The ideal time to support big plants so that they donít sprawl and fall over is in early spring, when you first plant them or they first start to grow. Iíve done that. In some years. I forget just when. Mostly I do the job when I notice that they are sprawling and falling over. It is harder then, but still necessary.
This delay has happened often enough and long enough that I have devised some imaginative work-arounds beyond tying with twine. I have bought needlessly expensive plant supports, back when I was young and foolish, but since then I have found cheaper and usually better methods. Cheaper and better is a good combination.
For example, tomato cages. I have long said that the very best tomato cages are made from scrap concrete reinforcing wire formed into a cylinder. They last for decades. I have tried others, sometimes at exorbitant prices, advertised as the best. They arenít. And the cheap ones, cone shaped wire from the discount stores, are worthless, not even worth the buck or two they cost.
The problem is, how do you slip them down around an overgrown plant if you didnít do it when you should have. For some time I wrapped string around them, like a wrapped Christmas tree, and that worked. Sorta.
Then at a dollar store I an across a simple leaf bag holder, just a sheet of flexible plastic about 3-by-6 feet. The idea is that you put the rolled up plastic inside the bag and expand it to hold the bag upright and open, then pull it out when full. It works pretty well. It took me a couple of years to realize that it could work backwards, that is, put it outside an overgrown tomato and contract it, gently squeezing the plant to a size that a cage will easily slip over, then just pull the plastic out the top. I notice they have these at Ace, though not at dollar store prices.
For Fatherís Day my daughter sent me a gift certificate to a garden supplier that I have often made fun of in this space, though not by name. Its product line is distinguished primarily by outrageous prices. Gift certificate in hand (and a free shipping coupon I found on the Internet) I looked at their web site, which I had seldom done before because it scared me.
I found a very handy half round plant support that can easily prop up a side of a perennial that is flopping over onto its neighbor, a bit over $16 each. I know these work because I have several, and mine were free. After each election I do the community a service and collect as many of the campaign signs littering the county as I can, throwing out the sign itself and saving the stanchion. Bend the top wire 90 degrees and you have a $16 half round plant support. There are many other garden jobs these stanchions can do.
Of course this catalog also has those perennial supports with three wire legs supporting a round grill on top for the plant to grow up through. If you have ever used one of these, you know you end up with a tuft of flowers sticking straight up surrounded by the rest of the plant flopped on the ground. (The catalog drawings donít show this.) You can prevent this problem by wrapping a circle of green vinyl turkey wire around the legs, but if you are going to do that you might as well lay another piece of turkey wire across the top and save money for more plants.
Plastic chicken wire let me haul the all too healthy potatoes off the row of small dahlias Iím trialing. Low linking decorative border fences, bought from the leftovers at the end of the season, clear paths so you can get through. Curbside iron railings from someoneís remodel job divide crops in my raised beds. Scraps of snow fencing, chicken wire, hardware cloth all do their duty and I get my garden tamed, usually by the 4th of July. But next year Iím going to put those supports out early. For sure.
Duane Campbell is a nationally known agricultural expert. He can be reached a 12 Burgess Drive, Towanda, PA 18848 or e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.