Crop protection from both weather and foes

Some of the biggest difficulties most kitchen gardeners come up against are losses caused by adverse weather and by the numerous foes stealing our hard won crops. Oddly books seldom make much of the problems and corrections for adverse weather, and when dealing with pests and diseases rather downplay or ignore the larger ones.

Now we have to accept weather and work with it, and indeed we do much to alleviate problems it causes. After all we gardeners have long been battling the weather and know what we can or can’t do to coax crops despite it, mostly involving watering or cover of some sort. Climate change will give us more radical weather to deal with, but currently I reckon pest problems are already changing.

I’ve been answering queries for three decades as a speaker and writer and I have witnessed steadily increasing losses and annoyance caused by the larger pests. Indeed this amounting to far more trouble than that from the multitude of all the bugs put together. In particular there have been huge increases in losses from wood pigeons which appear to have reached plague proportions in many areas.

Likewise it appears more damage is being caused now a days by badgers, bunnies, squirrels, foxes, deer and nastiest of all- rodents. True slugs and snails, aphids, caterpillars, red spider mites under cover, white fly and so on are all continuing trials for most gardeners. But it is the bigger pests, which were once far less of a problem, but that have now reached near epidemic levels in some areas.

Without seeking to apportion blame I suspect farmers and gamekeepers are not controlling some of these as effectively as they used to, and worse- that the rest of us do not control rodents or even sanction dispatching other garden pests by effective old fashioned measures. And further- that well meaning but woolly minded sentimentality has encouraged many of these troublesome creatures to not only increase in number but also to lose their fear of humans. It is obvious that scarecrows now fail to scare birds- presumably they did once work! But we have all become so kind hearted we no longer stone the crows- so why should they fly off at the sight of a stuffed shirt and old trousers. (Please note- I am not recommending stoning birds; only referencing it for illustration!)

For I’m not at all keen on animal abuse in any form, however the fact that we used to be alarmingly and randomly cruel and vicious did keep many wild animals fearful of entering our gardens. They have good reason to be less scared anymore. And so as some foolishly encourage, even feed, foxes and pigeons, so these and others no longer flee our presence or our smell but boldly enter our plots and ransack them without fear of retribution. Even the scaredy rabbits and deer are getting braver!

To be fair some other ‘larger pest’ problems have decreased. When I started gardening huge flocks of starlings would appear and clear every fruit from my trees in minutes, and daily I lost a large proportion of chicken grain to house sparrows -which are now near noteworthy when seen. And hedgehogs have all but disappeared. Now I’m a bit radical here but I reckon hedgehogs were actually not a gardener’s friend. They didn’t steal much fruit nor many eggs, but neither did they eat many slugs or snails. Especially when compared to the numbers of valuable earthworms and useful beetles they consumed.

Ground beetles control a great many garden pests by eating eggs and young and so are really the gardener’s allies AND they were a major constituent of the average hedgehog’s diet- you get my drift. Anyway, back to the point. We are either legally, socially or morally prevented from simply eliminating the bigger pests bothering us. And even that can only be temporary alleviation as more would soon pour in to fill the gap. They also rapidly learn to ignore our ‘scarers’ such as hair, glitter-bangs, cds and flashing tapes, plastic bottles of water, old wigs, fake hosepipe snakes, fairground spiders and webs, and sleeping moggies made from old fur hats. All these scare for an instant but without real threat the pests soon come back. Some hardened offenders don’t move until we’re actually running at them shouting waving a stick, even then most just sneak off, lie low and are back again soon after we’ve moved out of range again. So we are really only left with physical exclusion.

