Grow healthy, productive plants with the right supports

using plant supports in the garden
Washington County Master Gardener Karen Greeley (left) shows Elyse Phillips her garden which uses several types of plant supports.

Being supported is important. For you. For me. And for our garden plants.

The right garden supports help keep plants healthy. Lifting them up, up, up on stakes, cages and trellises boosts air circulation. This cuts down on rot and fungal disease.

Garden supports help keep heavy blooms from snapping stems. Is there anything worse than finding your prize delphinium prone in the morning, her poor neck broken by fierce wind?

Supports also expose vegetables and fruits to more sun, helping them to ripen faster. And they make picking easier, lessening knee and back strain.

Best of all, plant supports save space. Vertical gardening gives you a good harvest in a smaller footprint.

Place stakes, cages, and trellises early so plants are supported from the get-go. This avoids unpleasant wrangling of jungle-like growth later which is not good for you, your plants, or your resolution to avoid colorful language.

Anchor supports deeply to give them strength and stability when the inevitable high winds and rains come and plants grow large and heavy.

Some plants naturally cling with tendrils. Others need ties. Use a soft material like a strip of an old t-shirt, pantyhose, or reusable Velcro plant ties.

Plant supports can be store-bought or homemade. Use wood, bamboo, string, and other materials to make your own. Or hit your favorite local garden center, supercenter, or online store.

What type of supports are best?

Stakes are good for tall plants with a single flowering stem such as foxgloves or lilies. Some even come with hoops to lasso stems. My daddy staked his 10-foot tomatoes and harvested with a ladder. It was a point of pride.

But cages work better for heftier plants like tomatoes. Simply a frame with a grid, cages are good for shrubby edibles like tomatoes and eggplants.

I like square cages that fold flat for storage, but any sturdy cage will do. Steer clear of flimsy ones which tip over with the slightest provocation, also inducing colorful language.

Trellises are upright panels with criss-crossed wood or string. Both single panels and A-frames work well. In our demo garden, we use upright metal frames with string mesh.

Trellises are ideal for plants that twine or cling with tendrils such as peas, cucumbers, and pole beans. You can also use them for melons and squash provided you give the heavy fruits some extra support.

use a strip of fabric to support a melon on a trellis
Large fruits such as this cantaloupe can be supported on trellises with a wide strip of fabric.

That’s right, boys and girls. It’s time to talk about cantaloupe bras. Laugh if you will, but strips of my old t-shirt served well to lift and separate cantaloupes on our demo garden trellis.

Teepees provide both support and a pleasing focal point. Use them for vining plants or those that climb with tendrils. Make a fun kids’ teepee by growing beans and morning glories on a frame.

Hybrid supports work well for specific plants. Circles with grids and legs are terrific to prop up perennials with large, heavy flowers such as peonies.

Look up. Think up. And grow your plants up with the right supports.

By Annette Cormany, Principal Agent Associate and Master Gardener Coordinator, Washington County, University of Maryland Extension. This article was previously published by Herald-Mail Media. Read more by Annette.

Climbing Cucumbers

Cucumbers stringed upGrowing produce in the backyard is a great way to experience fresher, new flavors that I oftentimes could not get from a store and give me a feeling of independence. In times of uncertainty, it is rewarding to grow even a small portion of food in the backyard.

I am a big fan of trellising vining crops in the vegetable garden. It saves garden space, saves my back from stooping over, and makes it easier to see the harvest instead of an impassable jungle! In previous years, I have used a range of materials from fencing and wire panels, but they can get rusty, hard to work with, and bent out of shape after a few seasons.

Last year, I tried a different approach. Using recycled 2x4s, I made a few fittings that perched snugly atop eight-foot steel t-posts. I drove the posts two and a half feet into the ground and spaced them about 10 feet apart. Through holes I drilled in the fittings, I ran two parallel horizontal wire tensile wires about 12 inches apart.

Fittings on post
These fittings were made from recycled 2x4s and decking screws.
Cucumbers clipped to strings
Cucumbers just after I clipped them onto the strings.

The wire was left over from some fencing work I’d done to try and keep the deer out. At each end, I anchored the horizontal wires to three-foot posts driven diagonally into the ground. Once the cucumbers were about a foot tall, I tied lengths of plastic tomato twine (one per vine) to the horizontal top wires. Using large tomato clips, I secured the cucumber vines to the vertical strings to train them up. When the vines were really growing, I had to check on them a couple times a week to simply retrain using more clips until they reached the top wire. At the end of the summer, I cut the vines down but left the lengths of twine up. The UV-resistant plastic looks like it has held up pretty well, and I plan to use it a second season.

Tomato clips on cucumbers
Large plastic tomato clips (25 mm) accommodate cucumbers and other vines and are available either online or from local produce supply companies.

On my trellis system, I grew the variety ‘Bristol’. It has a productive slicing cucumber with a broad disease-resistance package including tolerance to common cucurbit diseases like angular leaf spot, downy mildew, and powdery mildew. In 2019, my 30-foot double row yielded 10-25 pounds of cucumbers a week for about a month and a half before they finally succumbed to leaf diseases, cucumber beetles, and squash bugs. I was able to share the harvest with neighbors, friends, and family as well as can several batches of pickles that will last me until I start harvesting my 2020 cucumbers!

For small spaces or if you do not have wire and wood on hand, you also can grow cucumbers up a simple zigzag of plastic tomato twine between two steel t-posts. With a bit of tending and redirecting, the tendrils will climb their way up. As you plan your warm-season garden, I encourage gardeners to pair some type of trellis system with productive, disease-resistant varieties of cucumbers and other vining crops. Your back and your stomach will thank you. Happy gardening!


A simple trellis made with zigzag rows of plastic twine every 6-8 vertical inches.
A simple trellis made with zigzag rows of plastic twine every 6-8 vertical inches.

Luke Gustafson – Senior Agent Associate & Master Gardener Coordinator