The Daily Telegraph - Saturday
The great British stake-off
Keep your plants on their feet and get the on-trend cottagecore look with this pretty-yet-practical rustic approach, says Max Crisfield
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 practise 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.
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 sweet peas or black-eyed susan vine smothering an artisanal frame of handwoven 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.
THE VEG 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 or runner beans.
And instead of allowing 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.
Creating natural plant supports is much easier than it may appear, 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 won’t cut it; you need saplings with lots of side branches to weave or intermesh.
GET TOOLED UP
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.
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 to create domes, spirals and tripods in varioussized pots to support annual climbers, schizanthus (poor man’s orchid), plectranthus, tradescantias, heliotropes and certain trailing pelargoniums. The results are eye-catching and effective.
The Garden House offers a range of horticultural courses and workshops from the garden in Brighton (garden housebrighton.co.uk).