Tuesday, March 31, 2015

Raising the flower stakes

Last year, as you may recall, we had mixed results with our mixed wildflower bed. After getting off to a slow start in May, the wildflower seed mix produced a riot of colorful blooms by mid-June—but by mid-July, those tall, top-heavy stalks had all flopped over, turning our bounty of blossoms into a scraggly, untidy mess. This year, I was determined to find some way around this problem if at all possible. I knew that the flowers in this year's bed wouldn't be the same as last year's, since the first year's blooms were all annuals—cornflowers, cosmos, poppies—and this year the perennials would take over. But some of the perennials in the mix, such as coreopsis and Shasta daisies, get as high as 4 feet tall at full growth, making them even taller than the cornflowers that collapsed so dramatically last year, and I didn't want to risk a repeat of last year's fainting fit.

I did some hunting around online and found several proposed methods of propping up tall flowers, but most of them seemed impractical for a mixed bed like this one. This article on About Gardening, for instance, recommended staking each flower individually, tying the stem to a bamboo stake with twine looped all the way up to the bloom. This clearly wouldn't be feasible with so many flowers in one bed; I'd end up trampling the shorter blooms every time I stepped in to stake the tall ones. Fine Gardening suggested that the flower-flopping problem by choosing the right spot for your flowerbed and making sure to feed and water the plants properly, but that didn't help me; I wanted a fix for the flowers I had already planted, not a recommendation to start over completely with new plants that would be much more expensive to buy and difficult to care for. And commercial products, like these cages and trellises from Gardener's Supply Company, wouldn't work in a mixed bed with tall and short blooms all commingled together indiscriminately—and would be prohibitively expensive even if they did.

Eventually, I decided my best bet was a variant of the "cat's cradle" technique described in the Fine Gardening article. Instead of making a small grid of stakes and twine to support just one plant, I'd build a loose grid around the entire bed. If the tallest flowers in the bed were 4 feet high, I figured, I'd put a row of stakes in and run twine across at a height of 3 feet.  That way, if they started to fall forward, they'd descend one foot, hit the twine barrier, and (ideally) stop. But then a snag occurred to me: what about the other flowers in the bed that were 3 feet or shorter? They might still be tall enough to flop over, but they wouldn't be tall enough to be stopped by a barrier at 3 feet. Should I run several rows of twine across the stakes at different heights, to catch the different types of flowers?

After a little consideration, I decided on three rows of twine at staggered heights. The back row would be at 3 feet, to catch the tallest blooms. The middle row would be at 2 feet, and the front row at 1 foot. This setup wouldn't completely stop the plants from falling over, but it would catch them before they hit the ground—so instead of just falling down and lying flat, they'd drape over the rows of twine in a cascade. The tallest blooms that stood furthest back would be caught at the 3-foot level; ones further forward, or short enough to slip under the 3-foot string, would be caught at 2 feet; and the shortest and frontmost blooms would be caught at 1 foot. Instead of a vertical flower arrangement, the whole display would be tilted forward on a diagonal.

Naturally, I had no way of knowing how well this would work in practice, since no one else seemed ever to have tried it before. But it was a lot better than doing nothing, and a quick trip to Home Depot confirmed that it wouldn't be that much more expensive: just $6 for a packet of 25 bamboo stakes (dyed green to make them blend in with the foliage, although personally I think their natural color would look better) and another $3 or so for a ball of twine. For 9 bucks, we figured it was at least worth a shot, especially since neither of us had any better ideas.

We were actually planning to construct the grid the weekend before last, but our spring snowstorm but the kibosh on that plan, so we did it yesterday—after the snow had melted away, but before any of the flowers in the bed had actually popped up. I could have tried to do it by myself during the week, but I'm glad I didn't, because it turned out to be a job that's a lot easier with two people. Brian did the brute-force part of the work, driving the stakes in by hand to a depth of about 1 foot, while I stood outside the bed and sighted along the rows of stakes to make sure each one was lining up with the others. We put the back row a couple of feet away from the house, aligned the front row with the front of the planting bed, and positioned the middle one roughly halfway in between.

Once we had all the stakes in place, we ran into a bit of difficulty attaching the twine: the bamboo stakes were so smooth that the twine slid easily up and down them and wouldn't stay put in one spot. So Brian decided, rather than attaching the twine at the exact height we wanted for each row, to tie it in place just above the nearest natural segment break in the bamboo. That created enough of a bump in the surface to keep the strings from slipping. After that, we just wrapped the string twice around the middle stake in each row and tied it in place at the end. The result of all this was that the three rows of twine weren't exactly level, since they had to shift around a bit to take advantage of the knots in the bamboo, but at least they were reasonably secure. Attaching the strings was another part of the process where having two people proved handy, as Brian could hold the twine at the right height with both hands, keeping it taut, while I snipped it off the ball with scissors.

Once the horizontal rows were done, Brian completed the grid by running three more rows of twine across the rows of stakes, from back to front. These crossways rows slope downward, from the 3-foot height of the top row at the back to the 1-foot level in the front—so the finished grid now sits at an angle tilted up toward the sky, much like a solar panel. Now all we need to do is wait for the flowers to grow on up through it, and we'll see whether my cockamamie idea actually worked.
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