When you become a gardener, you generally suppose it will be the Austin roses or a breathtakingly fragrant bed of lilies that will give you the greatest satisfaction, but I've learned that simple accomplishments often bring a greater glow to my cheeks. Take the overgrown pfitzer juniper we inherited in our backyard. When we moved in 20 years ago it was a mess, with brown prickles below and straggly green branches above reaching like starving wraiths for the sun. Still, it worked as a sort of fence: without the juniper, there would have been a clear view right through to our neighbour's patio from our deck. (We liked our neighbours, but we all agreed we'd rather have alfresco breakfasts and dinners with a modicum of privacy.)
Then my husband had a brilliant idea: Why not trim the juniper back heavily, removing all the dead needles, leaving the healthy stuff at the ends of the branches and thinning out the twisted limbs? In other words, make a giant bonsai. It took us a weekend to accomplish this task-dressed wrist to ankle in flannel and with our heads well covered to protect us from attacks by the juniper's prickles—but by Sunday night we'd turned our lemon into lemonade.
Fifteen years later, the juniper is a gnarled and marvellous fixture of the garden, looking so good we followed the garden-lighting contractor's suggestion and spotlighted it. Every year it requires another haircut, but that's small effort for acquiring a focal point with real character.
Preserving dead trees or shrubs is often preferable to ripping them out, at least in part because it's easier to leave the stump in place than to disrupt the lawn or garden (or your back) getting out the roots. The simplest lemon-into-lemonade treatment is to cut the tree off at an appropriate height and grow a rampant vine over the stump—something like sweet autumn clematis, silver lace vine or honeysuckle—but why not let your creative juices flow and make a more artistic statement? I saw an inspired job at a private garden in Florence, Italy; the dead trunk had been lopped off about three metres from the ground, with outward-facing, curved branches nailed all around its top to support a peaked tin roof. Was it an umbrella or was it a mushroom? It was certainly a conversation piece among those touring the garden, but when a downpour unexpectedly appeared it definitely became an umbrella.
In your own garden, a good table can be made from a well-sited tree stump of moderate circumference (small enough to allow legroom). Just cut the stump to the right height and top with a round of plexiglass, a stone slab or some planked wood—perhaps even recycled from a bit of discarded deck, if you're frugal of mind.
At Hestercombe Gardens in Somerset, England, an artist had his way with a clump of dead trees standing by the edge of a woodland stream by cutting oval holes at varying heights right through their trunks. They look like massive woodpecker holes or Druid symbols, take your pick, but they certainly stop you in your tracks.