I tend to build with branches and poles from my hedgerows and woodland, or bamboo canes from my grove when I can—they’re free, and I prefer a natural look. Some time ago I built a rustic garden gateway out of branches taken from the woods on our property. It lasted many years and looked like a million bucks—and cost me nothing but time and a handful of drywall screws. Those slender and inexpensive screws, designed for putting up sheets of drywall, are great for building everything and anything for your garden or yard. They go in fast and rarely split the wood—I use an electric drill with a Philips screw bit. No pounding, predrilling, or fuss. You can buy the screws in bulk; stock up so you have a selection of different lengths.
If I can’t find what I need by strolling around our farm, I buy rough-cut lumber from a small local mill: It’s inexpensive, supports the local economy, and I know it hasn’t been treated with fungicides or preservatives. If you shop at a lumberyard, avoid buying pressure-treated wood—unless you are lucky enough to find some that’s been treated with a nontoxic option like borax—or anything made from vinyl or PVC. You don’t need their toxins in your garden. Select sustainably harvested and naturally rot-resistant woods, such as cedar, for longer life, or just get the least costly type and resign yourself to replacing it every few years.
But often there’s no need for a trip to the lumberyard or home-supply store. Keep an eye out and you will start seeing potential stakes and trellis materials all over: wooden pallets (whole or pulled apart), discarded lengths of metal pipe, old fencing, even those metal mesh platforms used in bunk beds instead of box springs. Depending on your level of whimsy, old step ladders, chairs with no seat, or other found objects can be pressed into support service—perhaps after painting them a cheerful color.
Aim to put supports in place before planting, or while plants are still small, for best results. Adding supports later may damage roots or tops, but later is often better than never if that’s how life works out. Having an extra set of hands is a good idea if time has gotten away from you and the plants are big and floppy.
Raising the Stakes
A single stick or stake, pounded into the ground far enough to keep it firmly upright, is the most basic support for almost any plant. (Cutting the bottom end of the stake to a point, and/or hammering in a length of metal rod beforehand to start the hole, helps if you’re working with compacted ground). Once the stake’s in place, tie the plant loosely in at a few places, and plan to come back and add another tie every week or so as needed to keep the plant safe and supported as it grows. I prefer to use biodegradable ties, such as natural twine or strips of cotton rags, so I can chuck them in the compost pile with the plant remains after harvesting in the fall. If your stake is shorter than eye level, it is a good idea to putting something over the top so it’s more noticeable: You can buy decorative toppers, but a repurposed can, jar, ornamental bottle, or old tennis ball with a slit cut in it work just as well and keep someone from overlooking the stake and tripping over it. This may sound tacky, but a gardener near me uses cobalt blue bottles and the effect is stunning.
For short vines such as garden peas, try supporting them with “pea brush”— pruned twigs or branches you’ve saved or cut for the purpose. Poke the cut stem of each branch firmly into the soil next to a newly planted seed, and the pea vine will grow up it (use twigs that are taller than the expected height of the vine). Once the crop is harvested, pull the vines and branches together and put them on the compost pile.
Group three or more stakes around a plant, and turn them into a cage by winding twine or weaving a long length of vine around them. For even more stability, tie the top ends of the stakes to each other (a plastic zip or wire tie is a quick and secure option). Floppy perennials like peonies don’t get tall, but the multiple stems often flop distressingly as bloom time approaches. A low stake-and-twine cage put up before the plant gets 6 inches tall will help, especially if you run the twine back and forth across the center as well as around the outside. Once the plant grows through the twine web, you won’t even be able to see it or the stakes, but it will provide the needed volume support that will make the plant look great. A scrap of wire mesh fencing supported with stakes works the same way.
Supporting the Fruits of Your Vines
While you can let just any vegetable sprawl on the ground, keeping your tomatoes, beans, cucumbers, melons, and many other veggies off the ground will help keep them from rotting, prevent nibbling by rodents or slugs, and protect them from being stepped on—while keeping more leaves in the sun. You can do better than the standard “tomato cages” you see in stores. Many gardeners swear by homemade cages made from very heavy wire mesh. Just choose a mesh with openings large enough for you to get your hand through while holding a plump tomato! One sturdy and affordable product is the mesh sold for reinforcing cement slabs. You can buy it in rolls at building supply stores. Cut it into 5- to 6-foot sections with a bolt cutter (rent one for half a day if you are making more than a few cages) or hacksaw, roll each section into a tube shape, and fold the cut ends over to link the edges firmly. Some gardeners snip off the bottom wire to leave a ring of wire “legs” to press into the soil. These will last many years, even if kept in the garden over the winter.
One interesting way to support tomatoes is a teepee of 8-foot poles centered over the plant (sink the bottoms of the poles 6 inches or so into the soil). Tie a length of twine to the top of the tripod, and secure the other end of the twine to a short stake firmly inserted next to the plant. As the plant grows, spiral the string around the main stem to support it. This is quite slick, as the increasing weight of the plant pulls down on the twine and actually makes the teepee more stable. Wrap more twine around the teepee poles to create a cage, and your tomato plant should be very happy as its growing branches find the twine to lean on.
That teepee method is also great for supporting pole beans. I wouldn’t use poles longer than 7 or maybe 8 feet, though—certainly the beans can grow taller than that, but you will end up needing a step ladder to pick them toward the end of the season (unless you have a basketball star in the family—been there, done that). These beans also do fine on a trellis. In either case, you’ll have an easier time cleaning up in the fall if you use natural twine or biodegradable mesh so you can put everything in the compost pile with the old vines—unwinding dead vines from wire mesh at the end of the season is a drag.
One quick way to make a trellis is to string some wire fencing between metal fence posts. Or you can build wooden frames and staple some mesh or string twine across them. A pair of wooden pallets can be screwed together into an A-shaped trellis that will stand on its own (attach scrap wood for support if needed) for vines to ramble over. Vertical trellises are fine, but setting them at an angle can be even better, as the fruits or veggies will tend to hang down underneath for easy picking. And you can use the shaded area beneath the trellis to plant greens in the heat of the summer. For trellising large-fruited squashes and melons, you will need to make little hammocks out of cloth for each fruit (old nylon stockings are great for this) when they are just starting to swell, or they may part company with the vine before they are ripe.
There are as many ways to support plants as there are imaginative gardeners. What’s the most creative or most successful idea you’ve come up with?
Farm gal, library worker, and all-around money-pincher Jean Nick shares advice for green thrifty living every Thursday on Rodale.com.