The Art of Staking
A bit of skill with the right support at the right time gives a big (and needed) lift to any garden.
There was a time when I would not tolerate any plant not capable of standing on its own roots and required the (to me, obnoxious) support of a stake. A jungle of gaunt poles standing around the garden was too reminiscent of vegetables. (It was then that I also held with the opinion that vegetables belonged on a farm, rather than on a city lot.) Naturally, such an attitude (toward stakes) excluded many choice plants from my garden. It also created problems, since a landscape totally of plants short enough to be self-supporting was no landscape at all.
Eventually I learned the error of my ways — in both respects. Not only do I grow vegetables, but I freely — even lavishly — give ornamental plants whatever support they require. This reversal in attitude came when I finally learned that staking need not result in the beanpole effect. There is, after all, something of an art involved.
The trouble with most plants is that they seem to do so well on their own during the first half of the season — even until they are in full bloom. But it is an illusion, for sooner or later most of them fall prey to a not-too-gentle nudge from wind and rain, or their own inherent weaknesses. A lopsided, down-graded landscape is the disillusioning result. All of which can be prevented, of course, by a timely setting of stakes. Note the word “timely.” Too often the stake is not placed until it is needed, and the result of correction is likely to resemble a shock of corn standing in a farmer’s field — picturesque on a calendar, but not recommended for the flower border.
Establish very tall plants like hollyhocks in front of a fence or lattice or trellis. In general, if your garden is protected on 3 sides by substantial walls or hedges, you won’t have so much staking to do. But if the winds blow free through your garden, prepare to stake and stake thoroughly.
Tall bulbs like lilies, glads, tuberoses and amaryllis should be staked from the very outset, on the very day you plant the bulb. Set a short 6-inch stake right next to the bulb. This tells you where the bulb is. Later, when you have to support the young plant with a two-foot stake, you merely remove the short peg and insert the stake without fear of piercing the bulb. You’ll find you have to replace stakes as your plants grow and that it is good practice always to use stakes that are shorter than the plants.
The stems of plants like glads and snapdragons should be tied two or three times to a stake to avoid strain and possible breaking. This is true of hollyhocks which are particularly-fragile and should be planted near a strong, permanent support.
Another sensible arrangement is to set lilies among shrubs like azaleas. You’ll find there is no root competition because the lily goes at least 6 inches down, while the azalea is a shallow plant. Meanwhile, above ground, the slender lily profits from the protection afforded it by the sturdy shrub.
The first rule of staking is to get there before the thunderstorm. This in itself is half the fight. For the sake of the garden’s appearance, however, how the support is given and what is used are even more important than when. Contrary to pessimistic opinion, artificial supports do not have to intrude rudely among the banked foliage of a flower border. True, they may if the nature of the plant, such as the dahlia, dictates that the stakes be set at planting time, but even then their presence can he minimized.
If the stakes will be viewed against a back ground, simply paint them the same color as the background — assuming, of course, that the background will remain the same throughout the growing season. Otherwise, it is best to paint the stakes green, and close your eyes when looking in their direction until the plants have made sufficient growth to hide them. Most plants, however, do not require support until growth is well advanced, and then it is possible to set the stake so that it is immediately hidden — or will be shortly.
If staking can be termed an art, it begins with the selection of stakes (the plural is intentional). Variety, as well as quantity, is essential for any garden. They must be long short, heavy and light, thick and thin. And for those sprawling plants of moderate height, not stakes but twiggy brush. When plants such as petunias are half grown, push a twiggy branch (as of that cut from a privet hedge) into the ground near the plant’s base, and allow the second half of growth to follow its natural inclination.
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Setting stakes requires a little more work and forethought. In reference to even a single plant, the plural is still intentional. There are few plants that can be satisfactorily supported with a single stake. If you have a green enough thumb (plus properly enriched soil) to realize a plant’s maximum potential, the greater the need for additional ones. The bad reputation heaped on stakes doubtlessly arises, in part, from the common inclination to set just one to a plant and attempt to tie 15 or 20 heavy side branches to it, while trying (without much success) to retain the natural shape ‘of the plant. The trick is not to tie in to a single stake, but to set out as many as required. Obviously, each branch need not be individually staked. If enough (usually about two to 4 in addition to the main stem) are securely anchored, the others gain support by indirection. To a considerable extent, each of us must be guided by conditions in his own garden — the nature of the plants plus the expected violence of the weather.
In a properly planned border, which allows for no gaping holes, and with due respect for graduated height from front to rear, no mechanical devices of support should rear their ugly heads. Another means of assuring that they will not is to match the size of the stake to each plant. Why use a four-by-four pole when a one-by-one will do just as well? Or why use wood at all? Bamboo has long been a favorite, but even it is yielding in favor of heavy-gauge wire, and the even more desirable small-diameter aluminum pipe. The initial investment may be a little higher, but with proper care the original purchase should last a lifetime. What could be stronger and easier to hide than a stake smaller than a pencil in diameter? No matter what material is used, it should be small enough to do the required job, which means no larger than necessary.
Now that the stakes have been set, the plant must be tied to them. Do not disrupt all, the good work thus far by choosing the wrong tying material. Neither string nor wire in any form will do. They may be strong enough to support the stems, but they will also cut right through them. Raffia has long been the stand-by for tying, and is still good. My personal preference is for broad (one-half to one inch) strips of cloth dyed dark green. With the hollow stems of the numerous dahlias I grow, I would never feel safe with anything narrower. Plants with much lighter stems can, of course, be tied with, a correspondingly narrower material. Whatever its size, think in terms of loops rather than knots. The latter at the stake, of course, but loops around plant stems. Otherwise there may be a misjudgment on the ultimate diameter of the stem, and it may continue to expand to be cut or choked by the tying material.
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