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Plant Supports

June 26, 2013

tradescantia corralledNot that many years ago, the only plant supports I was familiar with were stakes and peony hoops. I used bamboo stakes of various heights to keep plants upright in the garden. They (mostly) did the job, but I wasn’t crazy about the way they looked. The peony hoops, made of dark green plastic-coated wire, were a lot more discreet, and I found I could use them to support many plants in addition to peonies. Unless you look closely, for example, you would never know that these Tradescantia plants are being kept from flopping over onto the walkway by peony hoops placed at their base, about 6” above the ground.

My plant support horizons were broadened when I learned about the products available from retailers like Gardener’s Supply Company in Vermont; in their catalog, I could find a wide range of supports that included but also went beyond bamboo stakes and peony hoops. I have not tried all the plant supports that Gardener’s Supply offers, but there are three that I have come to use extensively:

Stem Ladders

These are designed to provide flexible support for large showy flowers where each stem needs its own support. They come in a variety of heights, and I have tried both the 4’ and the 5 1/2’ sizes. I’ve mostly used these for delphinium support, but they can also be used for other tall flowers that need individual stem support. The problems I’ve found with these are that it’s often difficult to predict which size you need, and it’s tricky to switch to a different height once the plant is already growing in the stem ladder. In addition, they aren’t really tall enough for very tall plants (like the tallest delphinium) that need support for the flowers as well as the stems. stem ladders

Linking Stakes

These are L-shaped, curved  supports that can be linked together to form fences, rings, or other configurations. I love the flexibility provided by the ability to choose both the number of linking stakes to connect and the configuration.

link stake link stake small circle link stake large circle

link stakes in useA great advantage of linking stakes over peony hoops is that they are much easier to add when plants are fully grown and blooming. When my Siberian iris ‘Tiffany Lass’ began to bloom recently, I remembered that the very substantial flowers on this cultivar make them top heavy and that the stems always flop over onto the ground when the flowers bloom. I quickly grabbed a bunch of linking stakes and used them to make a ring around the iris, thus keeping all its flowers upright.

Like the stem ladders, linking stakes come in a variety of heights; but I have found that it only makes sense to buy the tallest ones, since I can sink the stake deeper into the ground if I need it shorter. (Fellow Maine gardener Harriet Robinson tells me that linking stakes were formerly available in a straight, rather than curved shape – which was superior for some applications. Wouldn’t it be nice if Gardener’s Supply would sell both straight and curved linking stakes, increasing their usefulness still more!)

Flexible Garden Grids

These have turned out to be my favorite Gardener’s Supply product. They are  rectangular grids (approximately 20” x 40”) made of plastic coated wire, and they are flexible in two ways. First, they are physically flexible; they can be gently bent into a variety of shapes (and then unbent when you want to use them in a different way). In addition, they come with plastic clips that can be used to connect parts of a grid or to connect multiple grids together. This physical flexibility means that they can be used for a wide array of garden applications. garden grid

garden grid cageI have rolled flexible garden grids along their long dimension and turned them into round cages, clipping the short ends together and then stacking them. Flexible garden grids could also be configured into a trellis. I’m hoping to use one next year to provide unobtrusive support for a planting of tall Astilbe that grows up against my house in the Deck Border and always gets beaten down to the ground by rain. (In the past, I have staked the Astilbe stems; but this required a lot of stakes and the results are not attractive.)

I have used flexible garden grids as much for plant protection as for plant support. When a newly planted Viburnum was browsed to the ground and left for dead by deer in fall 2011 and then browsed again in the spring when it tried to put on new growth, I realized that this plant would need protection during these seasons. Before I left for Pennsylvania last August, I took two flexible garden grids, bent them into a slight curve at one end, clipped them together, put the resulting tent over my vulnerable viburnum, and draped it with netting to protect the plant. This worked beautifully. In the spring, before perennials began to come up in my Serenity Garden at the edge of the woods, I protected them from hungry deer by taking three flexible garden grids, curving one end to make a horizontal surface, putting them in a triangular configuration around the vulnerable plants, and draping netting over the whole structure.

garden grid tent serenity protected

The only disadvantage I have found with flexible garden grids is that they need to be attached to the ground in some way. Gardener’s Supply recommends using bamboo stakes to anchor them, and this is what I have done; but I don’t like the high visibility of the stakes (the problem that led me to look for alternatives to stakes in the first place).  I would love it if Gardener’s Supply would make stakes that clipped onto the edge of these and could be used to anchor them in place. For trellis-like applications, stakes could be made of the same material as the grids and 6-12” longer. (I may try re-engineering some of the stem ladders for this purpose.) I’m also wondering if tent stakes could be used to attach my cages and tents to the ground and intend to try this next year.

