When you grow flowers for cutting or tend perennial borders, plant stakes are a must. Some of my favorite plants are “leaners”, thus part of my early spring ritual is to get out, when the crowns start to expand and place plant supports.
Years ago I found a great, inexpensive plant support system that works for all sizes and types of annuals and perennials. At first I tried tying plants to individual stakes, which I still do for gladiolas and oriental lilies after a hard summer rain. But individual stakes don’t work for large clumps of plants like Boltonia and Monarda that can be 3 or more feet around. I considered investing in some of the fancy plant supports seen in the gardening catalogs, but geez! I wanted to spend my money on more plants, not stakes.
The solution: wire tomato cages. I bought about 50 dollars worth of the largest tomato cages that I could find (about 4′ tall) at the local hardware store and took my wire cutters to them. Look for ones made of 4 wire rings, graduating from the largest ring of about 20″ diameter on top, down to the smallest at about 1o” across, with 3 wire “legs” to sink into the ground. Some I only cut off just above the small ring, which in effect made two plant supports–one shorty that had only one ring and legs, and a taller one with 3 rings and legs. The short ones are perfect for low-growing perennials that only need a little support of the flower stalks–not the whole plant, like columbines, true Geraniums and baby’s breath. For really wide clumps of short perennials such as Tricyrtis (Toad Lily), cutting off just the widest top ring and its legs from the tomato cage does the trick. The remaining three-ring plant support is a nice match for tall, slender perennials like Thalictrum (Meadow Rue).
I chopped up the tomato cages into 1 ring, 2 ring and 3 ring plant supports, which meant that I had a range of widths and heights to match any plant. The key is to remember to put them over the plant early enough in spring. If you wait too long and the tender new shoots get tall, you risk snapping them off by trying to gather up the plant and hold it while sliding the cage over the already burgeoning stalks. Not that I’ve done this, mind you. Aconitum (monkshood) is one of those perennials that almost grows before your eyes and I’ve learned that once I notice this one start to bolt–I need to put the cages out for all the beds.
Once the plant really starts gung-ho and leafs out, the metal tomato cage support disappears amongst the foliage, only to appear again after first frost, or until the flower stalks are cut back, at which time I stack up the supports and store them in the garage over the winter.
Sometimes I leave the supports in place for perennials that really disappear in dormancy, leaving hardly a sign of a crown–that way I don’t accidentally dig them up or step on them. This is especially true with Anenome nemerosa and Ranunculus ficaria hybrids that go dormant in summer–I use the little, single ring supports to mark and protect these. When everything else is full and growing around them, you really have to look to notice them. And I’ve used the single rings for deciduous grasses that have floppy flowers, too. Molinia caerulea ‘Moorflamme’ (Purple Moor Grass) is one that looks so much better with a little hidden support (ladies, I think we can all relate).
I’ve had the same bunch of plant supports for 15 years–they’re durable as heck. Some are rusted, some not, most are a tad bent–but I certainly have gotten my money’s worth. And when I remember to put them out early enough, the beds look so much better and I spend a fraction of the time tying up things that have fallen over.
© Colleen Miko, 2011