It’s exciting how fast plants can grow once they’re transplanted into your garden. You're overjoyed to see a little sprout; you turn your back on it for a minute and it's six feet tall. Kind of like a teenager.
Wrassling with a toppling six-foot-tall plant can be a struggle that is hard on gardeners as well as on blooms and fruit. So corral and support those plants with cages, stakes, trellises and arbors before they become overpowering.
Why not just let plants sprawl where they will? For many reasons: to conserve space and fit more into the garden by growing plants up instead of out; to keep fruit and vegetables and foliage off the ground; to encourage a heavier crop; to help fruit ripen by lifting it into the sunlight; to make the crops easier to find and pick; to let air circulate and dry off leaves, which discourages diseases; to keep plants such as thorny roses clear of walkways; to hold tall flowers such as lilies up where we can enjoy them; and -- for some people -- just to be tidy.
Here are some basic rules for plant supports:
Rule 1: Sturdier is better. Always. It's hard to imagine when you're sowing a seed or planting a little seedling how heavy that fully-laden tomato plant or cucumber vine (or gloriously blooming climbing rose) can grow to be. So when in doubt, over-engineer.
Rule 2: Install your support when you plant. That way, you won't run the risk of not getting around to it while the plant becomes an overbearing monster.
Rule 3: Match the support to the plant. Plants grow differently. Some want to climb, and will cling and pull themselves up; others will need to be tied. Some can find their way around a fat post and others need something more slender. A fence or a porch railing may make a fine support, depending on what you're growing. But a mismatch can leave your plant flopping on the ground.
Rule 4: Be gentle. When a plant is tied to a support, the tie can rub or cut the stem as it moves with wind and rain or grows. So use soft materials, such as gentle jute twine, fabric tapes or strips of old pantyhose (black is less conspicuous in the garden than nude). Tie with a figure 8 -- loop the tie around the stake, then cross the two ends, then loop them around the plant stem and tie. The knot should be strong but there should be some slack in the figure 8 so the stem can move and has space to grow.
Rule 5: Consider yourself. Don't create a support that is scratchy or hard to reach behind. Make sure the openings of a trellis are large enough so you will easily be able to pick the mature fruit. And don't make it taller than you can safely reach, with your feet on the ground, to prune, tie up plants or pick beans or other crops.
Here are some tips support some specific plants in the vegetable and flower garden:
Peas. Garden peas, sugar snaps and snow peas climb by sending out from their leaf stalks slender tendrils that wrap around a support and pull the growing plant up. They can be grown up a chain-link fence; nylon netting with large squares; stretched on a lumber frame or attached to hooks in a wall; wide-space chicken wire; or a trellis made of bent wire, or of willow or other branches that aren't too thick for the tendrils to grasp.
Beans. For pole beans to climb, the main stem must grow in a spiral around a support, which must be slender for it to reach. One traditional bean pyramid is made of several bamboo poles placed in a circle and tied together at the top. Or use a single sturdy pole pounded well into the ground, tie 10 or 12 long pieces of twine near the top and stake them into the ground to form a circle, or a ready-made bean pole. Or make a sort of pup tent of netting stretched over a horizontal pole.
Tomatoes. Tomatoes evolved to sprawl widely along the ground and need to be corralled or tied in the garden. Ripening tomatoes, especially big beefsteak varieties, are heavy -- they're mostly water-- and indeterminate tomato vines can get big, so sturdy support is essential. Some people tie the central tomato vine to a single stout stake and prune off side vines. Others use cages -- but it's worth investing in extra large, tall, well-built ones. Link to this tomato cage. A twisting metal stake will control a tomato vine only if you manually train the plant up the spiral and tie it here and there for support.
Cucumbers. Tendrils growing out from their stems grab onto a support and pull up a cucumber vine. Like peas, cucumbers need a strong support that still is slender enough to grasp, such as wire, twine or sturdy netting with large mesh. Guide the young plants up onto the support, and from there, they'll figure it out.
Melons. They climb by tendrils, like cucumbers, and can be grown on a very strong structure. But heavy melons nearing ripeness often fall to the ground and crack, so gardeners may devise slings to hold them up. For large melons, such as muskmelons and watermelons, growing off the ground simply won't work.
Summer squash. Most summer squash varieties sold today are bush types and don't require support. But vining varieties of summer squash, and gourds, can be trained up a fence or sturdy trellis by tying.
Pumpkins. A handful of miniature pumpkin varieties, such as 'Jack B. Little' and 'Wee B. Little', have fruits small and light enough that their vines can be tied to a trellis. But most winter squashes and pumpkins are too heavy and their vines must sprawl on the ground. Champion-big-pumpkin hobbyists often enthrone their most hopeful specimens on cushions of straw or packing foam to protect them from rot.
Flowers and ornamental plants
Roses. Climbing roses flower best on canes that are growing horizontally. So provide a strong trellis or arbor that allows you to go wide as well as high. Rose canes will need to be tied to their support (elbow-length leather gloves are useful).
Lilies. In spring, thrust a stake securely into the soil next to each new lily shoot. Some gardeners use green bamboo stakes and tie the lilies inconspicuously with green jute twine. Others use a wire stake that has a loop to hold each stem. Secure each stem to the stake when it is 12 or 18 inches high, before it has a chance to flop, or the bud will emerge at an awkward angle. Taller lilies need extra-long stakes.
Peonies. Their voluptuous blooms often drag these bushy plants down, especially after rain. The best cure is a peony cage, a sort of grid on stilts that you install over the early shoots in spring. The stems will grow up through the spaces of the grid so it supports the plant when the blooms get heavy.
Clematis. These vines climb by grasping with their twining leaf stalks. They can't grasp anything thick, so the material of the trellis should be no more than 1/2 inch in diameter. If your trellis is made of thicker lumber, try running transparent nylon fishing line to and fro to give the clematis something smaller to grab onto. Clematis also will happily haul itself up the branches of a shrub; hence the classic look of roses and clematis. Another leaf-stalk twiner: climbing nasturtiums.
Morning glories. Like pole beans, morning glories (as well as moonflowers, black-eyed Susan vine and the hops vines than flavor beer) climb as the main stem grows in a spiral around whatever it comes across. Morning glories can be rampant, so don't plant them near anything flimsy. Grids are available that fit around a downspout or mailbox post to help morning glories climb it and hide it (or you can achieve the same thing with chicken wire). But be careful the vines don't climb far enough to clog the gutter.
Wisteria. This woody plant is another spiraling climber. It needs a very strong, permanent support, because a wisteria vine can live for decades and become immensely heavy.