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The Art of Proper Staking

by Brad Thompson

   Over the years, I have attended many shows and have visited many growers homes. The two items that most growers have a hard time grasping is how to properly stake and when they need to. I have seen some very creative staking, I must admit, but have seen many examples of improper staking, and many plants that might have won an award if the plant had been staked. Ideally, it would be best if all begonias could be grown without needing any staking but we all know there are plants that will not conform to how we want them to look. This is especially true of many species begonias, whoís ancestory has prepared them to survive in the wild, not to grow symetrically in a pot. The following information should help you learn the basics of proper staking.

1. When to stake: Most of you already know those plants that eventually needed staking by the end of the growing season. Instead of waiting until theyíre already falling over, put the stakes in early and train the plant as it grows. This will give you the best results. If you plan on taking that plant to a show later in the season, wait until then to trim the stakes back to the proper heighth. If youíre growing tuberous begonias, they nearly always require staking to keep them from breaking in the wind. Put the stakes in when you put the plant or tuber into its permanent growing spot, so youíll avoid accidentally running the stake through the tuber. I learned about staking tuberous the hard way during the first year I attempted them. I had a garden party at my house and I was very proud of one particular tuberous begonia that was perfect in every way. Mary Sakamoto was looking at the plant and marveling on how great it was, as did all the other growers that attended, but mentioned that I should stake it because it was tall and the wind could break it off. As we stood there, a little breeze blew by and snapped it off at the pot. Now I know Mary jinxed that particular plant but I did learn to stake them after that.

2. Why to stake: Before you decide to stake, you have to have a purpose in mind. Do you want to tame the wildness, make it show worthy, or just provide it with some support to keep branches from breaking. You might even want to be creative and create a standard. All of these are sound reasons for staking a plant. Some of the species grow as if their ancestors were used to leaning on neighboring plants for support. They seem to have weak stems and though they sometimes grow up nice and straight, they fall over or spread apart the minute you move the pot to another location. Stake these plants before you move them and you can maintain their shape. This is true of many hybrids also. Iíve helped people move their collections and have also seen this situation with plants brought to a show. The plant was beautiful where it was but the minute you moved it, the stems went every which way. Staking would have avoided this problem. Iím a firm believer in less is better so I personally try to keep my plants shorter and compact so they donít require as much staking. I still have many plants that wonít conform and I do stake when necessary.

3. What to stake: Any begonia that you want to grow in an upright pattern that is more than 18 inches tall or that has inheritantly weak stems. Many canes and shrubs fit the criteria. Especially stake any plant that meets these conditions that is going to be transported to another location. It may seem sturdy but after jostling in a car, you may have many broken branches. Itís better to be safe than sorry. You can also use staking as a means for reparing a plant with a problem. An example of this is basket begonia that has had some die off or some other problem that has left an empty spot. If the plant has enough extra growth in the surrounding areas, you can gently pull some branches over to fill the empty spot and secure them with a stake. In about a month you can remove the stake and the branches will usually stay in their new location. I have won best in show with a basket begonia repaired in this manner earlier in the same year.

4. How to stake: Stakes are supposed to be used in such a way that they support the plant without being overly obvious or detract from the looks of the plant. Two things that will help you attain this is using the proper stakes and placing them in the proper place. The green bamboo stakes work the best because of their similarity to the begonia stems themselves. An additional tip that I learned from another grower was to place the stakes out in the sun for a few days to bleach them out. That way they attain a more natural coloring instead of the bright green they are initially which may stand out too much with some varieties of begonias.

Another item is the actual placement of the stakes. If at all possible, the stakes should be pushed into the soil on the back side of the stems to be staked. This serves two purposes; it hides the stake behind the stem of the plant and also interferes less with the growth of the plant. Each stem of the plant should have its own stake and the stake should be placed at a natural angle for the variety you are staking.

Tuberous begonias can be staked with stakes that are straight up but most other begonias will the need the tops of the stakes to angle slightly outwards to allow room for the inner stems to grow. If you are going to stake the plant, all of the outside facing stems should be staked but you may not need to stake all of the inner stems. With many varieties, the outside staking will support the inner growth without individual staking of the inner stems. I always start staking with the outside stems and then decide later about the inner stems. If the plant is very tall it may be wise to stake all the stems. Try your best to space the stakes evenly around the plant so the plant will be full and symetrical.

As I said before, it is best to put the stakes in when the plant is just starting to grow, but then again we donít always get around to what is best. Iím sure all of us have staked a plant during the week of the show. (Well, I havenít, but Iím sure some of you have.) Sometimes, you may have a plant that you waited too long to stake and the stems have already fallen over and then bent upwards again towards the light. (Again, I havenít, but Iím sure there are growers that have.) You can sometimes get begonias in this condition back into shape again. You have to be gentle and some stems may break off but since you already let it go so far, you really donít have much to lose in trying. It is best to let the plant go pretty dry so the stems will be more pliable instead of crisp and brittle. Place a stake behind the stem to be corrected and firmly tie it at the base. Gradually work your way up the stem, pulling it to the stake and tying it every few in ches until you have the entire stem tied up. The tip will be the hardest because of the crook in the stem but can usually be bent enough to tie it straight. Use as many ties as necessary and then remove the extra ones later when the stem is adjusted.

