DIY Plant Supports: How British Gardeners Support Their Perennials
One of the best things about visiting gardens in England is seeing so many well-grown plants, beautifully displayed. Even cottage gardens, which are naturally a bit chaotic, display an underlying sense of order. You don’t see plants sprawling on their neighbors, with tangled stems heading in a dozen different directions.
Why do the same plants behave so poorly in when they’re growing in MY garden?
On a visit to England last June, I discovered at least one of the reasons: pea sticks. British gardeners use twiggy branches (usually called pea sticks) to create discrete yet incredibly effective supports for everything from sweet peas to perennials. Read on to learn more about how you can put this idea to work in your own flower garden.
A Low-Tech Solution for Supporting Plants
In England, every gardener knows what pea sticks are, where they come from, and how to use them. When it’s pea-planting time in England, you can pick up bundles of 5′ pea sticks at any local garden center.
The source for most of these pea sticks is coppiced hazel. Coppicing is an ancient forestry management technique, used to produce wood for everything from fencing and wickerwork to shipbuilding, firewood and…pea sticks.
To coppice a tree, you simply cut it back to a stump on an annual or semi-annual basis and harvest the young sprouts. Hazel (a shrubby type of birch) is the preferred wood for pea sticks, but a number of different types of trees are coppiced.
You won’t find pea sticks for sale here in the U.S., but any twiggy branches will work. This spring I used a combination of birch (ideal), lilac, and red dogwood. If you see a neighbor or local landscaping crew doing some pruning nearby, they would probably be glad to give you as many branches as you like. Live in a rural area? Ask a farmer if there’s an area you could cut from.
What Makes a Good Pea Stick?
There are just three requirements for a good pea stick. The branches must be twiggy so there are lots of places for plants to grab or rest on. They should be cut in winter or very early spring so there are no leaves (not a deal breaker – just won’t look quite as neat). And the branches have to be young and supple (not stiff and brittle) so they can be bent as needed. If you cut the bottom of the stems on an angle, it will be easier to push them into the soil.
Though the primary use for pea sticks is to support peas, British gardeners also use them to make loosely woven cages for supporting perennials. If you put them in place early, the plants grow up through the armature and completely hide it.
These DIY, customizable plants supports are a perfect solution for summer perennials that are prone to falling over just as they reach their prime. In England, I saw them used on nepeta, asters, delphiniums, perennial geraniums, lupins, phlox and even roses. If sturdy enough, these twiggy cages will also support dahlias.
How to Make Your Own Twiggy Plant Supports
With a little practice, you can make a customized support for almost any type of plant. Here are a couple things to keep in mind.
Aim for having a finished cage that’s about 2/3 as tall as the mature plant. This way, the plant will be well supported, yet the structure will be hidden.
Nepeta (AKA catmint) is a notorious flopper and a good plant to experiment on. Here’s how to make a simple cage that will rein in an unruly nepeta.
Most types of nepeta grow about 18″ tall, so the finished cage should stand about 12″ tall. Start by selecting four, 14″ long twiggy branches. Space them evenly around the plant (thick end down), positioning the base of the pea stick stem at the outside edge of the clump. Push the stems 2-3″ into the ground at a very slight inward-facing angle. When making taller cages (like for a delphinium) you’ll need to push your pea sticks a few inches further into the ground.
Now for the crafty part. The objective is to create a basket-like cage over the plant by bending the twigs toward each other. If the stems are very twiggy, you can simply intertwine them in a way that they stay connected. To reinforce the structure, feel free to weave in additional stems on the sides or across the top. Examples shown in this post were some of the many I saw last June. Each is original and customized to the plant.
The Original Sustainable Plant Supports
Besides being effective and free, these pea stick plant supports are also ephemeral. No plastic. No wire. At the end of the season you can leave them in place for next year, move them to a dry place and store for another year of use, or break them up for kindling.
Pea sticks are just the kind of practical solution gardeners love. You’ll find more practical tips and inspiration here: How to Select Perennials for All Season Color and Why and How to Divide Perennials.