Time to offer support?

By Tamsin Westhorpe

Every day the plants in my herbaceous borders look as if they have put on a few more inches of growth.

They’re nearly growing as fast as my teenage son but thankfully they eat less biscuits! It’s at this time of year that we should consider how and when we are going to support our plants as they continue to thicken out and reach skywards.

Tamsin’s mountain of rusty look plant supports
Tamsin’s mountain of rusty look plant supports

In my own garden I confess to playing fast and loose with my border perennials. Supports are only put in as they are required. My garden is usually open to the public so the main reason for supporting plants is to keep them from flopping over the paths. I love to walk a path and have my ankles tickled by leaves, but many visitors don’t. However, the danger of adding supports later in the season is that they are hard to place without damaging blooms or making the plant look trussed up. There is an art to fitting a support in mid-summer and in many cases, it can take two people – one to hold the plant back and the other to push in the support. Summer supporting is made trickier if you work on a heavy clay soil. Pushing a metal support in to sun-baked clay isn’t easy – trust me I know!

Newly planted sweet peas supported by hazel stems
Newly planted sweet peas supported by hazel stems

You may well be asking why I leave supporting plants so late in the season if there are so many disadvantages. Well, it’s down to aesthetics. I’d rather view a border of plants that are free to flow in the breeze and with a four-acre garden it would be almost impossible to find or afford enough supports. The most important reason I hold off though is because I have all too often witnessed decapitated plants the morning after a wild and windy night. The point at which the plant meets the support often acts as a guillotine.

In spring a hazel stem is a great support for clematis
In spring a hazel stem is a great support for clematis

It’s for all these reasons that the decision as to whether to support or not is so complicated. You need to consider how sheltered your garden is and look at the needs of individual plants. The plants that I always support are the climbers. Clematis are supported with hazel stems pushed into the soft ground in spring and I direct their growth into a nearby shrub for extra support. I prefer clematis to roam more freely in a border than see them trussed up against a wall. It’s vital that the new growth of these climbers is lifted off the floor early in the growing season or the voles will soon munch through the new shoots. My sweet peas are also supported with hazel stems that were coppiced in late February.

Woody climbers such as wisteria and laburnum are trained against walls with strong galvanised wires
Woody climbers such as wisteria and laburnum are trained against walls with strong galvanised wires

Some gardeners with a good crop of hazel will place hazel supports around their perennials in early spring. If artistically placed this can look attractive but to my mind it can be overwhelming if overdone. I love to see the perennials in spring unhindered. The benefit of using hazel however, is that it can be simply shredded and composted in autumn or the dry twigs are a great way to start the winter wood burner.

The skeleton of a barn has been used as an effective support for roses and climbers. (image taken at https://www.thecottageherbery.co.uk/visits)
The skeleton of a barn has been used as an effective support for roses and climbers. (image taken at https://www.thecottageherbery.co.uk/visits)

The lofty delphiniums that leap to astonishing heights are always supported as the flowers start to form. This is done with a single metal pole and natural twine. Peonies are also very vulnerable as their flowers are often wonderfully top heavy. Without a support your peony show can be cut short after a heavy shower of rain. However, plants such as agapanthus with flowers held on long and mobile stems seem to fair well after being battered by the weather.

The golden hop leaps over a metal archway with no clips or ties to assist it
The golden hop leaps over a metal archway with no clips or ties to assist it

In the vegetable garden my uncle, who I share the garden with, has always grown his runner beans up a wigwam of scaffold poles. This might sound a little industrial for a country garden, but it works. Between the scaffold poles his constructs a very neat cobweb of hop string which the runner beans sprint up.

Runner beans supported with a scaffold and hop string frame
Runner beans supported with a scaffold and hop string frame

My advice is to think back to how plants faired in previous years and choose a uniformed way of supporting plants. Go to one supplier if creating a formal look (I adore the rusty looking supports from https://www.plantsupports.co.uk/) or add interest, or even a bit of humour with make do and mend supports. Why not prop an old push bike against a wall and train your ipomoea up it?

As with so many aspects of gardening it’s trial, error and a little holding your nerve. Let’s hope for a calm summer!

Tamsin Westhorpe

With over 25 years’ experience in the horticultural industry, Tamsin has plenty of practical, hands on advice to share. Her career has seen her edit The English Garden magazine for six years, write scripts for TV gardening, lecture at Kingston Maurward College in Dorset and care for parks and gardens. She is now a freelance writer and curator and gardener of Stockton Bury Gardens, Herefordshire (listed by The Times in the top 20 gardens to visit July 2017). Tamsin is also an RHS Chelsea Flower Show Judge, co-Chair of The Garden Media Guild and a prolific speaker at many high profile events. She has recently written her first book ‘Diary of a Modern Country Gardener’ published by Orphans Publishing and is the voice of the popular Candide Gardening podcast ‘Fresh from the pod’.

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