Plant Support Structures (because we all need a little support)

Common gardening wisdom states clearly and emphatically that when putting together a garden, it is vital that you build or buy little supportive structures for your plants and place them around the garden. This is supposed to be one of the very first things that you do. When I started gardening, I was short on both time and cash. I had blown a great deal of my budget on topsoil (bad idea) and a million seeds from seed catalogs (also not great). So, I thought to myself, “How important can that be?” 

Very. Very important indeed. My tomatoes sprawled all over the place and were destroyed by pests and rot. My cucumbers tried to choke my four o’clocks out completely, and we won’t talk about what happened to my poor pea plants. RIP. 

So, needless to say, structures ARE important. Also, placing them BEFORE planting is equally important. Trust me. After noticing my mistake, I tried valiantly to put up stakes, A-frames and cages but just sort of smooshed other plants and damaged the ones I was trying to rescue. Lesson learned. 

There are several different kinds of structures and ways to construct them. I try to salvage materials that would otherwise clutter up my yard or a landfill, but you can totally buy materials from the store. I tried buying premade supports instead of building them one year and I did not find them to be super effective. The plastic bars sagged under the weight, the little plastic clips kept flying off, there was chaos, cuss words, and injuries. Zero stars, do not recommend.     

Photo by Slawek K on Unsplash

Stakes

Stakes are pretty much what they sound like. Sticks that you drive into the ground and tie the plant to. You actually don’t put these up until the plant is already at least a seedling. They should be driven about a foot or two into the soil if you want them to stay still. I also recommend they be as long as the peak growing height. For example, for indeterminate tomatoes, just get a 7 foot length. One foot in the ground with six feet above and guy wires for support if you need it.

I know. When trying to save my sagging plants, I thought again, “How important can that be?” Very. Especially if they are big indeterminate tomato plants. Trust me when I say that you do NOT want to go to all the trouble of driving stakes and tying wild plant stems to them just to have the stupid things flop over because the stake isn’t deep enough in the ground or your really excited plant grew three times bigger than the stake. 

Use a natural fiber twine to loosely tie the stems to the stake. As your little plant babies grow taller, you will continue to secure them to the pole until they reach their peak height. Voila! This support is best suited for tall plants that struggle to support themselves like hollyhocks, delphiniums, gladiolas, bell peppers, eggplants, ect… You can also use stakes to rescue a plant that has blown over or been otherwise weighted down and smooshed.

Cages

Photo by ROMAN ODINTSOV: https://www.pexels.com/photo/close-up-of-tomatoes-in-a-garden-6399530/

Speaking of those big indeterminate tomatoes, I recommend caging them like the Tasmanian devils that they are. You can technically use the other support methods. However, in my personal experience, they are unruly little guys and I find it easier in the long run to just cage them. 

To do so, drive four of  those six foot stakes around the plant in a square. You need the openings to be big enough to pull tomatoes through, so use cattle panel for the sides. I secure them with zip ties. If you can’t use cattle panel, you can weave something like it using twine.

Or, if you have a whole row of tomatoes, you can surround the row with stakes every three to four feet and attach the cattle panel to them. To use twine, tie it to the first stake about 8 inches from the ground. Then stretch it to each stake, looping it around the support and going to the next. When you get back to where you started, loop around the pole going up about three inches above your last line and repeat the process until you have a cage of horizontal twine. You can add more lines as your plants grow.

Trellises

Photo by Brittney Strange on Unsplash

Trellises are kind of a mesh wall for your climbing plants to scale. The layout is pretty simple. Two well anchored end posts, additional support posts about every four feet between, and some kind of netting stretched across it. This mesh can be made of whatever you have available. Wooden lattice, wire mesh, plastic or fabric netting, twine woven into a net will work. Beans, peas, and other climbing plants with light weight fruits are best suited for this kind of structure. If you prefer to upcycle materials, a neat thing to use is the springs from an old mattress. It looks really cool and is pretty sturdy when attached to the support beams.

Teepees

Teepees are a kind of trellis that are constructed in a big cone or “teepee” shape. Bamboo, springy sapling, or small branch wood is driven into the ground in a circle and secured at the top with heavy twine or wire.If you are wanting to trellis twining plants like peas or cucumbers, wrap the teepee with chicken wire to give them something to really grab onto. Otherwise, just run twine around it in lines going up, wrapping around each pole as you go. I have seen some really cute teepees made from upcycled giant patio umbrellas, so that’s a fun idea. Beans, cucumbers, peas, clematis, morning glories, or any other vining plant will love this trellis and look awesome.

Photo by Elin Gann on Unsplash

A-Frame

A-frame supports are hinged, angled platforms for sprawling plants to grow over. Think like a ladder. In fact, I have heard that old ladders make great A-frames for gardens, although I haven’t tried it. They are ideal for cucumbers, sweet potatoes, pumpkins, melons, ect… You can stretch chicken wire over it to better support big fruits like pumpkins. If you don’t have an old ladder, you can make one out of pallets, screen doors, sections of fence, whatever flat thing you can attach to another in the shape of an “A”. This year, I took apart an old crib someone had left on my property and I got 3 smaller A-frames out of it. Score!

Materials

Just like we discussed in the tools article, don’t let all of the options overwhelm you. It’s easy to freak out when you go to your local garden center and see all of these expensive plastic stakes, tiny hoop tomato cages, and aluminum trellises of all kinds. They are convenient to throw out there and a good option if you have the money, but they are not the ONLY option. I have included instructions to build your own because I find that to be the best way to accommodate the needs of your specific plants and much more cost effective. 

Cattle panel is kind of expensive, but an easy material to work with. A lot of people have really neat set ups with pvc, so that’s an option. Lumber from the hardware store isn’t cheap, but it is easier to make customized structures. A good, heavy duty natural twine is a lifesaver all over the garden. Need to tie your wild plant to the fence? Done. Don’t have mesh to make a trellis? Twine to the rescue.

Also, upcycling materials can be a game changer. With a little work and creativity, you could get a cute, unique garden put together for almost nothing! I had to trim back a lot of trees around the yard this year, so I didn’t have to purchase any lumber. I just trimmed all of the brushy bits off of a limb and BAM! A pole for a trellis. It is cheaper, more environmentally friendly, and kind of fun to work with salvaged materials.

Conclusion

Photo by Zoe Schaeffer on Unsplash

Those are the basic structures you can use to support your garden plants. Trust me when I say that they are pretty important to your garden’s ecosystem. Things tend to get a little crazy when you just let your climbers and sprawlers go wild all over the place. Bugs show up in swarms. Rot, mold, and general yuckiness reign supreme. It turns out that a chaos garden requires more planning than I expected. 

Sources

Cutler, Karan Davis. Burpee- The Complete Vegetable & Herb Gardener: a guide to growing your garden organically, Macmillan/Burpee. 1997, New York.

Carroll, Jackie. “Types Of Support: When And How To Support Garden Plants.” Gardening Know How, 6 Feb.2021. https://www.gardeningknowhow.com/garden-how-to/info/supports-for-garden-plants.htm. Accessed 29 Oct. 2022.

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