To Stake or Not to Stake?
"Doesn't have to be staked," reads the sign. It's a selling point, a tag line, a sales tool, and a core value for many gardeners who grow perennials.
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We gardeners go to great lengths to avoid staking: Plant breeders select for shorter, stockier stature in new varieties; we pinch, shear and prune clumps into submission so they'll stand on their own; we rearrange the garden so a tall plant can "lean" on its neighbors for support. We'll even compromise our plant palette, accepting something less than what we really want, just so we won't have to stake it.
I belong to the small percentage of gardeners who don't mind staking their perennials. It's not that I like the physical demands of staking, but more, I suppose, that I love how the garden looks when the participants are properly posed.
Some of my favorite varieties require staking: baptisia, peonies, Crambe cordifolia, Zebra grass (Miscanthus sinensis 'Zebrinus'), a spectacular bearded iris named 'Beverly Sills' (how sad she looks with her beautiful blossoms in the mud!), wild senna, and, of course, the tall, graceful, (but top-heavy) Asiatic lilies. I want these plants in my garden, and I enjoy giving them the support and attention they need to deliver their best performance.
After years of discussing the stigma of staking with other gardeners, I've concluded that what most people dislike about the chore is not the activity itself, but collecting the supplies needed to do it. String, twist ties, wood and metal posts, thick and thin bamboo stakes, sticks and branches, hoops, rods, towers, teepees, and grids (each with matching legs), fencing, chicken wire, coat hangers, plastic mesh, and pea brush — the paraphernalia of staking can take up half the tool shed.
Gardeners who grow a lot of perennials, especially those with large gardens, use most of these items at one time or another. I've tried them all and now store only those I really need and are most convenient to use.
Storage is the key, followed by organization. If everything's in place and can just be plucked from its hook or bucket (I use five-gallon buckets, available at discount home centers, to store legs and stakes, by size), the chore seems less onerous when the time comes. A small garden basket holds balls of twine — natural and green, depending on stem color — a large roll of twist ties, and strips of soft cloth and old nylon stockings, which I cut during the winter to replenish my stock.
There's something about having these supplies all ready to go that turns the otherwise unpleasant task of staking into a few minutes of "quality time" with my perennials.
Supporting plants early, before they truly need it, is the real secret to reducing the aggravation of staking. By the time foliage flops on the ground, stems bent or broken, flowers face down in the mud, it's too late. A splint may help revive the clump, but it will never look natural again. Salvaging the blossoms for cut flowers is often a gardener's only alternative.
It's this remedial staking, I've found, that most gardeners hate. It's not only discouraging, but the results are generally unsatisfactory. No wonder we avoid it!
The first plants staked in my garden each season are peonies. "Peony hoops," designed especially for the purpose, work well. It takes just a minute to attach the 36-inch legs and position the hoops over emerging clumps. The stakes only show for a week or two, then disappear within the dark green foliage. As the buds open, just wiggle the legs higher to support the heavy blossoms.
When the display is over, cut off the spent flower stalks, gently trim the remaining foliage, then lift the stakes and move them to other plants. By this time in my garden, balloon flower, asters, obedient plant and other late bloomers need the attention.
Good quality, vinyl-coated stakes are expensive, but they last for years. Re-using them makes the investment worthwhile.
For individual stems, I reach for the stakes that have the hoop at the end, bent at a right angle to the "leg." I own a lot of these, in different lengths, for they come in handy for so many flowers. Lilies, delphiniums, iris, lupines, foxglove, snakeroot, blazing star, and other spiky perennials are potential candidates.
Peas brush — short twiggy branches cut from birch or willow pushed into the soil — is useful for supporting airy plants like baby's breath, flax, and Gaura lindheimeri. Between rows of cut flowers, I stretch a grid of twine anchored by sturdy bamboo stakes — it doesn't have to be pretty, just strong.
Putting the "mechanics" in place early allows me to enjoy the rest of the season without worrying about what damage the next heavy rain will bring, or despairing when I see a beautiful combination ruined by nature's pique.
Lindsay Bond Totten, a horticulturist, writes about gardening for Scripps Howard News Service.