It would be hard to guess at the meaning of the phrase ‘nurse logs’ and get it right without having come across the term before. The words don’t seem at first to have any connection but when you look at the word ‘nurse’ as ‘nursery’ you’ll begin to get the picture of something that is often seen on the floor of any forest - a fallen, decaying log sprouting fungi, seedlings and a host of other new life. And ‘host’ is the best word to describe the role of such logs. The trunks of fallen trees are not waste wood in a natural forest, they are the launching pads for the next generation of forest life and despite their collapse, continue to provide value to the whole forest, as a source of nutrient, shelter and a place in the sun for thousands of tiny life forms that were waiting for their chance to grow.
You don’t often though, see nurse logs in gardens and that’s something I’d like to see change. Tree trunks don’t fit well with our view of gardening. We like to remove them, chop and saw them up, feed them through a log-splitter of some stump-gnawing machine that turns them into sawdust that we spread about as mulch. We are selling ourselves and our gardens short by intervening in the natural process fallen logs go through, by stepping in with our noisy machines.
There are movements around the world, in particular the United States of America, to retain and employ logs as natural nurseries. Large logs are even being imported from plantation forests where they would otherwise be munched of burned and placed in public parks and gardens and allowed to get on with their natural work - decaying and providing a home for countless, otherwise homeless plants and garden creatures.
New Zealand gardens are extra-suitable for the inclusion of nurse logs. Our gardens are often large and more ‘relaxed’ in their design than those over seas. We can afford to make space for a log that can serve to make our gardens more balanced and natural, ecologically. And they’ll surprise those who do install one. They are beautiful and surprising in what they produce.
I have a number of nurse logs in the native sector of my garden and in my orchard. They fascinate me, especially with their fungi populations. They change constantly and behave like gardens within a garden, with their seasonal comings and goings, expirings and growings.
I don’t poke and prod them, cultivate or move them. They’re best left alone to sort themselves out and they do that perfectly. Mosses appear along with lichens. Mushrooms erupt, liverworts and other glistening things spread over the crumbling bark. Seedlings sprout in hot competition with each other to get big before their neighbours claim the space. Insects love nurse logs and set up home as soon as they find one.
Try a nurse log. Tuck it into a damp spot and forget about it and when you do rediscover it months later, don’t be surprised if you find that you’ve become a fan.