How to do the actual tying is another important factor. This should also be as invisible as possible. The green twist ties are the most common and blend the best. The wider green plastic ties might also be exceptible but they are less attractive. Another common type is a brown paper covered tie which might work well for some plants and Iíve even seen raffia used as tying material. It doesnít matter that much, as long as the material you use doesnít detract from the looks of the plant. More important is where and how you tie the stems. You should make sure to place your first tie as close to the soil line as possible. This tie should be fairly tight so the stake doesnít move. Not doing this is the most common staking mistake that Iíve seen. If the stake isnít secured firmly at the base of the stem, the stake can pull out of the soil when the plant is moved or in wind. I canít tell you how many times Iíve seen plants with ties only at the tips of the stakes that fell completely apart during transit. They would have been better off not staking at all because the bottoms of the stakes that came out of the mix tore the plant up.

You should use a minimum of three ties per stem; one at the base, one in the middle and one below the tip. Those three places are the most important but you may need more ties, preferably every 6 inches or so. As I said before, the base tie should be fairly tight. This part of the stem is usually woody and isnít going to increae much in size so you donít have to worry as much about strangling the stem with too tight of a tie. As you move up the stem, leave the ties looser so there will be room for the stem to grow.

I know some of you are going to ask what to do if the stem has branches on it. Most times the stake on the main stem will be enough to support the branches also without additonal staking. If they seem too weak they you will need separate stakes for them. Secure the stake at the base of the main stem to secure it and angle it with the natural growth of the branch. If your plant is as full and lush as it should be, all of this staking will not show. If it does, then your plant just isnít ready to show yet, but youíll have it ready for next year.

Now that you know all about staking, you have no excuse for not getting your plants to shape up.

Pinching for Fun and Profit

The following are the ins and outs of pinching.

1. What is pinching: Pinching is the removal of the plant's growing tips to force it to put out side shoots and branches. It involves removing the very tip of each stem (pinching it off).

2. Who to pinch: While you can pinch any begonia to promote branching there are some types that you probably shouldn't and some that don't require it. As a general rule large upright canes, larger flowered tuberous, and thick stemmed begonias shouldn't be pinched. The large canes and the thick stemmed varieties don't usually branch well even if pinched, and pinching those will leave a stair stepping type scar/stump where you pinched which will make the plant not look as nice. These also have larger leaves and forcing them to branch too much may over crowd the plant. The large flowered tuberous are not supposed to be branched because it will cause the flowers to be smaller which will ruin the plant for any shows. ( you can pinch out the flower buds on young tuberous plants to give them more energy and larger flowers later though). The type of begonia that responds the best to pinching are small to medium leaved canes and shrubs, especially if you are growing them in a basket. Pinching will make your baskets full and help keep them growing symetrical. You can also pinch the tips on your rhizomatous (after they have bloomed) to make them fill the inside of the pot instead of crawling over the edges. Some types that branch well on their own may not need any pinching, but you'll just have to watch and learn which of your begonias fit that catagory.

3. Why to pinch: Let me give you an example. Say you have a plant in a basket with three nice stems and you don't pinch. This is a variety that doesn't branch well on its own. These three branches keep growing out and then bloom, maybe during the growing season a couple more stems come up from the base, but basically all you're getting for a seasons growth is three blooming stems. Ok, let's say that instead you had pinched this plant, each stem put out two side shoots for each stem you pinched out making six stems. A few weeks later you pinched out the tips on those six
stems and each of those pinches resulted in two more new side shoots. Even if you stopped right there you now have twelve blooming stems with just pinching two times. Of course you can usually pinch more times than that before you have to let them go and bloom but I hope this example illustrates what a difference just a little pinching can do. Also you can get more than just two side shoots from each pinching and usually you do. Pinching your plants can also transform a plant that normally likes to grow tall, leggy and open into a full, bushy compact plant. An example is B. albo picta. I have seen that plant be five foot tall, beautiful but very open and not lush looking. I started pinching mine and transformed it into a lush, very full plant that was only about a foot tall that won numerous trophies and cultural awards so I know the dramatic effect that pinching can produce.

4. How to pinch: To pinch your plants you need to follow what I already stated earlier. You remove the growing tip of each branch. The growing tip is that unopened bud at the very tip of each stem where the next leaf will come out. Usually you remove it by pinching it off with your fingernail (yes thats why its called pinching, and no I don't know who thought of calling it that). Make sure to remove it completely to the base of the bud or the plant may continue to grow from there. You can also remove the bud and the new baby leaf below it to make sure you got it pinched off.

5. When to pinch: On plants that you're going to pinch, start pinching after pruning (or right away on plants that you don't prune at all) as soon as the new shoots have grown out three nodes ( a node is the joint in the stem where the leaf is connected). The reason for this is that if you don't wait till you get out three nodes then you won't gain anything because after pinching out one bud where would it branch from? With three nodes, after removing the one node (the growing tip is a node too) then you are left with two nodes that will send out side shoots. These you let grow out three nodes and then pinch again. Usually a plant that is actively growing can grow out three nodes in three or four weeks. You continue pinching until about 6 weeks before a show to make sure the plant has time to grow out and bloom well in time for the show. Pinching will delay blooming but you will be rewarded with so many more stems that have blooms that it is well worth the extra wait besides the fact of how nice and full your plant will be.

I was amazed at the difference pinching made especially on plants that had a tendency to grow leggy or sparse. If you plan on entering shows and would like to win something for your efforts then you really do need to learn to pinch to have quality show plants but even if you're just growing them for yourself you should still pinch for beautiful, full plants.

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