Staking weak-kneed plants is almost always fussy, time-consuming work—not for the impatient and easily frustrated. To state the obvious, it’s always easier to stake before a plant falls over. You may think you’ll get away with it this year, but as sure as rain falls in June, peonies topple.
Peony cages, set in place early, can also work to support other mid-height plants. For stakes, I’m partial to uncoloured natural bamboo, available in various heights and thicknesses.
Where stems are leaning too far in one direction (usually in search of light), a couple of criss-crossed stakes pushed in at an angle often holds them back without string. Another method is to push in two stakes vertically on either side of a clump, hold the inclining branches back, slide another horizontally behind the two uprights and let go of the stems; their weight will hold the cross stake in place and will support the stems (shown at left). And don’t underestimate the utility of twiggy branches pruned from shrubs; pressed into the ground around lax plants, they act as an effective crutch.
To avoid staking altogether, steer clear of double peonies, tall delphiniums, the giant sea kale (Crambe cordifolia), the taller hardy geraniums, campanulas and fall asters, heavy-headed bearded irises and tall lilies. And placing skyscraper plants on windy hills is asking for extra work.
Here’s a perennial controversy: whether to cut and clear a flowerbed in fall or leave it until spring. I’m for fall all the way—the whole job: cutting stems right to the ground, rooting out stray weeds and raking up all debris. Put a couple of centimetres of fine compost around your plants, and you and your garden have earned a winter’s rest.
At cleanup time, the right tools ease the work wonderfully. There’s no doing without the best pair of pruners you can afford (preferably bypass types meant for roses or small woody branches, which slice cleanly through fibrous stems rather than crushing them). Sharp grass shears make short work of leafier perennials such as Siberian irises, while sturdy scissors are best for cutting back smaller plants.
Once everything is cut back, a springy hand rake—a smaller version of a leaf rake—quickly gathers up bits of leaves and twigs. I look for an opening at the front of the bed and herd everything there for collection. An adjustable, long-handled leaf rake with thin tines is also useful; narrowed, it moves easily between clumps, and at its widest can be dragged lightly over plant crowns to catch debris. This is the time to root out any weeds that have been hiding under cover all summer, too.
My motto: Don’t pick up anything twice if you can help it. Armloads of cut stems go directly into a wheelbarrow; for smaller cleanup jobs, a collecting bucket is handy.
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