In the early years of my gardening career, I planted many perennials without a clue as to how to take care of them. It gradually dawned on me that I needed to learn something about tending these beautiful flowering plants. Sometimes it was not such a gradual learning but more of an emergency!
Too-rich or too-moist soil, heavy winds or rains, letting the plant grow past the size when it should be divided — all can contribute to a messy, flat clump of ruined flowers.
So when Tracy DiSabato-Aust’s book, “The Well-Tended Perennial Garden,” was published by Timber Press in late 1998, it was a wealth of wonderful information to me. She was a pioneer in introducing the technique of cutting back many tall-growing perennials before flowering. This delays flowering a couple of weeks, but makes the plant flower at a lower height and thus prevents much of the floppiness that would ordinarily occur.
Cutting back only part of the plant can stagger the bloom time and keep the plant blooming longer. Many gardeners do this regularly to asters and chrysanthemums but were not aware that other plants can benefit from using this technique.
Of course, there are plants that cannot be treated this way — lilies, iris, lupine, poppies and astilbes are all plants with one flower stalk and they will not flower if cut back before blooming. So if staking needs to be done, it should be done early, after the first flush of growth but before full growth.
The stems should be sturdy and flower buds not formed yet. Stakes placed early are easily hidden by maturing foliage. Avoid waiting until it is too late, when the plants have toppled over and the stems have already begun to change their orientation. I confess I have often seen iris stems knocked down by the wind with flowers turned sideways and growing straight up to the sky!
Tracy makes an important point about ways to do staking unobtrusively. “Staking should be done as naturally as possible, without adulterating the normal habit of the plant. Follow the natural line of the stem. Use natural materials such as branches whenever feasible, and for ties use jute or string that blend well and is biodegradable (plastic-coated twist ties are not!). Don’t tie the stem so tightly that it looks restricted. Let stems have a bit of slack to allow some movement.”
Making a figure “8” with the tie so the plant never touches the stake is the best way to secure a stem. Tie the jute or string around the stem first, then make a twist and tie it around the stake.
There are a number of commercially available plant stakes in various sizes that work well for clumping plants.
I like the “Y” shape with moveable arms that spread around to support the plant as it is growing but before the buds appear. These are made of durable plastic over strong wire and colored in brown or dark green so are quite inconspicuous. They work well for tall clumping plants like monkshood and Helenium.
Plants like peonies need side support. The best I have found is a ring or grid that can be placed around or over the plant soon after it emerges in the spring. Then the plant will grow up through the grid and have lots of internal support.
These aids to staking are available through many garden supply catalogues. I have purchased many at big garden shows and they save a lot of work.
Many books on perennial care have been published but I have never found one as helpful as Tracy’s.
Remember, “A stake in time, saves the line”!
A WSU Master Gardeners of Chelan County column appears weekly in the At Home section. Gloria Kupferman is one of three columnists featured.