Gardeners need all the support they can get. There never seems to be enough time, after all, between spring's first green shoots and summer's skyward-climbing stems bent under the weight of heavy-headed peonies, ripe tomatoes, and plump pea pods. As any green thumb knows, many tall ornamentals and climbing edibles need something to lean on to keep them upright so that they're not rotting in moist soil.
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Ever since colonial-era homesteaders wove wattle garden structures from unbranched shoots of willow or hazel and set their peas to clamber over rows of tiny-twigged birch limbs, countless generations have used sticks to prop up their plants. Today, homeowners who want to combine beauty and utility can do the same. "Metal stakes and hoops may be practical," says Connecticut gardener Thyrza Whittemore, "but aesthetics are important, even in the vegetable garden." So she reaches for branches pruned in early spring—close at hand, easy to fashion to the right size, biodegradable, and free—to bring order to her beds. Read on to learn how she does it.
Step 1: Get Prepped
Build a diamond-patterned twig trellis for climbers Collect fresh, straight hardwood cuttings about 1/2-inch in diameter. Flexible apple shoots are easiest to work with, but shrub willow or dogwood, maple, or sassafras sapling twigs can be used, or improvise with bamboo stakes from the garden center. For this 3-foot-high, 10-foot-long trellis, Thyrza used 60 sticks, 3 to 4 feet long, plus three thicker ones, 4 to 5 feet long (rebar or garden stakes can sub for these if need be).
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Step 2: Lay Out the Framework
Sort sticks by length; use the longest ones first. Cut lightweight twine into a bunch of 5- to 6-inch lengths and set aside. Push support sticks straight into the ground, 6 inches deep, at each end of the trellis and in the middle. Fasten twine to the supports at either end, just above the ground, as a guide for keeping a straight line. Then cut measuring sticks, one 5 inches for spacing, one 3 feet as a height check.
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Step 3: Set the First Diagonals
Center the 5-inch spacing guide on the middle support stick at its base. At each end of the guide, insert a stick diagonally into the ground at about a 60-degree angle, going about 3 inches deep. Keep the diagonals parallel to each other. Then, at the base of the first sticks, insert diagonals in the opposite direction, always crossing in front of the support stick.
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Step 4: Weave in More Sticks, Tie Them Where They Cross
Alternating sides and using the 5-inch spacer, add three more diagonals going in the first direction, then three in the other direction. Weave them in and out of each other at every other intersection. Tie crossing sticks together at the bottom, middle, and top of the trellis. Keep working from the center out, adding weaving, and tying sticks. Finish by tying crossing sticks at both ends of the structure.
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Step 5: Trim the Ends
Stand back and take a good look at the trellis. Then adjust sticks and retie them as needed. For a neat finish, trim the twigs along the top of the trellis, using the 3-foot stick as a height guide, then clean up sticks at both ends for a clean line.
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Step 6: Plant Peas or Other Vining Plants, and Watch Them Climb
Thyrza plants shelling peas, snow peas, and sugar snaps along the length of the trellis. As the pea vines scramble up, wrapping tendrils around the twigs, they get optimum air circulation and sun exposure. Best of all, they're easy to pick.
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Step 7: Beef Up Twig Supports for Peonies
Rather than buy clunky peony hoops or ugly tomato cages, Thyrza Whittemore reinforces her twig garden structures with plastic-coated metal garden stakes, spray-painted brown (rusted rebar can also be used), for plants that need heavy lifting.
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To keep the nodding heads of her 36- to 40-inch-tall 'Festia Maxima' peonies upright (inset, below), Thyrza surrounds their bed with 3-foot metal stakes, driving them into the ground about 2 feet apart when the plants are 1 foot tall. Then she uses the stakes to secure twine that she runs in a grid through the bed, just below the flower heads, hiding it in the foliage; she adds another grid when the plants are 2 feet tall. "Take into account the height of your peonies so that the stakes don't stick up above their heads like they're in a corral," she says. Apple-twig X's tied to the outside of the stakes put a pretty face on the grid.
Step 8: Reinforce Framework for Tomatoes
To give her tomatoes a sturdy framework, Thyrza builds them a four-legged tower (bottom). First, she drives 6-foot metal stakes into the ground in a 2½-foot-sided square. Then she ties straight apple cuttings in big X's to the outside of the stakes and tops the tower with crossed arches made of bent twigs tied to the opposing stakes. Tomatoes ripen within easy reach.
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