Staking at Sissinghurst
I like to think of staking as being a bit like ladies underwear. All ladies know that good underwear is crucial to the final appearance of an outfit. If the underwear is correct then everything else falls into place and it’s the same too, with plants. Some plants need a bit of help in the support department to look their best when flowering. It’s not just humans that succumb to the effects of gravity; flopping, sagging and general collapse, affect plants just as much.
The aim of staking is to help the plant look its best for as long as possible but not in an obvious way, your attention should be drawn to the plant not the stakes. As Christopher Lloyd once wrote, staking should be both “invisible and invincible!”
Here at Sissinghurst we use hazel pea sticks to do the staking. During the winter several rows of hazel are coppiced and then cut into various sizes, bundled up according to their size and stored in pens in the nursery ready for the season ahead. The sizes and shape vary from small, twiggy pea sticks through to branch sized specimens and chunky single stakes. The idea is to have as much choice as possible so that a wide variety of plants can be staked using the hazel collected. We use hazel because it looks natural and blends in well with the surrounding foliage. Vita liked to use natural materials as much as possible in the garden and because hazel is a renewable resource there is always a plentiful supply, which is important in this garden where so much staking is required.
Staking begins in May and carries on right through to the end of June. A plant should be staked before any significant loss of shape has occurred and this is usually just before the plant is ready to flower; normally when it has reached about two thirds of its full height. There’s no point doing it too early, the stakes will just look silly and way too high, but don’t leave it too late otherwise your once perky plant will collapse at the merest hint of summer rain. It’s good to give the plant a chance to regain its composure too and to give the hazel a chance to disappear in the foliage before flowering really gets going.
Before starting the staking process, take a moment to have a really good look at the plant and to look at where the plant needs to be supported. This decision will be based on the overall shape and size of the plant, and the type of flowers it produces as well as the eventual height. Some plants like Aquilegias have light and airy flowers and foliage but the flower stems have a tendency to keel over at the base, so a few small hazel sticks to support the base is all that’s required. Other plants like peonies are top heavy and the weight of the flower head pulls the whole stem downwards. Oriental Poppies are the same so more robust staking will be required to support the flower heads. Other plants such as Geraniums, herbaceous Clematis or Crocosmia are just generally floppy, and without support they will collapse in a heap once they reach a critical mass. And of course, there are Sunflowers and similar single stemmed plants that will require a single, heavy duty stake.
When staking, start by staking the centre of the plant with the correct size of pea stick so that there is good overall support. This prevents the plant from flopping outwards and maintains a good shape. Use a selection of different shaped pea sticks and place these so that every section of the plant is supported, making sure that they are firmly anchored in the ground. Sticks can be placed at an angle to give greater support if necessary. Once the centre of the plant has been staked, support the circumference by using fan shaped pea sticks. The aim is to allow the plant to look as natural as possible, so don’t truss it up so that it loses its natural shape. There is a fine balance between control and relaxation. Once all the stakes are in place there will be lots of twigs sticking out and many will be too high so snip them back to the required height. The height of the finished staking will depend on the plant and how much growth is yet to occur. Immediately after staking the plant can look a bit messed up but don’t worry, after a day or two it will be back to normal. The true test of whether your staking has been successful is to see whether the plant remains supported throughout the flowering period and beyond. It can all start off looking so good but high wind, rain and even growth can cause havoc with your once beautiful staking. It’s good to observe your staking critically and even to make notes for the following year. Remember that as a plant grows year on year so also will its staking requirements. A young plant may start out needing nothing more than the equivalent of a wonderbra but might in time need a full corset and tummy control knickers!
Finally, remove or reduce the height of stakes as the flowering season finishes so that the stakes do not become visible. Don’t be tempted to save them for the following year, they will become very brittle as they dry out and will lose their inherent strength. And remember, next year you can begin all over again!