Ever found yourself cursing the birds because they’ve scoffed the delights of your fruit bushes? I’m thrilled to publish this guest blog from Beryl Randall with a fantastic DIY solution.
I have a soft spot for soft fruit. With two half-plots on a busy allotment site in South London, I have the luxury of space to indulge in berries and currants of all kinds.
Most of my berries are grown in raised beds on one of the plots because a) it gets really boggy and b) it’s on a slope. They give the plot a terraced feel, provide a relatively level area to grow in and don’t leave plants sitting with their feet in a puddle in early Spring.
But that particular plot is also next to a thick hedge, which offers birds a perfect vantage point for checking if my fruit is ripe enough to steal. Not just beaky thieves either. I’ve even seen foxes snaffling my gooseberries.
The first year I had gooseberry bushes I pooh-poohed my neighbours’ gentle reminders about netting. After all, Mum’s garden was always groaning in fruit so why wouldn’t my plot be? Needless to say, that crop vanished almost overnight.
My fruit cages go up in April and May – usually prompted by seeing pigeons sizing up a potential dinner. Not having had the forethought to plant the bushes together, and after experimenting with different forms, I’ve made my own bespoke cages. In true allotmenteering tradition, they didn’t cost a great deal and will last years*.
They are made from pairs of treated dahlia stakes, painted for prettiness, joined at the top with a shorter crosspiece and held together with 2.4m bamboo canes. I make sure that the uprights allow plenty of room to grow – pigeons on our site have learned that if the net is close enough to the edible beneath they can sit on the uprights and easily peck through for a snack.
Given that the beds are permanent, I ordered a couple of very large pieces of woven and flexible bird netting, cut to size from Nutley’s Kitchen Garden, though with some allowance for growth. Other than the odd mouse chewing a hole to get in, it’s wonderful stuff. Doesn’t tangle and has a lot of give in it.
For strawberries, which are closer to the ground, I use blue MDPE water pipe, one of the more common tools on an allotment. Lots of people make arches, which usually need a horizontal support or two to stop them falling over. Personally, I prefer the igloo shape. It does the job just as well but doesn’t need additional support and I think it’s more robust if your site’s windy.
All the nets are drawn tight and thoroughly pegged. I have rescued enough frantic blackbirds and pigeons from net around our site to make sure there is nothing they can sneak under or through. I use heavy logs & bricks on the short ends, and cheap metal tent pegs on the long sides. Others use the plastic notched pegs, but I struggle to get them into the clay on my plot. Plus they snag on the net.
This year’s challenge is to build a bespoke 2m high cage with a door so I can safely corral various shades of currants as well as some red gooseberries, who no longer fit in the other bed with their green cousins. The Charlotte Russe mulberries (if they improve in flavour!) will also go in as their fragile branches wouldn’t withstand a pigeoning!
A commercial cage might be a bit simpler, but none of the commercial cages really fit the dimensions of my available space. Plus the cost is eye-watering – about £350-400 for something 4m x 3.8m. I can build one for a fraction of that (my budget’s a more modest £150ish), so it’s been a bit of a no-brainer.
I’ve bought a pile of galvanised steel spikes to hold the posts, which will hopefully hold them clear of water for most of winter. There will be 11 in total, with some in the centre to hold the roof up and again with bamboos or treated battens as crosspieces. My cunning plan is also to use the 3 posts on one side as supports for an espaliered Harry Baker crab apple and the centre post as a support for tayberries.
There will be 3 pieces of netting in total – one for the roof, one to wrap around the sides and one short piece for the door. The roof will come off over winter, on the off-chance that we have snow, but the rest will stay up all year round. Mostly because I have nowhere to store that much net. If I take it down my options are sacrificing the contents of a Dalek compost bin or increasing my popularity at home by shoving it in the garage.
First up is double digging the ground to raise it, level it and get the weeds out, which I am not looking forward to one bit. It looks awful at the moment. I stupidly let a couple of docks seed there last year, and a small forest has appeared, together with bindweed, couch grass and the usual scattering of scarlet pimpernel, buttercups and nettles. It will only be done the once – I plan on heavy mulching thereafter with a combination of rotted manure, spent hops and woodchip.
And then to planting up. Red and blackcurrants will be on the western side with a narrow woodchip path separating them, tayberries running north-south from the centre post and gooseberries on the eastern side as they won’t mind a bit of afternoon shade from the currants. I doubt I will have it finished before this year’s berries are ready, but next year will be bliss.
Wish me luck in constructing berry heaven – I’ve a feeling the doorframe will be tricksy!
*If I treat them right. I’ve noticed that appropriating them for a winter brassica cage on my sodden plot means the wooden posts rot more quickly! Must remember my new motto is Water Pipe For Winter!