The Great British Stake-off
Building natural plant supports
© 2021 Chris Pledger
© 2021 Chris Pledger
The Telegraph, 17 April 2021
Creating plant supports the natural way
For the past decade or so, the most prevalent and long-lasting gardening trend has been naturalism, a wilder, more sustainable aesthetic inspired by our leading garden designers and influencers.
Today, most of us – whether we are drawn to the chicest of contemporary design or all things ‘cottagecore’ – try to garden in a low-impact, organic way, with an eye on wildlife and biodiversity. We favour meadows over manicured lawns, self-sustaining plant communities over summer bedding; and when it comes to giving our plants a helping hand against gravity, it’s the natural, rustic approach that gets our creative juices flowing.
For the past few years, I have been teaching natural staking courses at the Garden House in Brighton with my friend Henry Macaulay. Together, we recently returned to spend a gloriously sunny March day getting crafty with some freshly cut bundles of birch and hazel. As spring settles in, now is the perfect time to practice the art of natural staking in your own garden. Here’s all you need to know…
Why use natural plant supports
For a start, they are both practical and decorative. Early in the season, before your plants have put on much new growth, natural staking can add height and lend sculptural form to your rather flat beds and borders. But then, as the plants fill out and begin to clothe the structures with foliage, these will recede, inconspicuously, into the background.
Natural materials are strong, sturdy and pliable, which is just as well, because no matter how pleasing to the eye, if they don’t help your plants stand up, they’re hardly fit for purpose. They are eco-friendly: natural staking materials can be coppiced annually in an entirely sustainable way, and at the end of the season their skeletal remains make perfect kindling or can be shredded for carbon-rich compost fodder.
Unlike preformed supports – metal hoops and cages – natural staking is a creative process. Consequently, each structure is unique and its final form is a reflection of the maker’s own style and preferences. When teaching natural staking, I am always struck by this: how one student’s structures are tightly woven and neatly clipped while another’s are free-form and decidedly hirsute. There’s no right or wrong; it’s what comes naturally that counts.
© 2021 Chris Pledger
© 2021 Chris Pledger
What to stake?
There are many reasons to stake or support plants and certain garden situations lend themselves to certain techniques and materials.
Many border stalwarts have a tendency to flop or even topple, either because they have brittle stems (delphiniums), have large, heavy flowers (dahlias, peonies), are particularly lofty (solidago, sylphiums, helianthus) or simply because they have a tendency to be unruly (phlox, cosmos, ammi, campanulas, asters).
Frames for climbers
For the ultimate cottage garden feel you can’t beat sweat peas or black-eyed susan vine smothering an artisanal frame of hand-woven silver birch. This kind of staking can also be used in borders to create drama and height: a deftly placed clematis ascending a chestnut pyramid can make a striking accent point.
The veggie plot
Though the traditional beanpole wigwam is perfectly functional, a tripod of hazel poles interwoven with young birch saplings arguably makes a more attractive climbing frame for your French beans. And instead of allowing your winter squash or mini pumpkins to run rampant across your precious growing space, think vertical and train their vigorous tendrils skywards, up pyramids and over archways.
Types of material - the supporting cast
To my mind the best five key natural staking materials are silver birch, hazel, willow, cornus and chestnut.
As long as it is cut early in the season (preferably by the end of February), used by mid-May, and kept in a cool, shady place in the interim, birch is highly versatile. It is extremely flexible, and therefore perfect for bending, weaving and shaping. Ideal for making arches, tunnels and large obelisks.
Hazel comes in two forms: poles and ‘tops’. Hazel is nothing like as forgiving as birch, but it is robust and its tops can be ‘snapped’ over horizontally to create a rigid lattice through which border plants and cut flowers can emerge confident that they’ll remain upright.
Chestnut stakes are generally straighter and heftier and have a wider girth than hazel. Combined with a matrix of string or jute they make solid supports for herbaceous heavyweights like dahlias and delphiniums, or as single supports for giant sunflowers.
