Knots and Contortions

Recently, a week of warm sunny weather made new growth leap up and reminded me that some plants need to be supported, the earlier the better. Waiting until they collapse before taking measures is not a good idea; the poor things end up slumped and graceless, looking like victims of bondage.

In my garden, the plants in need of support are peonies, delphiniums and a specimen of an unknown Thalictrum with tiny, almost invisible flowers that grows to a luxuriant four feet of lacy green foliage — until the inevitable summer westerly winds, when it develops an unflattering list unless strapped firmly in place.

Specialized metal supports are available in a variety of shapes for different kinds of plants, but they are quite expensive. I rely on combinations of bamboo or wooden stakes and good old garden twine. The first step is to select stakes of suitable height and heft and position three or four of them around the plant. Then I anchor the twine to one of the stakes and wrap it around the rest, securing it to the original stake. Additional sections of twine may be added as the plant grows, resulting in a visually subtle cage that sees the plants through to the fall, when it can be removed. Twine can be reused for a number of years before it becomes too weak and goes into the compost heap.

I use three knots to create these plant supports. The initial knot securing the twine is a Clove Hitch and the final one is two Half Hitches. If I need to join two pieces of twine to form a longer one, I use a Square Knot or Reef Knot. A knot much used by sailors, the Bowline, would probably also be useful in the garden, because it creates a slip-proof loop at the end of a rope, but sadly, I still can’t tie one to save my life. I recommend learning these knots because it’s much easier at the end of the season to untie proper knots than improvised messes that inevitably tangle and bind.

Practicing knot-tying until you can do it quickly and easily is also a good idea. It’s one thing to tie a knot while sitting at a table or standing up straight on both feet. But doing it while balanced on one foot in a perennial border, or holding an asymmetrical position, hoping not to lose one’s balance and squash a bunch of tender shoots is quite another matter. The sooner you can secure your knots, the better.

Much can happen before that, however, such as stepping gingerly into the perennial bed, hoping not to crush innocent plants, teetering in awkward positions while manipulating stakes and string, the surprise lurch when the stake you’re poking into the ground unexpectedly snaps, discovering the string is too short and having to extract yourself from the bed to get more, etc., etc.

Gardening isn’t a sport, exactly, like tennis or cycling, but gardeners can find themselves bending, stretching, reaching, climbing, pounding in stakes, lugging heavy pots and struggling to dig up roots. Sudden twisting motions and mighty yanks can cause injuries that take months to heal. It’s probably a good idea to do some stretching and balancing practice before starting in on the plant support job, especially if you are out of shape from a winter of idleness.