University of Vermont Extension 
Department of Plant and Soil Science

Spring News Article

Dr. Leonard Perry, Extension Professor
University of Vermont 
When you garden, unless you’re just growing groundcovers or have a rock garden, some of your plants invariably will need some support.  This applies to perennial flowers, vegetables, berry bushes, and even perhaps some taller annual flowers.  There are three main methods of staking tall plants, the most unobtrusive and successful method depending partly on plant habit.
Perhaps the simplest method of support, and one most know, is with a single stake.  Many are familiar with the one-inch or so square (in cross section) wooden “bean” posts you see in spring in many home and garden stores.  You can buy these sometimes singly but more often in bundles.  These are good for heavier single stems, such as from dahlias and tall lilies, and to combine with other supports.  You may have wood you can recycle too, such as old broom handles.  Keep in mind wood rots, so you may only get a season or two from such stakes.
Thinner bamboo stakes are less obtrusive visually, but support less weight too.  Use them for thinner stems, such as taller annual flowers like some zinnias.  A hybrid stake is a tall aluminum rod, wrapped in green plastic, which supports some weight, is less obvious than wood or untreated metal, but is more pricey too.
I prefer stiff solid iron rods, similar to what are used to reinforce concrete. Being rusty they blend into the landscape, and being iron they last indefinitely.  You can get these at full service home or hardware stores, and have them cut to lengths needed.  Keep in mind when buying single stakes that you will need to plan on about 25 percent (one to two feet) below the ground in addition to the height needed above ground. 
When tying a stem to a stake, use soft string (that sold for garden use may hold up better than regular household twine) before the flower stalk is fully elongated.  You may find plastic or Styrofoam staking cord at garden stores.  Wrap the tie around the stem, then make a figure eight before tying to the stake.  This extra wrap of twine between stem and stake will keep stems from rubbing on the stake. Do not use bare wire as this will damage the stem.  For woody plants you can use wire, enclosed in a piece of old garden hose, around the stem, or plastic chain-link ties made just for this purpose.
Make sure you place some form of “topper” on bamboo or iron rod stakes to prevent accidental eye damage while gardening around them.  Some specialty catalogs sell these toppers, or I like to make my own from a 2-inch or so piece of garden hose—thinner plastic hose (as you find in hardware stores) for thinner stakes. Others use old tennis balls, or Styrofoam balls sprayed green.
The second support method, and one most effective on multi-stemmed plants such as most perennials, is some form of cage.  You can buy heavy metal ones (make sure to get ones of thicker wire, as cheaper ones wont provide much support), such as tomato cages or the rings you place around peonies.  Some of these have grids on top which support the stems as they grow through. 
If the plant has a lot of weight as with some tomatoes, and the wire cage isn’t up to the task and starts to lean, you may need to support it with heavy wooden stakes.  The cage needs to be the right height too, as I’ve learned with peony rings.  Too low and the stems fall over the ring edge with the heavy weight of some peony flowers, particularly after a rain.  I’ve had a similar problem with delphinium stems, tied too low or breaking over twine encircling plants too low.
You can make your own cage as I often do, placing 3 or 4 single stakes (the latter for larger clumps) around plants, and connecting the stakes at various levels with twine.  You can encircle the plant, or weave the twine back and forth between the stakes for more support. Such a cage is often called a “corset” as it resembles one.  These are effective for larger plants and clumps, for which premade cages are not available or too expensive. 
The cage may be a circle of flexible fencing, supported with 3 or 4 stakes.  Very effective and long lasting is the iron mesh used to reinforce concrete, similar to the iron rods already mentioned.  This rusty iron also blends well with the landscape.  Once large perennials such as perennial sunflowers, New England asters, or Helen's flower grow through such cages, the wire is hardly noticed.
Timing is critical in caging plants. Do it early, usually in May, just as soon as the new stems appear or when planting. The stakes and ties will be hidden once the new foliage starts to grow. 
The third method of support is from a trellis, fence, arbor or similar structure.  You can buy many attractive trellises from garden centers or home and garden stores, suitable for vines such as clematis and sweet peas.  Or you can make your own trellis using plastic netting, poultry wire, or strings attached to a horizontal support or nails on cross beams of pipe or wood. Such homemade and temporary trellises often are seen in vegetable gardens.
Consider recycled materials for trellises, such as old bicycle rims.  Simply remove the spokes, place one on the ground and one above on a stake.  Then string twine from top to bottom through the spoke holes left in the rims.  Another recycled support for lower vines such as morning glories is an old umbrella frame.  Simply remove the cloth, open the frame, and place over the plant.  The vines will then grow on and cover the wire supports, making an umbrella shape.
A natural method for smaller vines is to use a dead branch with many twigs, pushed into the ground next to plants such as sweet peas.  These then grow over the branches, covering them, and creating the effect of a flowering tree.  Popular in England is to use branches, such as from alders and other fast growing shrubs, stuck in the ground, then bent over and interwoven about 2 feet off the ground.  This provides a natural looking plane for perennial stems to grow through, and is effective for single plants or large groupings.  I’ve used cut limbs from small trees and stems from large shrubs, laced together into a teepee shape, for beans.
If you have a row of plants, such as peas, consider a fence of netting or poultry wire.  For fruiting shrubs and vines that need support, many use wooden supports at the ends, with heavy-gauge wire running between them on each side of a row of raspberries, or down the middle for grapes.
Culture and design will affect the need to stake plants. Generally, the more formal the garden, the more likely staking will be needed to keep plants in their place. You also may need to stake plants if your garden is in a windy spot, or where there is heavy rainfall.  Sun-loving perennials usually get taller and weaker when grown in shade, so may need staking there but not if in sun.  If plants are too crowded, they may get taller than normal, so need staking. 
Many perennials, like snakeroot, ornamental grasses, daylilies, Siberian irises, beebalm, and purple coneflowers usually can be left alone.  If a plant such as Autumn Joy sedum flops, perhaps it merely needs dividing, or less fertile soil.
As an alternative to staking, when choosing plants, consider dwarf varieties if they exist.  You might grow bush beans instead of vining ones, for instance.  For perennials that bloom in late summer, consider cutting them back half way in early summer.  This may delay bloom a couple weeks, which helps pollinators, and will result in bushier and shorter plants. 

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