“Staking is an art, not a chore.”
— Christopher Lloyd, “The Well-Tempered Garden,” 1970
Christopher Lloyd was an English gardener and garden writer who wrote a much-loved column for The Guardian for 17 years. Although out of print, Lloyd’s celebrated book “The Well-Tempered Garden” is worth hunting for, not only because it offers practical gardening advice on a wide range of topics, but because Lloyd’s witty remarks point out the natural disposition of our garden plants.
For example, some vegetables in our garden need to be staked, even if they have healthy stems, are positioned correctly so they don’t have to reach for the sun, and have not been over-fertilized (all common reasons for plants falling over). Examples of vegetables that need support to grow and produce well include tomatoes, cucumbers, peas, pole beans and acorn squash, as well as blackberries and raspberries.
There are several good reasons to stake plants: to prevent misshapen plants and broken stems, to reduce exposure to disease from the foliage or fruit touching the soil, to keep the plant from sprawling and crowding out other plants in the garden, and to save space by growing plants vertically.
I certainly would not call myself a staking artiste, and I can’t say that I wake up eagerly anticipating my staking chores (sorry Christopher); yet, it makes me feel good to help a toppling plant stand up straight and tall. I think of Ovid’s message (also attributed to Mother Teresa): “It is a kingly act to assist the fallen.”
Better yet, support should be provided when plants are still young and have not already grown top heavy with foliage, flowers or fruit. I have learned my lesson about this when trying to force a mature tomato vine through a cage. Now I set the cage around the tomato plants when I transplant the starts into the garden, and I train the branches as the plants grow taller.
Although cage supports are convenient, they are spendy, difficult to store and readily become bent, so I have started to use wood/bamboo stakes and soft ties more often. Wire ties cut into the plant stems, so I use string or hook and loop tape — even old T-shirts or nylon knee-highs (I call this “found art”).
For individual staking, I place one stake that is long enough and sturdy enough to support a full-grown plant into the soil a few inches from the plant’s main stem. The stake should be planted about six inches deep so it will withstand strong winds. I secure the tie around the stake first, and then loop around the plant once or twice, and finally knot the end to the stake.
An alternative staking method for individual plants is to build a stake tepee or corral by surrounding the plant with three or four stakes. For added support, wrap string one turn around each stake all around the plant and back to the starter stake. String can also be looped diagonally to provide even more support. Add tiers of string about six inches apart as the plant matures, allowing the top four to six inches of the plant to extend above the last tier of string.
For some plants — hops, for example — it makes sense to create tepees of wood/bamboo stakes and vertical string that the plant runners can encircle for support as they grow.
When growing several plants in a row that need to be staked, it’s usually more effective to position a stake at each end of the row and create tiers of string down the length of the row and then back again on the other side of the plants to secure the end of the string to the starter stake.
There’s a lot at stake when it comes to growing healthy, productive vegetable plants. After all, who among us couldn’t use a little support sometimes?
Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.