24 February 2010
In The Garden With the Fluvanna Master Gardeners
By Irene C. Burke - Fluvanna Master Gardener
Fluvanna County Extension Office: 434.591.1950
Roots, stems, trunks, and branches, soil too, provide plants their primary vertical support; tendrils and vining habit offer a secondary, while the human gardener invents a third.
Archeologists found Egyptian hieroglyphics of 3200 BCE illustrating grape arbors, decorated pergolas and forked trellises. Similar pre-Colombian drawings of Native Americans displayed their practice of inter-planting corn, beans and squash with the cornstalk, a ready prop for climbing beans. Your fine fellow gardeners and farmers have been using plant supports for more than 5 millennia.
The clear purpose in these ancient uses remains the same today: to balance gentle circulating air with sun-ripening filtered light for disease-free fruit and flowers dangling amongst lush green foliage.
Today, plant supports are touted as space savers for intensive gardening on small plots. The historical record tells us this was the same centuries ago, for in the Eastern Mediterranean much of the record shows that limited water resources constrained space. In small (half acre or less) walled plots, arbors and pergolas clustered around a cistern or well, while the wall itself supported tender espaliered fruit trees.
Limited resources may narrow your choices but your inventiveness as well as the ingenuity of the marketplace may broaden them. Pruned branches or anything on the dust heap of your storage area may be re-purposed as a plant support the wooden drying rack, aged broom handles and fishing line, dead wiry vines.
Just as in ancient times, purpose, space and budget continue to dictate design and material. And design itself takes its order from the floppy blooms wanting something to lean on or the vining and rambling plant seeking scaffolding. Some plants need even more help with clips and ties as they run up poles and across fences roses, tomatoes, squash.
Grapes do best with a pergola. In the field, hops climb lofty 10-foot stakes but in the home garden do just as well reaching for the deck from good soil below. Tomatoes, peas, and cucumbers, with encouragement, will travel upward through spiral, rectangular and tepee cages. Carolina jessamine, clematis and passionflower will decorate arbors and porch railings. English gardeners construct plant support frames from what looks like a really big Tinkertoy called Build-A-Ball. Espaliered fig, apple and pear against a sunny wall yield more fruit earlier.
Design determines materials: flexible or rigid, simple or elaborate, permanent or temporary, decorative or plain: All depend on the weight of fruit, flower and vine, prevailing winds, light source and soil density. Your choices are: wooden (thin or thick, fragile or sturdy willow, cedar or bamboo, for example), metal (cast and wrought iron, wire, rebar and electric conduit pipe, aluminum or steel mesh) stone, brick, synthetic (PVC pipe or chain links, plastic netting) or the aged vine itself.
Whether hoops with cross supports, or fence, wall, obelisk, tepee, grow-through ring, spiral stake, arbor, pergola or trellis, your goal with plant supports is that fine balance between foliage growth and fruit vigor.
Tip of the Week
Use ice-damaged branches for forcing, if from flowering ornamentals. Prune away leaves from lower stem and place in tepid water. Keep water refreshed and pest free with a drop of chlorine bleach. If rootlets form, insert the rooted stem into potting soil. Keep moist not soggy.