One evening, I was sitting on the bench beside our pond, watching spring arrive. The ice had nearly melted on the pond, and the buds on the swamp maples were showing red. Nesting birds were twittering, and airplanes were drawing silvery lines across the sky.
Even though the jets were too high to be heard, their trails struck me as an imposition on the scene, because they seemed so regular. They brought to mind the old, much-debated belief that there are no straight lines in nature. Looking around me, I noted the spruce trees among the maples, their tall trunks vying for straightness in an effort to rise above their neighbors and gain a better share of the sun’s rays. In the still air, the rope swing on a nearby maple branch hung straight down, following the plumb line of gravity’s pull. The pond’s smooth surface, reflecting the trees, was a near-perfect glassy plane.
The natural geometry of up, down and level seemed like a good framework with which to approach spring and the garden chores soon to be done. Plants would soon be sending their stems upward, and a long list of them would succumb to gravity without a human assist.
Our household boasts a large collection of metal plant supports, including peony rings and the galvanized steel pipes we use to trellis vining crops such as tomatoes and beans. The bean vines wrap themselves around the strings on their own, but with the tomato vines, which are not twining, plastic clips that encircle both vine and string help support the plants, especially when weighed down by heavy fruits. Plastic clips are useful for keeping fruit-laden tomato stems from collapsing, but apart from that, the plants’ upward urge takes charge.
For those who find the gleam of a steel bar as intrusive as a jet trail, there are materials that blend in better with their surroundings. My husband has built trellises from straight young saplings, cut from the woods. He’d buy copper, T-shaped plumbing connectors and whittle the ends of the saplings so that they could be inserted tightly into the three openings of the T.
Tall pea vines can be supported on similar trellises, though we provide plastic or nylon netting rather than strings. We have sometimes gone the natural route and used pea brush instead. My father taught me how to cut twiggy birch branches and stick them in the ground for the peas to climb.
One of the most versatile and popular natural supports is bamboo. Bamboo plants, of which there are many species worldwide, are evergreen perennial grasses. Depending on the type, they may be grown for edible shoots, cellulose fiber for the production of rayon, and material so strong it is used for ladders, bridges, tall buildings, swords — and bamboo canes for staking plants.
Those bamboo canes are often dyed an ugly green, but ones with the natural tan color of cured bamboo can be found. They come in many sizes. In the vegetable garden, you might use a single short one to stake a pepper plant, or a row of tall ones, each holding up a pole bean. I’ve often made pole-bean tepees, in which three or four poles were joined at the top. Sometimes I’ve run horizontal poles along the tops of tepees in a row, for more stability.
Poles with a diameter of more than an inch are harder to find than skinny ones, but I’ve seen them as wide as five inches. I once made a two-tiered rail fence out of big, fat ones and trained grape vines along it.
Bamboo poles that remain stuck in the ground will ultimately rot at the bottom, so they are usually stored over the winter under cover. My motley collection includes many sizes, so I can always find some that are just the right length for the job. The color has faded from any dyed ones, another plus.
If you liked playing with Tinkertoys as a kid, you will have fun with bamboo pole structures. The triangulation principle gives extra strength to the tepee form, but boxlike structures can be made to work, too. Poles can be lashed together using sturdy twine or with attachment gizmos such as Garden Cane Connects, sold by Gardener’s Supply Co. and accommodating of any angle.
Some people become artists at creating bamboo supports. Check out a short YouTube video, “Bamboo Plant Support Structures,” from the University of Maryland Extension’s Home and Garden Information Center.
In the video, a gardener named Joel Warren ties poles together with an elegant “basic Japanese knot” worthy of a Zen master.
Sun and wind are as damaging to greenhouse-raised transplants as cold nights. Before planting, young plants should be conditioned by placing them outdoors daily for a week in a shaded, protected area and brought in at night. Plant them on a cloudy day or in the early evening when the sun is low.
— Adrian Higgins