How to create a natural log planter

One of the best additions to a woodland/wildlife garden is a simple rotting log.

Not unlike a forest, where large branches and entire trees are left to slowly decay on the ground, our gardens benefit from the same rotting logs on our forest floors. These logs can quickly become home to any number of small woodland creatures, many of which are often unseen unless we really go looking for them.

If it’s large enough, you should see toads, snakes, even salamanders move in to the log along with a myriad of insects and fungi that all work in unison to break down the wood and add nutrients back to the garden.

The process is slow and might even go more or less unnoticed if it wasn’t for the birds and animals that visit the log looking for a quick meal.

This graphic shows the benefits of creating your own natural log planter

A natural log planter is the perfect addition to a woodland garden. Place it along a path so you can enjoy it on your walks through the garden.

Don’t remove those large branches after tree trimming

One of the best decisions I made several years ago was to tell our local tree service company not to cart off the large branches they took down from our upper canopy trees and, instead, leave them be on the ground.

One area where a lot of branches fell was our massive garden of ferns (link to fern garden post). It was the perfect place to just leave the large branches on the ground to break down naturally.

Our massive ferns grow up through the large branches and hide them throughout the summer months. During the early spring and fall and winter, I get to monitor the slow breakdown of the large branches spread over the ground.

In another area of the garden, I used the large branches that were removed from the tree to create a natural woodpile to provide shelter and habitat for the backyard critters that need places like this to escape predators. I’m sure some of them use it as shelter throughout the winter.

In fall, I throw on a layer or two of fallen leaves to provide even more shelter and create an even better environment for the large branches to break down over time.

Five tips to find deadwood

If you do not have dead trees or stumps on your property to attract wildlife, you can always go out on a scouting trip to find a handsome trunk or large branch to place artistically in your landscape. Here are a few places to look for deadwood to create your planter.

  • If there is a natural woods nearby; ask permission to collect a few good-size pieces of deadwood. It’s best to collect soon after a storm blows down the branches, before wildlife have a chance to move in.

  • Call a nearby tree service company. They are usually willing to let you have anything you can haul off, or you may be able to arrange delivery for a small fee.

  • Check with your local cable, electric or telephone company. Trimming branches and clearing trees are routine maintenance and they are more than likely happy to let you take them.

  • Your local parks department and the town or city road crew may be able to help as well. They maintain public trees and are often looking to get rid of large branches.

  • Keep an eye out for possibilities in your neighbourhood. Your neighbours will probably be pleased to let you cart off their branches. Explain to your neighbours why you want them and how you will be using them. It’s a good way to raise awareness about the value of deadwood.

Deadwood does not have to be left on the ground.

In her book, Natural Landscaping, Gardening with Nature to Create a Backyard Paradise, Sally Roth dedicates several pages to the benefits of using deadwood in the woodland garden.

It is almost as useful standing up as it is lying down, she explains. An interesting log or gnarly branch can add a very artistic touch to a shade garden or a final bit of realism to a woodland garden.

If you have a large, long branch that is manageable, consider creating your own “snag” by simply digging a deep hole and planting the deadwood vertically.

I have a 8- to 9-foot branch planted in the back of our yard near my outdoor photo setup that is a regular stop for woodpeckers, nuthatches, red squirrels and chipmunks.

These are particularly prized by woodpeckers, and they make an excellent foundation for a feeding area. I have drilled holes in the branch where I insert bark butter regularly. You can also wire suet to them or hang a feeder. The dead tree is also the perfect landing spot for birds approaching the feeding station. Keep it far enough away that squirrels can’t leap over to the feeders.

Create a simple log planter

Letting nature slowly break down the logs is certainly one way to help wildlife, but using the logs to create a path-side planter is an even better one.

How often have you been out for a walk and saw the local arbourist either cutting down or trimming up a large tree in the neighbourhood. That’s a great opportunity to ask if they would drop off a large branch or two at your home. If you have access to a truck, you could obviously just throw it in the back and take it home on your own.

Once you have it home, you can go to work carving out a portion of the log where you can pack in a rich forest soil loaded with compost, rotting leaves and bits of fungi that will quickly go to work breaking down the wood.

If you are comfortable using a chainsaw, you can create a large hollow in the log in no time. If a chainsaw is not something you want to get involved with, you can create the planter with simple tools like a hammer and chisel.

To speed up the process, consider using a power drill to first create holes in the area you want to hollow out. Once the holes have been drilled 5-6 inches deep, you can begin chiselling out the wood. Depending on the size of the log, you may have to drill and chisel out the wood a few times before you have the look and depth you want.

If it’s possible, use a longer drill bit to create drainage holes through the log. Drainage holes may not be necessary since the idea behind the project is to create a rotting log, and the wood in the log will absorb a lot of the moisture anyway, but drainage holes might be appropriate depending on what you are planning to grow in the fallen-log planter.

I have seen many of these natural planters with colourful bedding plants filling them up. That’s fine if you are looking to pretty up a corner of the yard, but a natural planter looks and feels much more appropriate.

Think wildflowers like hepatica, maidenhair ferns, mushrooms and small succulents. A natural path-side planter where you can control things like soil PH, is the perfect place to grow Bunchberry (cornus canadensis) or other acid loving plants.

In his book, Landscape with Nature, Using Natural Design to Plan Your Garden, Jeff Cox writes that “you can make a totally natural planter by hollowing out the centre 1 foot deep.” He suggests planting the old log planter with ferns, begonias, impatiens, or hens-and-chicks, but I prefer a more natural approach using native wild flowers including trilliums, dog-tooth violets and even wild ginger along with hepatica and spring beauty. It might also be the perfect spot to try some native orchids.

A log planter can also be a great place to grow a small bonsai-like shrub – suggesting the rebirth from a dead tree into new life. Again, try using a native shrub like a serviceberry, or one of the many small-shrubby native dogwoods, and viburnums preferably one with berries.

Commercial alternatives to a natural log planter

If carving up an old wooden log with a chainsaw or painstakingly chiselling one out is too much, there are much simpler ways to achieve the overall look without lifting a finger.

Commercial stumps are available that give you the look of an old, hollowed out tree stump without the work and the eventual complete break-down. High quality concrete planters can look remarkably real.

This example of an old wooden log planter from is a good indication of what is available.

The concrete containers that are made to look like a real tree trunk are perfect for the woodland garden. You can purchase ones that stand up more or less vertically to give height, or planters that are more like fallen logs that lie on the ground horizontally.

These have the added benefit of being able to be easily moved around the garden.

Although not made to look like a fallen log, this exquisite planter from Vivaterra is a pefect vessel to show off your mosses, ferns or even a small native bonsai.

Of course, you will lose out on many of the insects and small animals that would readily move into the more natural pathside planter, but you will be gaining a woodland aesthetic that will surely bring a smile every time you pass it by.

Vic MacBournie

Vic MacBournie is a former journalist and author/owner of Ferns & Feathers. He writes about his woodland wildlife garden that he has created over the past 25 years and shares his photography with readers.

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