When the subject of staking plants comes up in gardening circles, there are two extreme reactions: Cinch every plant to within an inch of its life or leave everything to depend on its own strength. But between these two extremes lie the majority of gardeners—people who want to give their plants just enough support to stand up straight and look attractive, but not so much support that the stakes and wires detract from the garden.
A good staking system does more than simply make plants look better. It allows them to grow and bloom without flopping excessively, breaking, or smothering nearby, smaller plants. And the better the air circulation, the less likely plants are to suffer from common fungal diseases like powdery mildew.
Choose the right support
The good news about staking is that most stakes and cages are inexpensive. Some, in fact, are homemade. They come in an array of shapes and sizes—as a general rule of thumb, buy a support that’s about half the height of a plant’s ultimate height.
If you know which plants need which types of stakes, it’s easy to keep your garden looking tidy and attractive.
Clump–forming plants. Perennials that have been bred to produce double flowers often end up top-heavy, sinking to the ground at the least provocation. For example, double peonies packed with petals are beautiful in bloom, but they can go from heavenly to heartbreaking with one June rainstorm. Likewise, a good-looking stand of Shasta daisies loses its appeal when it suddenly splays out to expose a mass of bare stems in the middle, leaving the flowers to hang remorsefully in a huge ring.
Plants that grow in clumps and tend to flop—such as Shasta daisies, peonies, balloon flowers, and salvia—are best staked with a grow-though support. (See illustration, page 46.) When set up in early spring, these supports allow the plant to grow through a circular loop, sometimes crossed with additional supporting bars, so plants won’t lean to the sides.
To build your own grow-through support, drive twigs into the ground in a loose circle around the plant at the appropriate height. Next, weave a web with sisal twine or string across the opening. Stems will grow up through the web. If you have a loosely woven basket in the back of your closet, poke some extra holes in it and put it upside down over emerging plants so they can grow through it.
Long-stemmed plants. Plants that hold heavy flowers on single stems include delphinium, giant alliums, and lilies. Look for single-stem supports that have an open circle at the top that can gently hold the stem against the wind. (See illustration, page 48.) Y-stakes work well for long-stemmed plants, too—they give the stem support without making it look like the plant has been lassoed.
Tall, clump-forming plants. For taller clump-forming plants such as New England asters, foxgloves, and tall annuals, it’s best to use extra-tall support hoops (see illustration, page 50) or a linking system (see illustration, this page). When mature, these plants are too tall for shorter supports such as grow-through rings. Creative plant-support options
It’s difficult to hide the support systems for some plants, such as long-stemmed flowers supported by a tall stake and loop. But if you make the stakes a form of garden art, you’ll be proud to show them off. Check garden-art shows and nurseries for rusted metal supports, rebar or copper tubing bent into spirals, and other inventive and fun stakes.
You can learn to make your own supports, too. Check local nurseries, public gardens, and extension offices to see if there’s a class scheduled. Artistic plant supports add a bit of whimsy and flair to your garden, while still keeping plants in good form.
For a more natural staking system, look to the materials you have on hand. In Britain, gardeners use what are called pea stakes to hold up everything from clematis to bee balm. These rustic cages and teepees are made from cuttings of hazel, twiggy dogwood, willow, or even fruit trees. The twigs and branches are fairly flexible, so you can bend them into the desired shape.
Bamboo is another great material for garden supports. Use just one stake to support a long-stemmed plant or tie together several stakes to create a teepee for vegetables or flowering vines.
When not to stake
Some plants look better with a bit of support, but many of them don’t need our help. Refrain from staking interweaving plants, such as hardy geranium (Geranium ‘Ann Folkard’ and G. ‘Rozanne’, both Zones 5 to 8) and herbaceous potentillas such as Potentilla ‘Miss Willmott’ (Zones 5 to 9). If you leave these plants alone, they’ll send out a long stem here and there, grow through their neighbors, and create interesting new plant combinations that would never occur to you.
