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Hamptons Life

Jun 10, 2019 10:08 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Stakes: Invisible Support For The Garden

Jun 10, 2019 10:08 AM

This year’s cool and wet spring has resulted in a great deal of lush growth in our gardens. Taller plants like Thalictrum and Racinus, which can easily grow to 6 feet and taller, will certainly be taller and wider than last year as will many of our roses and the later Asian lilies. But even shorter plants like Shasta daisies and Echinacea will be tall and full and wanting to tumble and bend in a good breeze or sudden gust from a thunderstorm.

Many, if not most, of these plants and many more are going to need our help this summer, and now’s the time to offer support. But supporting plants as they continue to grow and tying them to these supports can be both an aesthetic and technical challenge requiring your best artistic skills. Stakes and ties should never distract from your garden’s beauty.

Garden stakes, supports and the ties that connect the plants to these devices should not be garden distractions, no matter how artistic or thoughtful. Rather, they should blend, become part of the structure, be invisible or visually become part of the plant they are supporting. If they don’t, the beauty of the plant is lost, and no matter how artistic or how well planned the support is, it becomes a distraction or even a detraction. But giving garden plants the right support that accomplishes these goals is both a talent and an art that requires knowledge of materials and methods.

The staking that’s available at garden centers usually comes in several forms and colors. There is the ubiquitous bamboo stake that is a natural light brown in color, or its green-stained counterpart. These stakes are available in uniform lengths from 2 feet to 8 feet in height and from about a quarter of an inch in diameter to nearly a half inch thick. They can be cut to size, but the cut ends should not go into the soil as the solid ends are, well, solid. Bamboo can be expected to last a couple of years but some 4 footers become 2 footers in year two.

The next stake is the cedar or hardwood stake. These are square cut, have a natural wood color and range from 3 feet to 8 feet. More costly than bamboo, they are easier to set in the ground, support more weight and can last for three to five years as opposed to the bamboo’s two years.

Next, we move on to the metal stakes. They are usually colored one of several shades of green, often not matching any stem or branch color, and there are short types that are curled at the end or along their length to enable the stake to entwine the plant stem. The less expensive varieties (aka cheap) will often bend or break when inserted into hard ground or when they hit a rock. On the other hand, the quality metal stakes are often plastic or rubber coated and are quite resistant to breaking unless they’re bent, causing them to snap. My favorite metal stake is a Takiron. They come in various thicknesses and heights and will last for years, but even this will bend and break if misused. A hint: There are points on one end for a reason.

There are also fiberglass stakes similar to the stakes used as driveway markers during the snow season. I’ve stopped using these because when the shaft of the stake is grabbed you can get fiberglass splinters in your hands, and this can be more than a simple irritation.

Lastly there are the natural stakes: twigs and branches.

I was recently cutting back my lilacs when I realized that the peonies nearby could use some support. The flowers were on such tall and long stems this year that the heavy flower stems needed some support. I simply trimmed down the 3- and 4-foot lilac trimmings, removed the foliage and cut the branch work to fit each peony stalk. With the ends cut at an angle they easily slipped into the ground and the color of the twigs blended perfectly with the stems of the peonies.

During the winter months I cut branches from beech trees as these make wonderful garden stakes and supports, and their branching habit allows for fanned and trellised supports. The branches and twigs are cut in February or March but not trimmed until I find a use for that particular branch. The color is perfect, and you can never spot them in the garden.

For natural upright staking I use the stems pruned from the apple orchard in late winter. These can be 2 to 5 feet long and a quarter to a half inch thick. Apple being one of the strongest woods, it makes great stakes with infinite applications and one semi-dwarf apple tree can yield a dozen or more stakes a year.

Now the connection, making the tie between the stake and the plant. Here too there are natural and man-made choices in two colors, “natural” and green. Here again the “green” rarely is the color you need, making hiding of the ties even more critical. Jutes, sisal, twine and synthetic twines are a common choice. It’s inexpensive and easy to work with. The down side is that due to the thinness of twines any resistance that the material offers against a stem can be an issue with wind or weight with the twine causing the stem to break or bend. So twines are best used for light connections and here we get to the figure 8.

In most cases you should not tie your stem or plant directly to your support. Instead use a figure 8 tie in which the tie is turned around the stem with one circle then around the support with another circle then tied. This allows some movement of the stem but still giving ample support without too much resistance.

I use a plastic or vinyl green ribbon tape for many applications. The tape is pliable, stretchable and very strong. When properly tied (still using a figure 8) it allows for a great deal of support and strength while being lightweight. Unlike natural materials like jute, this tape will not break down even after years in the garden, so the tape is certainly reusable. There is also a Velcro-like tape that can come in handy and is easily adjustable.

Twist ties have been around since dirt was invented. You can buy precut ties or ties on a roll or spool. They come in two forms. One with a paper edge and another with a plastic edge both being reinforced by a wire down the middle. I haven’t used this type of tie in years because I often found the wire would cut the stems but if it works for you, fine—just be careful.

The most recent addition to the tie material list is a foam-coated wire sold under the Flori Fix brand name and imported from Belgium. This material comes in three diameters and is stiff but pliable and bendable, making it great for connecting a thick stake to a thick stem where the maximum amount of support is called for. My largest stakes are on my tallest plants, my late flowering lilies that can be 6 to 8 feet tall. These all get Takiron stakes and are tied with Flori . But here the stake is always on the back side of the lily stem, so it’s not seen. This isn’t always possible though.

Those are the basic choices but I’m sure you can find more, and I’m sure you can be inventive. Just keep in mind: The support should not be the object or draw the attention. It should do a job and do it invisibly. Sometimes easier said than done—but that’s just another of the challenges for the artful gardener.

The biggest challenge though is that some plants continue to grow but their stakes don’t. A stake taller than a plant is an obvious distraction but by the same token it’s a real pain to have to restake every few weeks. The solution—the Hampton Gardener’s telescoping garden stake. It should be available at your local garden center within the next 10 to 15 years. In the meantime, keep growing.

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