Grow your own beanpoles
I am lucky enough to have a garden studded with hazel trees. They are the default tree for the ancient Somerset hedgerows which draw hazy outlines around every field here for miles (including my own garden: I have a slightly eyewatering half a mile of hedgerow to look after, most of it dating back over 200 years. It is quite a responsibility).
The hedgerow hazels have seeded themselves into my garden, so I have about a dozen stands of hazel dotted about the place. These yield one of the most important harvests of my year, and I’m gathering it right now in big bundles of sturdy, ramrod straight beanpoles.
Coppiced hazel is a wildlife nirvana: every small creature from beetles to dormice nestles deep into the loose leaves that get caught in the ever-widening boles (stumps), and the rain of golden catkins in spring is a much-needed boost for early-flying bees.
Coppicing helps prolong the lives of trees by keeping them youthful, like a horticultural Philosopher’s Stone: it’s a craft as ancient as the hedgerows, stretching back centuries. You will still find coppice groups working in woodland near you: they’re a secretive bunch and don’t like advertising themselves much, but if you look on the Coppice Products website you’ll find your nearest coppice. These lovely old woodlands are traditionally managed by forester-carpenters living slow lives steeped in all things woody. Most will cut you some beanpoles, turn you a hazel wattle fence, or a bootjack, and even knock up a green oak summerhouse if you ask them nicely.
I coppice my hazel on a three year rotation – or at least I would if I were more organised. Three years is about the time it takes for a first-year hazel wand to broaden to the ideal 3-5cm (1-2”) thickness for a good strong beanpole, so if you have three trees you can coppice one a year. You cut down the stems to about 15cm (6”) above ground, about now, and this leaves the way clear for the next generation of hazel poles to spring up nice and straight and true.
I always mean to do this, but never quite manage it. Instead, I just mooch through my trees looking for stems of just the right size and straightness, cutting them as they reach optimum diameter. There always seem to be enough of them: and though they’re a bit wonkier than is ideal, I reason to myself that at least the birds get the bigger, older stuff to nest in, so everyone’s a winner.
The best stems are not only straight: they’re also long enough (at least 2.4m or eight feet long) and branch into three at the top. Hazel is particularly good at this Neptune’s fork formation: and these tops make the absolute best peasticks. You cut off the three-pronged top with about 30cm (1ft) of stem – that’s to stick in the ground – and stash them away somewhere till you’re ready to poke them in among your pea plants.
If you don’t have room for three trees, you can coppice a single tree in rotation too. Hazels are obligingly small and well-behaved (especially when coppiced) and easy-going on location so you can squeeze one into most corners. Cut a third of the stems each year and you’ll get a good handful of beanpoles, enough for a wigwam or two, plus peasticks: and the local wildlife will thank you, too.
Hazel is my go-to plant for beanpoles mainly because it doesn’t root readily when you stick it in the ground. You can also use willow, or dogwood, and both can be very pretty alternatives as the more ornamental ones have lovely coloured stems, too. But be prepared for them to sprout, rather alarmingly, as they take root: willow in particular is devilishly difficult to dig out if you let it take hold. I prefer to use both for weaving horizontally round the uprights of hazel wigwams, making a colourful band that also happens to hold the wigwam together more solidly (and keeps the stems safely out of the ground).
My back-up plant supports are bamboo canes: not the imported bundles from the garden centre, but cut from one of the massive clumps in the gardens I look after. I care for two bamboo plants for other people, and I am glad neither of them are in my garden: they take quite a bit of keeping in check. One of the many perks of the job as a professional gardener, though, is that I can cut as many bamboo poles as I like from these incredibly productive plants: they also happen to be extremely good at sequestering carbon. And the new shoots are good to eat in spring.
I’m not about to advocate planting bamboo, don’t worry: they are the most thuggish of thuggish plants, so avoid if you can. But if you know friends or family with a clump, they won’t miss a few canes. And if you have the misfortune to have bamboo already growing in your garden, you’re never going to get rid of it (they have horrifically strong roots the thickness of hawsers which are impossible to dig out) so you may as well make the most of it – and lower your carbon footprint at the same time.
Do you use any of your garden plants as plant supports? Let us all know about it in the comments below!
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