In January, if I’m not spreading manure on my clients’ gardens, I’m installing strainer wire supports for climbing plants on fences and walls. It’s one of those jobs that’s easier in winter, when the borders are clearer and the subject to be supported will, if it’s deciduous, have shed its leaves. I bought a new drill last year, which has made this job much quicker and means that I can drill into cement posts which I couldn’t with my old Black & Decker drill (inherited from my Dad). Once I’ve drilled the holes, tapped in the rawlplugs (if I’m working with brick or cement) and screwed in the vine-eyes I do battle with the coil of wire! When I first started putting these supports up three years ago I got into horrible tangles trying to unravel the wire from the coil without creating kinks in the wrong places. I’ve now learnt to pay out the wire gradually and avoid this problem. My favourite part of the procedure is after fastening the wire to the vine-eyes when I tighten it by turning the vine-eye through 360 degrees using a screwdriver. It’s so satisfying when the line is good and taut. Depending on the height of the wall or fence I’m working on, I put up 3 or 4 tiers of supports: enough to provide plenty of options when tying in the climber or wall shrub.
With a climbing or rambling rose, my modus operandi is to train the branches horizontally along the wires, tying them in as I go and only then pruning the branches back to an outward facing bud. Last week I worked with two very large climbing roses which had been attached to stylish horizontal timber fencing but in a vertical direction meaning that the flowers had accumulated at or near the top of the rose, 2.5 to 3 metres from the ground. It took several hours and a return visit to finish the task but now these two roses should I hope flower at eye level. Both were English climbers from David Austin, one Rosa Wollerton Old Hall and the other Rosa Mortimer Sackler: the first pale apricot, the other light pink. In the David Austin catalogue, Wollerton Old Hall is described as having a ‘strong, warm myrrh fragrance’ with ‘intense hints of citrus’: sounds gorgeous. Hopefully my efforts mean that this summer the perfume is pumped back into the garden rather than wafting skywards.
Installing these supports has made me consider the myriad of methods used to control the plants in our gardens by either holding them up from the ground or back against a wall or fence. Here I share a few examples from gardens I’ve visited and from volunteering in the gardens at Osterley House. In no particular order, here they are.
In early December last year we garden volunteers cleared ivy from the brick wall between the Long Border in the Tudor Walled Garden and the American Border. I noticed that a stretch of wall was studded with fixings for wire supports and Head Gardener Andy Eddy explained that the wall had once formed the backdrop of one of the Victorian glasshouses at the property which had been used to grow stoned fruits such as peaches and nectarines. The plants would have been trained against the wall onto wires arranged in closely spaced tiers. This was my first experience of using a tripod ladder and it felt so secure and steady in comparison with a stepladder, as well as being more manoeuvrable.
I saw these in use at both Great Dixter in East Sussex and at East Lambrook Manor Gardens in Somerset. These ‘Sussex hurdles’ measure H56 x W69 cm and resemble mini gates. They are used to support herbaceous perennials, preventing them from flopping onto and swamping other plants, or to prevent lawns and meadow areas from being walked on. In one of those moments of frugality I didn’t buy a hurdle from the nursery at Dixter, despite being tempted to do so and have put my name on a waiting list for one. They are made in the Great Barn there, from chestnut harvested on the estate.
I usually install a single tree stake for small saplings, such as a Prunus Amonagowa I planted in a newly replanted local garden in November 2020. I wrap an adjustable black plastic tie around both tree and stake, ready to be let out once the trunk’s girth increases. I was very taken with this double staking method seen in the orchard beside the World Garden at RHS Hyde Hall in Essex. The tree looks sturdily supported and if the crop is anything to go by, the tree is very happy with the arrangement.
When I was in Kew Gardens today I was able to study the superstructure for the two huge stands of Wisteria growing in the northern end of the Gardens, between the Stone Pine and the Duke’s Garden. These are deliberately grown to eye level only, rather than on a taller support which means that you can see the flowers at close quarters in April, as well as appreciate their delicate fragrance. The plant’s sturdy branches are attached to cylindrical tree stakes measuring about a metre and a half, using buckled ‘belts’ which can be loosened or tightened as necessary.
Apart from the system I described above for training climbing and rambling roses against fences and walls, there are many different ways to support vigorous roses. I first saw the swag arrangement in Queen Mary’s Garden in The Regent’s Park, where tremendously thick ropes are swung from a wide circle of timber supports. It’s an absolute picture in June when it’s smothered in rambling roses. I saw a similar system, bare of flowers of course, in the Kitchen Garden at Chatsworth in November using a chunky chain rather than ropes. Another favourite of mine is the obelisk, which I’ve seen installed in varying heights in different gardens. Those punctuating the Broad Walk Borders at Kew Gardens are about three metres tall as are those I saw in the Rose Garden at Arundel Castle last April.
In my own garden I grow Rosa Blush Noisette against a wooden trellis and Rosa White Star around the timber support of a single arch. I attached strainer wire to each of the vertical planes of the post and each year I train the branches of the rose around the post in an anti-clockwise direction. Last year, in its third year, it reached the top of the post and I shall now encourage it along the archway.
At Osterley roses are grown against walls and on timber frames. Here is the rose trained onto the rear wall of the Garden House.
Metal supports formed into an arched tunnel were festooned in roses and clematis in Kate Stuart Smith’s garden at Serge Hill in Hertfordshire which I was lucky enough to visit last July. A metal archway is a relatively new feature at RHS Wisley, located near the old entrance into the garden.
In September dahlias are the main attraction in Sarah Raven’s garden at Perch Hill in East Sussex. It was an education to see the methods used to support the array of colours and forms of dahlia abounding in this garden which showcases many of the varieties in the inspirational catalogue. Although almost hidden by foliage I could just make out a timber framework constructed I believe from silver birch. In her book A Year Full of Flowers*, Sarah Raven devotes several pages in the April chapter to the structures used at Perch Hill, each constructed afresh every year. I also admired the cat’s cradle effect of string between coppiced branches in another part of the garden.
Talking of coppiced branches, I spotted this simple but very effective way to hold up lavender used along the driveway at North Hill Nurseries, the wonderful wholesale nursery near Chobham where I buy plants for my clients. A single pole is supported by shepherd’s crook style metal stakes at just the perfect height to prevent the shrub sprawling onto the grass.
In the last year or so I’ve discovered the merits of the half hoop metal support, the taller versions of which are very valuable for keeping exuberant perennials like Salvia Amistad in check. They are very versatile: for example, two can be arranged in a ring formation or a single hoop can be enough to separate one plant from another. They are not cheap though and I shall continue looking for the mythical versions a client told me were once stocked at an excellent price by Wilko!
My final images are a miscellany of sui generis solutions to unique scenarios. V-topped struts support a limb of an ancient lime tree at Great Dixter. A massive banana plant in the Temperate House at Kew is held upright by strong wire encased in rubber tubing attached to very substantial wooden posts. And perhaps the ultimate in plant supports, the brickwork buttress for the trunk of the Pagoda tree (Styphnolobium japonicum) in Kew Gardens, the horizontal branches of which rest on metal stands.
I’ve omitted many, many other forms of plant support in this quick overview and can see this is a subject I shall revisit, as I collect more examples from my travels.
*ISBN-10 : 152662611X