Plant training is a process used to get plants to grow in a particular way and perform better. Depending on the plant, this could mean achieving a higher yield, better shape, or more foliage. There’s a good chance that you’ve already used some plant training techniques in your garden, such as using stakes and cages to get your tomato plants to grow upright or a lattice to keep your cucumbers growing vertically rather than horizontally. Even if you haven't, that's okay. Here are some plant training tips and tricks to help you grow the best possible garden.

Start Young

seedlings supported by mesh cages

First and foremost, you should start training your plants when they’re young. That means putting stakes and cages in the ground right when you transplant your seedlings or plant directly in the garden, and right after you’ve identified the seedlings you’re keeping rather than thinning out.

This works in your plants' favor in two ways. For one thing, their root systems aren’t going to be as impacted as they would have been if you tried to train them once they had gotten bigger. Of course, you’ll still want to be aware of your seedlings' tender and expanding root systems, but with the right amount of spacing, a cage or a couple of stakes shouldn’t cause too much damage.

Second of all, younger plants are much easier to work with in terms of trying to get them exactly where you want. There may have been a time when you were a little late to put a tomato cage around an already-mature tomato plant to keep it from growing on the ground. Often, the problem in situations like these is getting the branches into the parts of the cage you want them to be in. No matter how carefully you work at it, they can still break off or get damaged. It’s just easier when they’re tender seedlings.

It Takes Time

grape vine growing on a stake

Even if you start training your plants when they're seedlings, it's going to take some time for them to grow into place, especially when you're trying to create a vertical garden. Luckily, many vining plants want to grow upwards and will happily attach themselves to the supports you provide for them. Sometimes, they’ll even attach themselves to supports that weren’t meant for them, such as nearby fences or kids' toys. You may find that you have to continue working with your plants to get them to grow in the desired manner by taking their vines and putting them right by the supports or using garden twist ties to connect the two.

Be Gentle

leave twist ties loose when plant training

Not only should you be gentle when handling your plants, but you should also use your training tools gently. You already know that you have to be mindful of plants' roots, and that’s why you should try to use items like tomato cages and stakes early on, but other tools should also be used gently. When using garden twist ties, for instance, you'll want to put them on as loosely as possible so that they don’t damage the plant or hinder its growth. You don’t want the twist tie to become embedded in the growing plant, where it could cut off some vital pathways. Finding twist ties that can expand or break is often a smart move when trying to play it safe.

Not Just For The Vegetable Garden

espalier tree growing along a trellis

You may be thinking that plant training is only for the vegetable garden, but that’s not true at all. For example, one training technique that’s used for woody plants like shrubs and trees is called espalier. Basically, it turns the tree itself into a natural wall or fence. This training technique is particularly useful in areas that don't have a whole lot of space, as it trains the plant to essentially grow itself flat. Be warned: espalier is a training method that takes a while, and it's very involved. It’s essential to have a plant that’s young and capable of being shaped easily. Still, this can be a fun way to add fruit trees (try pear or apple) to your small space garden.

In addition, training can be used when growing grapes, raspberries, and other fruits. These crops typically require some kind of pruning and the use of twist ties, but after enough time has passed, you'll be able to tame these wild plants and get them to grow in the fashion that works best for your garden.

Plant training may sound complicated, but for the most part, it’s just a matter of getting your plant to work better in your garden. Remember, having tomatoes or cucumbers on the ground is just an open invitation for pests to come and attack the harvest that you’ve worked so hard to grow. To avoid that, use tomato cages, stakes, and lattices to keep your garden neat and tidy. If you aren't already doing this, now's your chance to improve your technique.