Building with Trees and Tree Stumps

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Building a horseshoe-shaped stump shed is a great way to utilize old stumps and slash left behind after clearing a pasture. Orient the shed to block prevailing winds.
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Brett McLeod, a forester and homesteader who lives on 25 acres of his own, tackles the big questions homesteaders have about living off their land, from splitting wood to growing fruits and berries, in “The Woodland Homestead.”

The Woodland Homestead (Storey Publishing, 2015) by Brett McLeod is for the woodland homeowner, whether that’s for a large or small property. McLead provides insight to help you get the most out of your land through sustainable practices. Here, learn how you can use both living and non-living trees and stumps to build structures on your homestead, from fences to animal shelters.

You can purchase this book from the MOTHER EARTH NEWS store: The Woodland Homestead.

Building a Stump Fence

Laying up stumps is similar to laying stones: overlapping courses form the wall. Begin by laying a row of stumps along your entire fenceline, rootballs down, as if they were still growing. If the final fence is to be taller than 4 feet, you’ll need to build a double base in which two parallel rows of stumps are placed with a 1-foot-wide gap in the center to accommodate the next course of stumps. Place the stumps so that the rootballs point in toward the pasture and up toward the top of the fence. As the rootball dries out, the roots will become firm, pointy deterrents for livestock that might otherwise consider crawling on the new fence.

Aim for making the walls of the fence as vertical as possible while still retaining strength. Use the bucket of the tractor to pack down each course of stumps. Don’t worry if some soil still remains on the stumps; this will serve as “mortar,” binding the fence together. If you notice holes in your stump fence, don’t be afraid to fill them with smaller stumps or rocks. Most people are amazed by the number of stumps required to build a wall; however, if you find that you have too many stumps, consider either adding an additional course or building a stump shed.


In addition to using stumps as windbreaks, it’s also possible to create shelterbelts from living trees. Shelterbelts are rows of trees planted strategically around farms and pastures to serve as natural obstructions to slow wind and protect soil from erosion. They can also be constructed around homes and buildings to reduce heating and cooling costs, and can provide important wildlife habitat as well as a variety of nontimber forest products.

Shelterbelts possess ecological and structural qualities that, in many ways, make them superior to built windbreaks such as snow fences and barrier walls. The strength of a tree, of course, lies in its ability to flex and bend. Crowns allow air to pass through without creating the turbulence generally associated with solid barriers.

Commonly, shelterbelts and intercropping (growing two or more crops in proximity) are combined to form an alleycropping system in which a variety of row crops are planted adjacent to a row of trees. The trees provide a range of products from lumber to fruit, while the alleycropped plants enjoy the protection of the surrounding trees. Another hybrid option is to use shelterbelt trees as living fenceposts or, in the case of hedges, as a windbreak. The use of shelterbelts on the homestead is not a new concept. In fact, in the mid-1400s, the Scottish Parliament urged smallholders to plant belts of trees to protect crops. In the United States, in response to the Dust Bowl of the 1930s, nearly a quarter million acres of shelterbelts were planted across the Great Plains.

Shelterbelt Design Tips

The design and purpose of your shelterbelt allows for plenty of creative license, though it’s worth adhering to a few basic principles:

Shelterbelts should be oriented perpendicular to prevailing winds to maximize protection.

If your shelterbelt doubles as a living fence, make sure gates and access points are included in your design.

The ideal shelterbelt is one or two rows deep and composed of long-lived native species.

Since shelterbelts are usually located in stressful environments, be sure to select hardy growing stock. Full crowns (40 to 60 percent of overall tree height) indicate productivity and better serve the shelterbelt function.

If your shelterbelt is intended to double as a snowbelt to discourage snow drifts in winter, consider using conifer species.

The Stump Shed

On a recent pasture development project, I found that I had a surplus of stumps but a lack of shelter for the livestock. For most livestock breeds, it is winter wind more than cold that leads to discomfort and increased feed consumption. Building a run-in for the livestock is the traditional solution to this problem, but for the woodland homestead, a more resourceful solution exists. The sheer mass of stumps makes them an ideal building material, one that is less prone to damage than conventional building materials are.

What I was looking to develop was a shelter that would allow five cows, a half-dozen sheep, and two draft horses protection from wind in one of my more exposed pastures. Additionally, I wanted the shed to serve as a feeding area to reduce winter exposure for these rugged-yet-not-invincible critters. One of the benefits of building with stumps over conventional methods is that you can build fences and structures in any shape you can dream up. In this particular case, I settled on a horseshoe shape that allowed the prevailing winds to pass around the curved structure. The walls are double stumps at the base and impenetrable to wind. The overall height is nearly 7 feet. I opted to leave the top open, but it could easily be covered by log purlins and either a metal or earthen roof.

At the center of the horseshoe-shaped shed, I feed 4-foot-by-5-foot haylage bales to the livestock. The curved shape matches that of the upright bale so that the animals are able to easily circulate around the feed. Normally, I don’t use a bale feeder; instead, each spring I take a pitchfork and clean out the stump shed. The mix of trampled hay and manure is simply tossed on the walls of the stump shed. In doing so, I’ve created the perfect environment for grasses and forbs to establish. As the stumps decompose, it will begin to look less like modern art and more like a grassy knoll or berm that eventually will become part of the pasture’s functional, and edible, shed.

More from The Woodland Homestead:

How to Make Charcoal From Wood

Preparations for Splitting Firewood

Excerpted from The Woodland Homestead, © by Brett R. McLeod, illustrations by © Steve Sanford, used with permission from Storey Publishing.

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