Soft fruits are one of the most pleasing crops to get from your garden, but also one of the most vulnerable. Blackbirds, squirrels, mice and voles are just a few of the garden visitors who enjoy a juicy berry as much as we do and can strip a bush at alarming speed. It is common practice therefore, to cover soft fruit bushes with protective netting while they are fruiting. If you find you are losing a significant proportion of your crop, this is a good idea, so it’s worth considering the design and materials you may use.
I am often asked whether it’s necessary to net soft fruits at all. The extent to which you fruit is pilfered will depend on the wildlife you have in the garden and what other food sources they have. The extent to which you mind your fruit being pilfered will depend upon how much you want for yourself, and whether you can afford to sacrifice some. If it’s a business, it will be worth investing in protection, and if you have only a few bushes, the crop will be more precious and worth guarding. In Martin Crawford’s 2 acre research garden the only thing he bothers to net is an espalier cherry tree growing on the south facing side of his shed. Cherries are a firm favourite with birds and you can lose a whole crop to them easily. By training the tree against the shed it has a good microclimate, is easy to harvest and can be easily netted by attaching bird netting to the wall with a baton, and clipping it down over the tree while it’s fruiting. All other fruit in his garden is left unprotected because he has so much of it, he can afford to share it.
There are varying attitudes and varying methods, and you’ll need to find the way that suits you.
For permanent protection you will need a structure that will outlive the fruit inside it. Soft fruit bushes can last for a decade, so go for sturdy materials. Scaffold poles are great because they are long lasting and easy to use – you can drive them straight into the ground using a post ram. They can also be upcycled – we used rejects from a local scaffolding firm and these are quite easy to come by now as there has been a change in the material used for poles so many firms are switching.
We chose 2 different grades of wire netting (chicken wire). At the base we used a fine mesh with openings of around 10mm to keep out rodents. At the top we used a larger gage, around 25mm to allow small birds (pest
control) and flying insects (pollination and pest control) into the cage, but keep out fruit-gorging blackbirds and squirrels. Our cage (7x7m) is currently being tractored by our chickens and turkeys, preparing the ground for planting this winter, so there’s no roof on it yet. We plan to use a lighter bird netting for the roof, to keep out large birds and squirrels. If the squirrels start to break through it we will resign ourselves to using the mesh, which is very resilient but more expensive and probably harder to install as a roof.
We have been raising bushes from cuttings for the past few years while we had a carpet clearance mulch down to suppress some very vigorous weeds, and then a full season of poultry tractoring to clean up, manure and tilth it for us. I would recommend both of these methods if you are starting out with a dense grass or weed base, but it’s important to have enough chickens to keep the weeds from returning. If it’s a large area with few chickens, you can use something like lino or boards to move around so they have fresh ground regularly and a good supply of woodlice, while being able to keep on top of weed grow-back.
Many people build a wooden frame for their fruit cage as wood is easy to come by and to attach the wire to. We used cable ties to attach the wire to the scaffold poles, and a nick with
an angle grinder allowed use to thread the top ties through the poles themselves to prevent the wire netting from slumping downwards. If using wood, it’s worth using large timbers: 2×4” is ideal. This means your hard work will last longer. Treated wood is best for outdoor use, or ideally something naturally rot-resistant like chestnut or western red cedar. If you’re lucky you may find good timber or old chestnut fence posts in skips, dumps, free-cycle or ebay – it’s worth a look because wood costs add up.
It is possible to buy fruit cage kits from places like B&Q or Garden Naturally. These are quite expensive and always look a bit flimsy to me, but I’ve never had one myself. When choosing netting it’s worth considering the durability of the material, and deciding what you want to keep out and let in. Places like Mole Valley Farmers and Garden Naturally do a wide range of nettings in different sizes and materials. We generally prefer to avoid using plastic nettings as they don’t last well and leave plastic fibres in the soil as they disintegrate, but they are cheaper and lighter and easier to handle than the wire netting.
If you want temporary or mobile netting, there are various approaches you could take. If you have soft fruit against a wall or fence you could attach soft netting to it with a wooden baton and put in ties at regular intervals so the netting can be tied up when not needed, or when harvesting the fruit.
If there is no convenient vertical surface you can build a free-standing cage from light materials and put it where ever you want. A very popular material to use for this is agricultural blue water pipe. This can be bent into arcs and held into a solid rectangular base made of wood, with netting stretched over the top – a bit like mini polytunnel frame. Getting enough height for tall bushes could be an issue, but we have found that you can push lengths of bamboo or hazel into the ends of the piping to give extra height.
In a walled garden where I used to work, they had a row of peach trees against a south facing wall. Above it they had some poly plastic attached to the wall with batons, and a half-tunnel framework around the trees. This meant the trees could be protected from the cold in the winter, but open for pollination, harvesting and fresh air in the summer. A similar structure could be created with netting for small fruit trees and soft fruit.
By far the simplest approach to temporary netting, is to throw a net over a bush or group of bushes while it’s fruiting. This helps to protect against larger birds like blackbirds, so while some is still lost to rodents and perhaps some smaller birds, the majority is saved. sometimes the simplest solutions are the best!
With a little planning and the right materials you can protect your precious fruit crops and avoid the terrible disappointment of finding that someone has beaten you to it!