Plant supports and training

At this time of year our soft fruits are swelling to their ripe fullness, the top fruits are starting the same process and soon the toms and melons will do likewise. All the weight of these crops can be a considerable strain on their parent plants and on their supports. An item that often gets overlooked in the rush of summer, make sure all is well before the crops reach maximum weight. Indeed it is well worth checking then you can be sure you have no case where the tree is supporting the post instead of as it should be.

Obviously we need support a plant not just for the weight of the plant but also for the crop and for the force of the wind tearing at them both. However we do not need supply a support that will hold back a tank. Often too much effort goes into fixing heavy duty posts and playing with tensioners winding up wires to violin pitch, and not enough attention to the tying, and untying later, of the actual bits of plants to those supports. A super rigid support is no use if the tie is missing, loose or grown strangling tight.

The tie is an important bit and although an old bike tube, a pair of tights or plastic string may do for a while these are little substitute for proper adjustable wide plastic bands -and for use as the main support for a tree trunk one with it’s spacer! The spacer acts like a washer and clamps around the band between the trunk or branch and the support and stops the two touching and chafing. Smaller bands are ideal for smaller branches and twine for the smallest and for soft annual plants. (Natural string is best for these as it can be cut away with the crop and composted, plastic string will probably be reused and may carry infections over.)

Crucial for establishing a tree you can get away without staking and less careful initial support with much of the soft fruit. The various currants and similar fruit bushes are mostly self supporting unless wanted as trained forms, again wider softer ties are better than thin wire even if it is plastic coated. These are most amenable to training and can be shaped in a few seasons; I use recycled bicycle wheel rims as frames for training redcurrants around but any rigid support will do.

Raspberries can stand on their own but then crops are lost when the stems bend over. Often shortened and confined between pairs of wires they are better and more productive if they are bent down and tied along one strong wire, or they can be tied as tripods, or tied onto a frame. This latter is essential for the brambles which need more space and their lax stems need fixing to canes or wires. (I find a bike tube cut and equipped with a hook at either end makes a grand rubber band to hold the new stems out of the way till they are ready for tying in.)

Grapes need a framework to tie to from day one if you wish for future access and they need the strongest frames as they can make the most growth and carry the heaviest crops. And because of their longevity the posts and supports need to be either very enduring or easily replaceable. A simple way to make using cheap soft wood practical is to set the post hole not the post- concrete in a length of plastic gutter downpipe of a size that a post can snugly fit if dropped in and wedged, once that post rots hook out the stub and set another.

There is another point we usually now overlook with our run of mild winters and that is the potential frost damage from cold metal supporting wires and posts. In very cold weather metal may damage bark wherever it touches. The best practice is to fix canes to the wires or posts with wire and then to fix stems and branches to these canes with twine, hemp or even ribbons of cloth. The use of canes also allows better positioning and training than does the wires alone. Although an extra effort and expense I think this is worthwhile for all expensively trained and more tender subjects such as apricots, peaches, espalier pears et al. Less enduring growths such as raspberries, brambles and even grapes can be risked tied directly onto the wires as most winters are not so severe and their damaged growth is soon replaced.

There may be the same point here with early peas- we often use netting instead of pea sticks nowadays. It may be possible that using wire chicken netting could be detrimental to the earliest sowings by similarly freezing them where they grip. However although plastic netting may be better for this reason it is not so rigid and peas and especially runner beans prefer rigid supports. Oh well back to sticks then.

It is also well to remember there is a difference between the initial staking to help the roots establish and the support of the head and crop later. When we plant a tree or bush the wind will try to rock it about. This causes the roots to be pulled and pushed in their new homes and makes it difficult for them to establish well. If we support a tree with a high stake it prevents this root rock but then the trunk grows weakly as it is supported. So it has been found better to have short rigid stake fixed low down to encourage the roots to grip and the trunk to grow thick. However, later, the support is needed higher up.

Most bush and tree fruits are grown on a single stem and if this then becomes laden with foliage, fruit and a strong wind blows then branches may snap, or more likely the trunk may give way and in many cases this last will be at the graft point. Many of our dwarfing stocks used on fruit trees make weak grafts thus the need for them having strong, tall, supports all their lives. Indeed this is why cordons, espaliers and so on are normally grown on frameworks of some kind as left unsupported the tops would droop and snap off when cropping.

If you have an existing tree that crops well and needs supporting do not drive a single post in beside it for support as you will inevitably damage the roots. Drive two posts at least a foot or two away from the trunk on either side and then fix the tree to a crossbar running between them.

Likewise when growing a number of tomato or other heavily cropping plants. It is usually safer and less effort to build one solid crossbar supported by a couple of well braced posts to carry a heavy crop than it is to rely on a half dozen twitching bending canes. Even in the greenhouse it may be safer to fit one rigid crossbar and then to tie up to that than to rely on several precarious fixings in the wrong places.

Similarly rather than support two rows of twelve trained trees either side of my vegetable beds with two dozen tall strong posts I’ve used two pairs of huge posts. A couple of strong wires run high up, and smaller posts and wires support the lower limbs of each set of three. This leaves three gaps to head height each side for passing through yet the tops and crops are all held firmly.

A common mistake we nearly all make is when growing on a wall. The idea is to support the branches close to, but off, the wall not right up against it. Held against the wall the ventilation is lost, the heating effect is lost and pests move in to the hidden spots created. Thus the proper job of vertical battens or screw eyes holding horizontal wires out from the wall on which are fixed the canes to which the trees limbs are trained. Held too far out though and the warming effect is lost.

Another awfully common mistake is tying around a main stem; especially with tomatoes which grow so quickly the tie soon turns into a tourniquet. It is safer to wind the string around the stem spirally and then to tie off around a leaf stalk -which is expendable. The books always suggest tying under a fruit truss but I’d rather not risk losing them!

Both sweet peppers and aubergines require support if they are to carry good crops without snapping off their stems but in their cases I’ve found you can support the plants by tying round their fruit stalks with little risk of breaking these accidentally.

Melon, marrow and cucumber stems are all easily damaged. Plastic covered wire is too fine and damages them too easily and for the smaller growths string can be fiddly, pipe cleaners are nicely padded and work well. The problem is young stems need support and are fiddly to work on yet swell quickly. A neat temporary way to fix such tiny stems to small canes is with close pegs, even wired onto the canes so the stems pass through their holes.

Melon fruits are unique as they are always shown suspended in a net for several reasons. Melon fruits grow much larger if they are supported rather than left hanging from their stems. Secondly, a net does not compress anywhere particularly hard and has no hidden damp spot to rot. And of course the fruits do not drop off and go splat. I use a nylon stocking in the same way. The same treatment applies for marrows and pumpkins and if they cannot be supported in a net then lay them on a piece of plain wood or better a cork board or expanded polystyrene, not varnished or painted wood, nor on shiny plastic and never ever on a tile as often suggested.