Willow and cornus
Like birch, these are malleable and great for weaving and shaping (especially if soaked prior to use). Unlike birch, they have a tendency to take root, so great for living structures, not so good for seasonal border supports. Use your spring prunings.
Creating natural plant supports is actually much easier than it appears, but there are a few handy techniques and tips to help you get started.
First, your creations will only be as good as the material you have to hand. For any structure that requires weaving (birch obelisks, arches, tunnels), or will form a fretwork pattern of crossed stems (hazel top cages for emerging border perennials) you need to think laterally. A long, spindly single stem simply won’t cut it; you need saplings with lots of side branches to weave or intermesh.
Make sure you are tooled up for the job. You’ll need secateurs and/or a pruning saw to cut your stems to length; string for making structural ties (these can often be removed after weaving); goggles to protect the eyes (staking material can be pretty whippy); and gloves if you have sensitive hands (I prefer gloveless weaving as the whole process feels much more tactile). You may also need a stepladder for taller structures, particularly arches and tunnels.
How to make a silver birch arch or tunnel (good for climbers)
Select tall saplings (about 2.5m high if possible) and cut each to a sharp point at the base.
Place them equidistant either side of space and push them into the soil to a depth of about 30cm. You may need to pre-make your holes with a metal peg.
Bend each sapling towards its opposite counterpart and wrap the tops of the stems back down around each other. Tie in the centre with string or flexi-tie for extra support if needed.
If making a tunnel take a long, straight, but light, birch or hazel pole and secure along the centre of the arch with ties to create extra strength.
Now for the fun part: weave all your laterals to each other by winding and twisting. It’s amazing how easily they bind together.
Trim any excess material to your desired level of tidiness.
Now plant up with your annual climber of choice and train in as they grow.
Obelisks and tripods.
Place six saplings in a circle of your desired circumference. Again, flex opposite stems towards each other and bind together by winding downwards.
Tie in the centre if necessary.
As before, weave your laterals horizontally to create a strong, stable structure.
For a variation on a theme, create a tall tripod using hazel poles, then intersperse with smaller birch saplings or colourful cornus and weave tightly across the face of the frame.
Hazel nests/cages (good for border perennials)
Select well-fanned, twiggy tops and cut to about 120cm lengths.
Place around the new young shoots.
Bend the tops over to your required height (about 60-90cm for most herbaceous plants) and snap over horizontally.
Interlace the filigree tops to create a solid cage; weaving should not be necessary; the mesh will hold together if layered well.
Hazel staking in this way is generally much quicker than birch weaving, but arguably not as pretty.
Working with pots
If your outside space is a balcony or patio, you can still get creative with natural staking in pots. I have used silver birch, cornus and even beech stems to create attractive domes, spirals and tripods in various sized pots to support annual climbers, schizanthus (poor man’s orchid), plectranthus, tradescantias, heliotropes and certain trailing pelargoniums. The results are eye-catching and effective.
When it comes to staking, early intervention is best. Don’t leave it until your plants are getting leggy; a pre-emptive strike is far better than remedial action.
Don’t worry if your structures are not perfect; their primary purpose is to provide a discreet frame for your plants, and they’ll be hidden by foliage before too long.
Very fertile soils tend to produce taller, sappier plants, which will need staking more readily than those grown in less pampered conditions.
The more highly cultivated the variety, often the greater the need for support. Species plants tend to be less needy.
Before creating your plant support consider the height. As a rule of thumb make the frame about two thirds the height of the plant when fully grown.
Most natural staking material is only suitable for one season. They may limp through a second year, but the material tends to become brittle with age.
Where to get your supplies
If you’re not lucky enough to have your own woodland coppice, you will need to order your materials to be delivered (preferably by mid spring). Here are a few selected suppliers of pea sticks, hazel poles, birch and/or willow saplings.
West Sussex wildsussex.co.uk
The Garden House offers a range of horticultural courses and workshops from their garden in Brighton. For details see gardenhousebrighton.co.uk
All materials supplied for the day by Wild Sussex (wildsussex.co.uk).
Photographs © Christopher Pledger