Some tall plants can depend on sturdy neighbors. Small shrubs, for example, can lend their support to perennial neighbors, and shrub roses do double duty as support and flowering plants. Tight balls of shrubs, such as Hebe buxifolia (Zones 7 to 10), or a boxwood such as Buxus ‘Green Mountain’ (Zones 5 to 9), will hold up delicate flower stems. More open shrubs, such as winterberry holly (Ilex verticillata, Zones 4 to 8), support tall perennials that grow through them.
Reduce the need to stake
Don’t overwater or overfertilize flowering plants—this leads to rapid growth and weak stems that have trouble holding up a flower of any weight. Strong, sturdy hollyhocks that grow along the side of the garage are good examples. They stand well on their own because no one is making them weak from tender care. A plant is more likely to hold up its own head if you plant it in the right spot. If a plant needs full sun but gets only three hours a day, it will develop long, lanky stems that can’t stand upright. Every summer I trip over the stems of Japanese anemone (Anemone x hybrida, Zones 4 to 8) in my shady side garden, while a large clump in the sunny front garden stands tall.
Marty Wingate is co-author of The Big Book of Northwest Perennials (Sasquatch Books, 2005). She lives in Seattle, Washington.
Type of Support: Grow-through support
What it’s for: Plants that grow in clumps and tend to flop, such as Shasta daisies, peonies, balloon flowers, and salvia
Grow-through supports allow plants to grow up and through a circular loop sometimes crossed with additional supporting bars. Buy them at a nursery or garden center, or make your own by driving twigs or stakes into the ground and circling them with twine.
Type of Support: Linking stakes
What it’s for: Clumps of plants that are too big for other support systems
If some of your flowering plants have formed clumps that exceed the size of any hoop, ring, or grow-through support, try a linking-stake system. These are fairly expensive and a bit tricky to fit together, but they have great flexibility. You can hold up a group of lilies in a straight row, encircle a grand old peony that you’re loathe to divide, or tame an unwieldy bunch of yarrow that’s gone a bit wild.
Type of Support: Single-stem support
What it’s for: Plants that hold heavy flowers on single stems, such as delphinium, tall dahlias, and giant allium
Look for supports with an open circle at the top that gently holds the stem against the wind. Some single-stem supports have one loop on either side of a stake, and some have loops that open and close to make them easier to install after the plant is mature.
Type of Support: Support hoop
What it’s for: Tall, weak-stemmed plants that grow in a clump, such as New England asters, foxgloves, and some tall annuals
These plants are too tall for shorter grow-through supports. Look for hoops tall enough to accommodate these lofty beauties.
Timing is essential when staking perennials. Set out plant supports in early spring, when the plants are just nubbins sticking out of the cold earth. A plant that grows through its staking will take on a natural appearance—the supports will “disappear.” If you wait to stake, you may break fragile branches or end up with awkward-looking bundles of stems instead of natural-looking clumps. Gathering rings, which allow you to carefully place open rings around long-stemmed perennials, are an exception.
Support your Local Vegetables
When it comes to staking vegetables, the most important rule is to put your staking system in place before the plant gets too big for it—and that means right after you plant it. Here are some suggestions for staking vegetables:
Beans and Peas
These twining plants need something to grow around. Build a teepee of bamboo or taut string attached to a ring at the top. Or use a row system so that you can harvest from either side of the plants.
Keep fruit off the ground with a cage system. You may need to help the vines get started by guiding them onto the cage as they grow.
Most gourds and squashes produce fruit that is too heavy for a staking system, but you can still grow them vertically if you support the ripening fruit with stretchy mesh fabric (such as nylon stockings) attached to the trellis.
Use tomato cages that sink into the ground around the plant. You can build your own by buying wire fencing that has square holes big enough for you to reach in and harvest. Or tie the main stem of a tomato to a wooden stake using green plant tape that expands with the stem.
Peppers and eggplants
Use the same system as for your tomatoes. Other products that work well for these vegetables include ladders and spirals, available at nurseries and garden centers.