Now there are great benefits to a physical barrier; the sheer simplicity, and if carefully policed the potential for hundred per cent success. And there is often a bonus with shelter from the elements, and vice versa. After all; most of the bigger pests never venture into the greenhouse or enter a cloche. (Though to be fair I must admit I had a fat old cat who spoiled several cloched crops in his perpetual search for the warmest snoozing place in the garden.) Cloches, coldframes, even wee plastic bottle ‘cloches’ don’t just keep off a host of pests big and small but act as tiny greenhouses. (I now use topless bottomless tubes cut from plastic bottles as I found some seedlings cooked in badly ventilated half bottles, and the tubes often need no later removal with the subsequent check.)

However regard any allotment site- a plethora of gaudy ‘scarers’, sticks, nets, fleeces and so on in profusion, because it’s all needed. Many, rightly, regard all this ‘tat’ as demeaning the vegetable garden, horticultural fleeces and old net curtains especially annoy. I understand their angst, and I really don’t like fleece- it does indeed stop carrot root flies and brassica butterflies but it’s a pain to put in place, remove to weed or water and is indeed unsightly. Lovely micro-climate though- does grow good carrots but I find the brassicas are not quite so keen on it, it does keep the pigeons off as well. But having to place plastic bottle tubes over each and every lettuce, beetroot and chard seedling is a chore. Having to put wire netting tunnels over rows of pea likewise and needing to make a wire netting box for each and every brassica is tedious if effective. I make similar barriers made from bent oven shelves and discarded. And I also need to net my ripening tomatoes to stop the blackbirds. And rats and mice need trapping as they steal my peas then my sweet corn. (Not to mention any concerns over nearby fox feeding neighbours and my self service chicken dinner provision.) It is all becoming as much work protecting my crops from bigger pests as growing them in the first place. And particularly noticeably now from wood pigeons.

Thus instead of a multitude of individual contrivances I am now using bigger cages that fit over whole raised beds. I’ve made movable frames from old poly-tunnel segments that support nets to exclude brassica caterpillars, wood pigeons and so on, even fleeces.

Most soft fruit growers soon recognise the more than proportionate value of a fruit cage. You don’t just save a bit more of your own fruit from destruction but a whole lot more, and it can be left to ripen and gain it’s full flavour and sweetness. And a cage can exclude not only birds but may also stop most of the other larger pests. Of course a badger, squirrel or rat could tear it’s way through even the galvanised netting- but faced with just a plastic net is most likely to wander off and look for easier pickings elsewhere. (Now although it would stop more pests it’s no sense to go putting all the vegetables under clear plastic sheet- you lose the rain, the ventilation and the ingress of bees and small useful insects, to say little of the cost. And some vegetables would not like the heat. But with netting fine enough to stop everything bigger than a honey-bee you can keep out the majority of vegetable pests, though sadly not the root flies.)

Now I’m planning to go for economies of scale using another second hand poly-tunnel frame to make a huge vegetable cage as I have done the same for my soft fruit and cherries. As you know the frames are sections of tube that slot together and sit in other tubes banged into the ground, the ends can be just a couple of wooden uprights and a spare door. With galvanised small gauge netting from below ground level to waist high where most damage occurs and plastic mesh over the top the lot is quick and simple to put together. An old poly-tunnel frame has plenty of head height and no internal posts and i could tie crops such as tomatoes to strings hanging from overhead wires fixed to the frames as these are strong and can carry a load.

Now I reckon I only really need to protect about half of my plot each year in rotation as there are always some crops little bothered by the commoner local pests- for example my bane the wood pigeons don’t bother onions, leeks, aromatic herbs and so on. It is more my brassicas and beets, salads, seed and legume crops most attacked. Unlike a tunnel sheeted in clear plastic one that’s covered with nets should be easier to move. So I could move the frame and net in early spring only requiring another set of ground tubes and then the original ones could be re-used again the following year. Still that’s still a lot of work. Maybe I should just go the whole hog and make a really big cage to net in the lot.

And one other point- a padlocked cage could also deter other forms of opportunistic theft- which may become more serious if leaner times are coming. Thus I think before long we may all need to consider making ourselves large vegetable cages very much along the lines of fruit cages.