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Obelisks
by Des Kennedy
October 7, 2001


One of the universal laws of gardening is that no matter how large a garden one has, it is never large enough to accommodate all the plants you’d like to grow. There’s not a whole lot you can do about horizontal space, short of annexing some of the neighbour’s yard or allowing our plantings to creep out onto public alleyways and boulevards - illicit expansions I’ve seen a good deal of recently. Vertical space, on the other hand, is largely free for the taking, offering the gardener opportunities both legal and legitimate for expanding into a whole new dimension. 
The challenge of getting plants up into the air and keeping them reliably there generates all sorts of ingenious strategies and structures, invloving arches, pergolas, trellises, arbors and bowers. Ready-made versions of these structures are now abundant in the marketplace, ranging from the simple, functional and relatively inexpensive to the elaborately ornamental and very pricey.
The other option, and the one towards which many of us are intuitively drawn, is to make your own. This route enjoys the advantages of economy and custom design but suffers the disadvantage of delay, as scheduling seldom permits dropping all else in order to erect a pergola because the climbing roses have suddenly decided to run rampant. This is the point at which interim measures kick in. It’s a rubric we’ve followed, for example, for several years with a number of increasingly rampant viticella clematis. The first strong shoots of spring would be tied to a bamboo stake which they would outgrow overnight. Subsequently a tall pole would be driven into the ground, sufficient to hold the vine aloft for another week or two, during which time I would continue to indulge impossible dreams of getting a proper tower built before they got any bigger. Eventually conceding that the tower would be postponed for yet another year, I’d rig up a jerry-built tripod of three long poles lashed together at the apex with binder twine. Once swathed in growth this would prove aesthetically satisfactory but structurally unsound, as sooner or later a windstorm would bring the whole works crashing down.
After several seasons of this silliness, I almost succumbed to the temptation to go buy some proper support structures - “agriforms” as I see them called. I looked at a welded wire pyramid tower with steel filial, an English garden obelisk of tubular steel and a galvanized Cotswold obelisk. Prices ranged up to several hundred dollars each. Needing nine towers, after a quick calculation I recommitted myself to the “do it yourself” approach.
Inspired now, I bought a load of one-by-two inch red cedar pieces, eight feet long. I laid out two identical sides with vertical posts spread about thirty cms at the base and twelve cms at the peak, then connected the upright pieces with strips set in a zig-zag pattern and fastened with copper screws. I then stood up the two matching sides and connected them with additional zig-zag strips. At the apex , I attached the four upright corner pieces to a block of cedar to which I will eventually (time permitting) attach a pyramidal apex or finial.
Stained a bluish-green to match other garden features, the obelisks were placed directly over each wobbling clematis. I put a small flat stone under each foot to prevent rotting. Then I drove a short length of scrap copper pipe into the ground at each corner and wired it to each corner leg to prevent toppling in the wind.
I've now got nine of the towers done and I must tell you they work quite handsomely indeed. The clematis twine through them to excellent effect and the structures themselves create interesting space effects, either as a strong focal point at the end or junction of a path, or, when several are placed in close proximity, creating a backdrop or “room” effect.
The original obelisks created by ancient Egyptians were dedicated to the sun god and symbolized contact between the earth and the heavens, humans and the gods. Lifting flowering vines towards the sky, our owner-built towers make lack the gravitas of those ancient monoliths incised with hieroglyphs, but they’re a giant step forward from tottering tipis of sticks and binder twine.

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