7 Ways to Give New Life to Dead Trees in Your Backyard

Dead trees painted and used as decoration

Ramon Gonzalez

Magnolia blooming in Chicago
Ramon Gonzalez

Growing up, the property neighboring me had a young pear tree that served many functions to the neighborhood kids.

In the heat of summer it provided us with shade, it acted as our third base during softball games, and it gave us neighborhood fruit that we'd proudly carry in our shirts home to our mothers. On summer evenings the lowest branch, which broke during an attempt to create a swing, held the extension cord and single light bulb that illuminated rowdy night games of Loteria (a card game similar to Bingo) that could make a kid rich.

That particular pear tree was the center of life for many of the kids I grew up with. When the new owners of the property paved over the yard to create a parking lot I was happy to see that the tree had been spared. Then one day, a new set of owners cut the tree down entirely to keep the tree's fruit from damaging the hoods of the cars parked below it.

The day I noticed the tree was gone I was devastated. I wished I had been able to save a piece of it. Perhaps made a picture frame, coat rack, something-anything-that would honor the tree that gave us so much.

Unfortunately, that wasn't an option, but if you lose a tree in your landscape here are seven ways you can give it new life and preserve some of the memories you associate with it.

1. Painting Dead Trees

Dead trees painted and used as decoration
Ramon Gonzalez

A couple colors of paint and a brush can turn a sad-looking dead tree into an artistic statement in your landscape. This is an example of dead trees that were used to create winter interest a year ago along Chicago's Lake Shore Drive.

2. Seating

garden bench made from twigs
Ramon Gonzalez 

You don't have to be Norm Abram to create seating around your garden and patio from tree stumps and pieces of the trunk. Specimens can be sanded and varnished to create decorative and functional pieces indoors. Small branches can be cut to decorate indoor furniture, like this table.

3. Create a Bee Habitat

With a handful of drill bits, a power tool, and a few minutes of your time, you can turn branches into native bee hotels in your garden.

Native bees don't get as much attention as their European cousins, but they are just as much under threat and are equally important pollinators.

4. Carve Out Garden Paths

wooden garden path
 Ramon Gonzalez

A few years ago an exhibit at the Chicago Flower & Garden Show utilized sections of a trunk to create the garden path you see here.

"Those got a lot of attention," recalls Brian Houck, Director of Horticulture at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago. "There was a lot of talk about whether they were a good idea because they'll decompose and could be slippery."

Years later and I still want to remove the concrete pavers and replace them with wooden ones.

5. Install Trellises and Fencing

Fence made from twigs at Lurie Garden Chicago
Ramon Gonzalez 

Young branches and stems make nice decorative fences and trellising for training young plants and vines to grow upright.

Here's a nice example of trellis created out of branches by a gardening friend.

6. Create Raised Beds, Borders, and Planters

rotting tree stump turned into planter
 Ramon Gonzalez

Trunks can be laid on their side to create borders for your garden beds and even the walls of raised beds. My favorite Thai restaurant in Chicago turned a number of stumps into planters. You can plant right inside rotted out stumps or hollow them out to hold pots that you can change out throughout the season.

7. Mulch

The easiest and perhaps the most boring--if I'm being honest--way of upcycling a dead tree is to turn the tree into mulch that can help conserve the use of water in the garden.

Just because a tree dies doesn't mean we have to discard it. Think of ways that you can give your tree a new life in your home and garden if it has sentimental meaning to you.

However: Don't repurpose dead trees in your garden if they have been felled by diseases or pests, like the Emerald Ash Borer, and always wear protective clothing and eyewear when using tools.