What Is A Nurse Log?

Wednesday, April 11, 2018
What is a nurse log?  It is simply a decomposing log that "nurses" multiple forms of life on the forest floor.   Parhad (2017) states trees can live up to 500 years and can take up to the same amount of time to decompose fully.  When trees fall, they allow a bit more light into the forest, and the dead tree on the forest floor then becomes a host for many forms of life, providing a rich humus on which they thrive.

Nurse logs and snags sustaining life at Bosky Dell Nursery

 Eileen Stark (2014) has this to say about the topic:

" . . . a single, slowly decomposing log in your backyard . . . provides nutrients and homes for countless invertebrates, microbes, and budding plants.  It includes the type of terrain preferred by the species, plus food, water, and cover, as well as special resources needed by some animals, such as snags or rocky rocky outcrops" (p. 37).

Nurse log found near Oak's Bottom Wildlife Refuge in Sellwood, OR

We have several nurse logs in our garden.  In fact, we have a retaining wall made from birch logs.  We have other logs that licorice ferns and red huckleberry are growing on, near, and around.  

Licorice ferns growing from nurse log in Oak's Bottom Wildlife Refuge

Elisa Parhad (2017) writes in her blog post about a greenhouse feature at Seattle's Olympic Sculpture Park, where you can see a nurse log in action:

As a child growing up in Seattle, I played on these crumbling giants, used the humus in mud soups and eagerly hunted decomposed tree stumps to find red huckleberries. Since 2007, the city has been home to a unique art installation called Neukom Vivarium, which gives visitors in an insider’s view into the fascinating process of nurse logs. Under a Sleeping Beauty-esque glass enclosure, a 150-year-old Western hemlock lays teeming with life in a special chamber made to mimic the unique environment of the forest. Scientifically-engineered green glass protects the growth from harmful wavelengths that are not filtered out in the city. Moist air and water is pumped in through a visible system of pipes and mechanical devices. Microscopes and magnifying glasses allow guests to examine the process of decomposition and growth. Porcelain tiles lining the bed of soil illustrate the various living elements you might see: evergreen violets, banana slugs, fungi, lung liverwort, western sword fern, folding door spiders and red centipedes, among so many others (Parhead, 2017).

Image Credit: Paul Macapia

Consider adding a nurse log to your garden--it will greatly enhance your backyard habitat, and looks beautiful at the same time.  Resources like Bosky Dell Natives and Eileen Stark's book (cited below) can offer support and ideas in making this happen!

 Works Cited
Parhad, Elisa. “Understanding the Magic of Nurse Logs.” Garden Collage Magazine, 21 June 2017, gardencollage.com/inspire/wild-earth/understanding-magic-nurse-logs/. 
Stark, Eileen M. Real Gardens Grow Natives: Design, Plant & Enjoy a Healthy Northwest Garden. Skipstone, 2014.


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