Supporting Plants the Old-Fashioned Way

corner goatsbeardI still use stakes in my garden, but now I use them only in places where they will be relatively invisible. For example, the large goatsbeard (Aruncus dioicus) that grows at the east corner of my house tends to get knocked down by heavy rain sheeting off the roof. (And, inevitably, as soon as this plant blooms, we get thunderstorms and heavy rain!) Each spring, before the plant grows very tall, I take three stout, 6’ tall bamboo stakes and place them in a rough triangle about halfway between the center of the plant and its outer edge. Then, as the plant grows taller, I use twine to loosely attach each stem to the top third of one of the stakes. This system keeps my airy goatsbeard plumes upright in the rain, and the stakes are hidden among the foliage.

What strategies do you use to provide discrete and/or attractive support to plants?

(I have not been given any free products or other consideration from Gardener’s Supply Company to recommend their products; I’m just a satisfied customer.)

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24 Comments leave one →
  1. June 27, 2013 2:22 am

    Our hardware store carries landscape staples: plain galvanized metal or plastic coated metal, U-shaped, about 4″ long, designed for keeping weed shield and things like that in place. I wonder if that would work to attach your grid to the ground. Ours are under five dollars for a pack of ten plastic coated staples.

    • June 29, 2013 10:42 pm

      Cindy, Thanks for the suggestion. I use landscape staples for a variety of things, but I’ve never seen the plastic coated ones; I’ll look for them. I’m not sure 4″ will be deep enough to hold things in place in my loose, sandy soil.

  2. Harriet Robinsom permalink
    June 27, 2013 7:49 am

    I am a huge consumer of linking stakes. I hang them on a soccer goal contraption (no longer in use) in the cellar for storage. My oldest are probably 15 or 20 years old and still going strong. Most of my peonies have linking stakes around them since the hoops they sell for the purpose do not have a big enough circumference. I remove them when no longer needed and move them to the heliopsis clumps. The single blossom stakes are useful but not in vast quantities. A stray peony may need one, and the taller lilies. I put them in place just as the bud is ready to open, or, more often when the flower has begun to topple. I also use them for the occasional daylily (I have an older weak stemmed variety I like) and even a weak drumstick allium or a gaillardia that sprawled its way to the ground.

    • June 29, 2013 10:46 pm

      Harriet, Today I found several tradescantia plants that don’t usually need support sprawling on the ground under the weight of all the rain. I grabbed all my remaining linking stakes to prop them up. Interestingly, I’ve never needed to provide support to heliopsis. My frequent problem with the stem ladders is that the 4′ ones are too short and the 5 1/2′ are too tall. This year, I finally figured out for the first time (Duh!) that I could use twine to tie stems or flowers to the stake in between the rings.

  3. June 27, 2013 2:13 pm

    I hope Gardener’s Supply is reading this, Jean. Great information on things we all use but rarely talk about! I’ve used the round, horizontal grids and of course the infamous bamboo stakes. I’ve got a lot of tall (5 foot) Verbascum and I’m thinking those stem ladders might be a good bet. The bamboo and twist-ties look stupid. Either that or plant a tall shrub nearby so they can artfully lean. Kudos for an insightful post.

    • June 29, 2013 10:48 pm

      Grace, I’ve never grown Verbascum (although I admire the ones that grow wild around here). Do the flowers need support, or just the stems? If the latter, the 4′ stem ladders might be just the ticket. I always find when I think some plant can artfully lean against another, the perverse plant decides to lean in the other direction!

  4. June 27, 2013 4:01 pm

    I use a mix of bamboo stakes, taller metal stakes, and a few 10′ rebars. The bamboo I usually tie into Xs for the plants to lean on.

    • July 1, 2013 8:07 pm

      Jason, I’ve been impressed with your use of 10′ rebar to support your cup plants. I don’t have anything quite that tall I need to deal with.

  5. June 27, 2013 10:21 pm

    Envious of boughten supports; I am recyling old electric fence posts and rebar that we used as electric fence posts. Sometimes I just use a piece of petrified pine (known in the south as ‘lightard wood.’

    • July 1, 2013 8:08 pm

      Nell, I figure I might as well indulge myself with purchased garden equipment while I still have a regular paycheck coming in. :-)

  6. June 29, 2013 8:31 am

    Great products. I love the stem supports — great for lilies and those plants that get a little top heavy. I also ordered some peony rings from this company — far, far better than those purchased at a box store. Thanks for the tips!

