aesthetic function in a woodland.

Grade a slope or construct a privacy hedge with your branches and logs. Step the mounds into a slope to build up ledges for planting and slow stormwater, prevent erosion; plant with native grasses and flowering perennials or a no-mow groundcover, like clover.

A living wall hedge needs material for containment that can be repurposed pallets, fencing or fence posts, or simply a binding like twine or rope to keep its shape. Fill the space with all your organic materials and then plant it with perennials. The roots will eventually take over to hold the material in place and growth will take up the space left as the logs decompose. If you use hardwood logs either horizontally or vertically, they will last two to three decades as they decompose.

Whatever you decide to do with your pile of sticks, you’ll be able to create ecological benefits and beauty in the landscape by viewing them as a resource rather than a mess.

Gardening questions? Email Pamela at [email protected]

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