The Historic Art of Trellising

Colonial Williamsburg has mastered the art of using trellises in their gardens to ease the growth and harvest of everything from beans and peas to tomatoes and cucumbers.

| Winter 2012/2013

There are few items more useful to a gardener than a long, slender, supple, stick. They prop up the peppers, the peas and the beans. They trellis the cucumbers and the tomatoes, they form the wattle fences, they hold the row covers over the cabbages and they shelter the broad beans from the winter cold. In short, no garden should be without a supply of sticks.

The proper sticks for a garden cannot be simply picked up off the ground, they must be grown. Growing sticks is an ancient art and it is likely that the first buildings inhabited by man were formed with sticks. Wattle and daub construction, in which a lattice of sticks provides the structure for a mud-plaster wall, probably dates back hundreds of years.

In medieval Europe, the sticks were most commonly collected from coppiced trees. This was a pruning method in which plants such as willows, hazels, and alders were kept cut to the ground, resulting in a profusion of sucker growth from the base of the plant. These stems could be used for building material, firewood, tool handles, twig brooms or for the trellising of garden plants.

Pollarded Trees

At Colonial Williamsburg we obtain our sticks from pollarded trees. The pollard is simply a coppice raised above ground as explained by Thomas Hale, Esq. in A compleat body of husbandry (1757):

“From the Management of Coppice Wood we are to advance to the Consideration of Timber Trees; but we are naturally stop’d between both, by a particular Kind of Growth, which is properly speaking, neither of the Coppice Wood, nor Timber Tree Kind: this is the Pollard; a Tree of any Sort cut off at ten or twelve Feet Distance from the Ground, and shooting out from that Part a Number of Branches or Poles. These Poles or Branches are called Shrowds, and the lopping them off is called shrowding of the Tree.”

Pollarded trees were normally kept at 10 to 12 feet to keep them out of the reach of cattle.  As we are not bothered by cattle in our garden, our pollards are maintained at about 5 feet making the sticks easier to harvest.

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