    • July 1, 2013 8:10 pm

      Kevin, I haven’t purchased peony rings from them, because I already had lots from local garden centers and big box stores. I’ll remember this if I need more — although I’m persuaded by Harriet’s argument (above) that linking stakes do everything peony hoops do and more.

  7. June 29, 2013 10:16 pm

    A good topic for discussion. I am conflicted about plant supports. I don’t use any, but then I regret that decision. An unsatisfactory predicament.

    • July 1, 2013 8:11 pm

      Amy, I hate it when my favorite blooms are lying prostrate on the ground rather than standing upright where I can enjoy them — so plant supports are an essential for me.

  8. June 30, 2013 9:12 am

    Jean, Like you, I’ve used peony supports for other tall perennials. At times I’ve found them handy in discouraging deer from tasting a small, young transplant. Hoop supports without the cross-bars are great supports for phlox. Stem stakes are one of the most versatile supports in my gardens – for heavy iris blooms, young tomato transplants, tall lilies, and fruit-laden peppers and eggplants. I also have various sizes of interlocking supports – but from a different source – that have multiple uses – holding up droopy ornamental grasses or preventing tall hosta blooms from blocking a path. I also resort to bamboo and garden twine for certain things if coated metal stakes are not suitable.
    Plant stakes are one gardening item you can never have too many of. You’ve done a great job of describing their usefulness.

    • July 1, 2013 8:13 pm

      Joene, Thanks for the tip about using the peony hoops as deer protection. I wish I had thought to try that with my new tender plants in the Serenity Garden two years ago.

  9. June 30, 2013 10:37 am

    What a great post, and very timely for me. I’ve been on a staking frenzy for the last few days, now that everything is getting huge. I am not quite sure how you use the peony ring on the lower growing plants – what is it attached to?

    • July 1, 2013 8:14 pm

      Hi Sarah, The peony rings I use have three straight legs that go into the ground, supporting the ring that encircles the plant. With my sandy soil, it is very easy to just sink the straight legs deeper into the ground so that the ring encircles the plant just a few inches above the ground.

  10. June 30, 2013 7:15 pm

    I have used the stem ladders and like those. I have not used the others. for peonies, I found some wrought iron hoop supports that stay up all year and make a great garden ornament as well.

    • July 1, 2013 8:16 pm

      Donna, I can see the time-saving advantage to having some supports that stay in the garden year-round (although you and I will presumably soon have more time for putting garden items away in the fall and taking them out again in the spring :-)).

  11. July 4, 2013 4:51 pm

    Hi Jean, I’m not very good at staking and tying plants so I don’t tend to grow ones that need it – though there are exceptions. I also like the more looser and floppier look towards the late/back end of the summer. As I have several structures an woody shrubs, plants will use those as support. I’m also a great fan of plants flopping onto the grass too, making it look as though the border is trying to take over.

  12. July 24, 2013 8:33 pm

    I use some of these, Jean, but was unfamiliar with others. Thanks for the ‘lesson’ and all the pix.
    On the other side of the garden (in the veggie patch), I’ve totally switched to the square tomato cages that fold flat for storage. I like them SO much better than the round ones! They are an investment, but one I was glad to make.

  13. August 27, 2013 2:52 pm

    Thanks for showcasing our supports. Lots of innovative ideas in this post and the comments. As for those jumbo perennials that often need support (cup plants and veronicastrum, for example) I have had good luck with our Birdcage Supports. They are pretty beefy yet look classy in the border. http://www.gardeners.com/Jardin-Birdcage-Plant-Supports/39-520RS,default,pd.html My cup plant is 10 feet tall this year, holding steady in the 48″ birdcage. Some years, I need to add a little support with a ring of jute twine. It also helps to divide clumps regularly; I find smaller clumps are less likely to flop.

  14. Brooke N permalink
    April 21, 2014 8:29 am

    Jean – I’m a big fan and heavy user of plant supports for my perennial garden. My problem is that I haven’t found a satisfactory means of storing them after I’ve collected them at the end of the season. I’ve tried standing them up in a trash can but they inevitably become a tangled mass and when it’s time to start extracting them as the growing season progresses it’s impossible to take just one or a few out at a time. I have many types – single loops, interlocking of various heights, peony cages, bendable arms on a single tall stake – you name it, I’ve got it. And I use then ALL so it’s not a question of downsizing my stake collection. If you or any of your blog followers have come up with an ingenious way of storing stakes I’d love to hear about it!

    Thanks so much!

    Boston Gardener

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