PHOTO BY ELLEN ECKERT OGDEN

Onward and upward in the garden



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, from peony rings to the galvanized steel pipes we use to trellis vining crops such as tomatoes and beans. Vertical-end pipes support a top bar from which we hang strings that the plants can climb.

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. The 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 used to build trellises from straight young saplings, cut from the woods. He’d buy copper, T-shaped plumbing connecters, 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 then 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 building material so strong it is used for ladders, bridges, skyscrapers, swords — and bamboo canes used 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 teepees, in which three or four poles were joined at the top. Sometimes I’ve run horizontal poles along the tops of teepees 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 5 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 broken ones, of 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 tee-pee form, but box-like structures can be made to work too.

Poles can be lashed together using sturdy twine, or with attachment gizmos like Flexi Balls, or the more versatile Garden Cane Connects, sold by Gardeners Supply Co. and accommodating at any angle.

Some people become artists at creating bamboo supports. Among garden writers I have known, Jack Staub, Ellen Eckert Ogden, Shepherd Ogden and especially Peter Chang come to mind. And check out a short YouTube video created by the University of Maryland Extension.

In the video a gardener named Joel Warren ties poles together with an elegant “basic Japanese knot” worthy of a Zen master.

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch

Barbara Damrosch’s latest book is “The Four Season Gardener’s Cookbook.”
Barbara Damrosch

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