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SocietyNovember 4, 2023

Their house, my garden: Support systems


This week in Their house, my garden, we build a simple support structure – because no plant should have to stand up to the wind all on its own.

I have received word from two gardeners that it has been very windy, and last weekend, several plant children were pushed over. Parents are worried. What can one do against a bully which can’t be seen, can’t be punished and can’t be educated? The answer, in this case, is not to focus on the bully, but instead to focus on making our own stronger.

We are going to build support structures, which will be useful not only against wind bullies, but also gravity (the biggest and most undefeatable bully of all). 

For this, we need just one tool – a handsaw – plus some twine and strips of old fabric. We also need to know the location of some bamboo. Of course, there are other trees, but none are as long and straight and easy to make things with as bamboo. Structures made out of these more irregular options often look as if they’ve been made by a witch, which is fine but also scary. 

Despite widespread advice on how to grow bamboo as a screen or snack, it’s a pest and should be cut down for interests beyond that of our vegetable gardens. It simply grows too well and out-competes everything else. Also, we don’t have pandas here. 

There is as much advice out there for getting rid of bamboo as there is for growing it. That means there’s someone in your neighbourhood Facebook group who has bamboo and no longer wants it. You may be thinking about the bamboo stand at the edge of a public park nearby. To cut this down within the confines of the law, you would need to contact your local council and ask for specific permission, and allow days, perhaps weeks, for the grinding cogs of bureaucracy to do their thing. Or you can just wake up early one Wednesday morning and pray no-one will tell you off. In my experience, the one passerby who notices will be an old lady walking her poodle. She will say “garden stakes?” and you will say “they’re perfect for tomato season.” You will pat her dog and all will be forgiven.

If cutting down bamboo with a handsaw sounds daunting, let me reassure you: I am a weakling and I can do it. Bamboo is hollow and the saw is surprisingly sharp. There is some safety to consider. I am forever getting things in my eyes, so I wear sunglasses as protection. The blade of the saw really shouldn’t be going towards you or near any of your limbs or fingers. Please make sure of this, and if you’re uncoordinated, consider wearing longs and gardening gloves. I do not want to be held liable if you hurt yourself. Hopefully the worst that will happen is a blister from gripping the saw too firmly.

A tent for plants

We are going to be building a classic tent shape or “triangular prism”. This means we will need four bamboo poles all about the same height – that being however tall you are plus your arms. The spindly weak top of the bamboo is not to be included in this height. It is no use to us and should be chopped off after you’ve cut the bamboo down at its base. 

We will also need a pole, as long as your vegetable bed is wide, for the top of the tent, plus a few shorter ones for reinforcements, and because since you’re here you may as well get them. You can probably find shorter ones that have already died and come loose by their own volition.

Officially the worst bit.

When the canes come down, you will notice they’re much bushier than expected. For our purposes we will be stripping off their little branches, though it can be useful to leave some little knobs. If you have secateurs, this would be an excellent time to use them. If you only have a saw like me, this is the most annoying part of getting bamboo. Some branches will come off if you grab them and angrily tug them the opposite direction they are growing. For the ones that don’t, saw them off with the saw facing downwards. Now you should have at least seven beautiful and tidy bamboo poles. 

You could transport them inside your car, but I prefer to strap mine to the top, because once a weta crawled out of one when I was driving down Sandringham Road in peak traffic and I almost crashed. The weta lived.

To start the structure, stab your four equal lengths into each corner of your bed. They need to be firmly in the ground, so don’t be afraid to put some weight behind them. Twisting can help too, like a drill. Sometimes bamboo does break when you’re doing this and you feel stupid for not having cut down one extra length. But wallowing in regret isn’t good for you. What you can do instead is make a sort of Frankenstein’s monster of a pole, by tying two together. Then tie the pole pairs together about 10cm from the top, so that they make Xs with extremely long legs. I’ve used some cotton webbing from my drawer, left over from some craft project or another, but you could use strips of an old T-shirt or tights, or just about anything really. 

If you’re very keen on tying things properly, there are several beautiful and practical Japanese lashing techniques for bamboo structures. But you do not need to be a master knots-person, as long as you bind your tie around the poles a couple of times before the double knot à la shoelaces. Don’t use zip ties, they’re ugly.

Now we need buttressing, like a gothic cathedral. I used two shorter lengths to support the back poles, attaching them where there were knobs where branches once were. The results should be fairly stable but also have some flex. If they’re wobbling all over the place you need to dig them in further. 

We’re now ready for the top of the tent. Place the pole on the top of the two Xs, then tie it on. Great job. This structure should withhold wind and gravity until you have enjoyed all your tomatoes.

Very strong and beautiful.

You may have noticed it’s not actually connected to any plants. What we’re going to do is tie the plants on. Other gardeners call this “string training”. The string needs to be thick and soft. I’ve used twine from the supermarket, but if I didn’t have a gardening column I needed to write today, I’d have ordered this much more beautiful recycled sari twine.

When looking for a good place to tie my tomato plants, I discovered they’ve been quick to grow laterals – these are little stems which grow in the nook between the main stem and the leaf. If left to grow, they basically make another whole tomato plant, and things can get very unruly. Most gardeners pick them off as soon as they appear, but whether or not this is good for the tomato plants is contested between me and my partner. He prefers the wild and unruly and disorganised, but he is away. I pick off the laterals that have not gotten too big yet, pinching them between my index finger and thumbnail. The big ones, near the bottom of the plants, will have to be tied up themselves soon.

Laterals – pick them off if you like things neat and manageable.

Tie the twine to the bottom of the tomato plants, making a loose loop with a double knot. For the love of god do not use a slip knot. We are not here to hang our plants. Then, loosely wind the twine around the stem, working your way up. Yes, you need to do a bit of bush-bashing against all the leaves. Then pull the twine all the way up to the top of the structure, wind it around the bamboo a couple of times, pull it taunt, and tie it. Do this for each tomato plant which is looking like a wobbly toddler.

Plants like beans, peas and capsicums could be tied the same way, but they won’t get as big and heavy as tomatoes, so using the extra shorter lengths of bamboo as ordinary stakes works just fine.

With these support structures, our plants are ready to take on all the invisible bullies, and grow into big strong plants. Some of my tomatoes are blossoming already; tiny yellow petals are emerging from fluffy buds.

Special news: A pumpkin seedling has popped up from the compost. Unfortunately it is not near the beans and sunflowers.

Top tip of the week: The only thing you need to buy is twine and a saw. Don’t fall for those “tomato clips” or “cages”. No tomato wants to be clipped or caged.

Task for the week: Get building!

Keep going!