Welcome to our second musing from down the garden path. Each month I, Leigh Abbosh, Founder of Leaf & Dig (leafanddig.com) will bring you a timely horticultural topic with gardening tips, interesting facts, and inspiring gardens to visit.
Now is the perfect time to begin installing plant supports into your borders. So this month we dig, natural plant supports.
It might seem strange putting supports in when the herbaceous plants are just starting to awaken from their winter slumber, but doing so now will mean everything is in place and ready. And you reduce the risk of snapping new shoots or stems just as they have got started.
I always try to use natural materials wherever possible. Not only are these environmentally friendly, they also tend to do less damage to the plants. And quite honestly, they look far far better too!
People often think of bamboo when it comes to natural plant supports. I admit bamboo is great for giving you a sturdy, straight support but aesthetically they often look at odds with most gardens…particularly the informal cottage gardens that we often see in the Cotswold gardens we look after. Far more aesthetically pleasing, and better blending, is the use of native materials such as Hazel, Ash or Willow. Garden centres are starting to offer more variety than conventional bamboo, but you will save money by going straight to the source and finding people that coppice woodlands near to you. For example www.malverncoppicing.co.uk have provided us with fantastic hazel rods which have been used in the various gardens we manage.
Or maybe you could even source stems from your own gardens to provide supports as you prune your shrubs. Even small twigs can be used to great effect in small planters such as this below.
Thinner stems can be manipulated into hoops to use as natural edges to your borders to stop plants falling onto your paths or lawns. You can also create hooped structures to tie in roses or other climbing plants as you will see in the image from Sissinghurst Castle Garden taken back in January.
To manipulate the hazel stems into a hoop like this, it is best to stand on one end and then carefully pull the other end towards you to break the fibres of the rod. This will allow you to create an even arch and make it far easier to insert into the grass/soil. Do be careful nobody is stood nearby as they can snap back with quite a force if you accidentally let go!
Thicker supports can be used to create tall columns for climbing plants to help create focal points in your boarders.
But it’s not just climbing plants that need support. We find that plants such as Nepeta or Sedum will often fall over under their own weight once they get large. Instead of installing metal grids on stakes over your herbaceous plants, which can look particularly ugly earlier in the year before the plants have grown through them, I prefer to use pea sticks (or thicker stemmed rods if needed) arranged in concentric circles. The image below shows this done recently with Sedum in a clients garden. The sticks create a framework for the plants and as the stems grow they in turn support each other. And it keeps them supported right through the winter, as can be seen in the second image. Again, doing this now will avoid damaging the plant.
You can leave stakes in as markers for late plants such as Aster/Michaelmas Daises (many of which now fall under the Symphyotrichum botanical name). By being natural, they disappear into the foliage of the other plants and so don’t look out of place, yet stop you planting over the top or stepping on the tender shoots of later season plants.
It is always so sad to see plants that have been tied to a supporting structure with metal wire or worse still plastic cable ties. As these don’t have any give in them, trees and plant stems will expand around the ties eventually causing disease and die back. Look at the damage done to those stems pruned from a mature wisteria that had been cable tied to a support or wire enveloped by the Lime stem!
Far better is to use natural jute twine such as those sold by Nutscene (www.nutscene.com). Over the course of a season, it rots away as the plant expands and so no damage is done. You just need to remember to return to replace the ties for the following season.
For larger specimens, we prefer to use hessian strapping which can be used to tie trees to vertical stakes, to train espalier specimens, or for heavier climbing plants such as wisteria or climbing hydrangea.
I must confess that natural materials do of course have a shelf life and will eventually need replacing as they rot away. But in many ways that is the beauty of them as you can adapt the supports as your plants grow. And the supports can be gathered and left in a secluded pile to create a habitat for the wildlife in your garden.
As the days get longer, and the sun feels warmer, we really can start to look forward to enjoying our gardens again. Get those natural supports in now and you’ll be rewarded in the coming months. I promise.