Every year, there are crops I ‘expect’ to be eaten by local wildlife. Slugs will have a munch on the lettuce. Birds will help themselves to berries, and so on.
This year, however, everything seems to be fair game. Much of the sweetcorn has been reduced to almost nothing. I’ve lost 70% of my cucumber plants within days of planting out. Pumpkin and Courgette leaves are full of holes. Even the comfrey has been munched on!
The only crop that hasn’t been affected at all is the potatoes – the one crop I don’t use personally (but do grow for the rest of the family).
Slugs are always an issue, and I’m sure they are the cause of some devastation. But I’m not convinced it’s them alone. The site I’m on now and have been for the last 12 months, is right on the edge of a nature reserve. While that makes for beautiful, and peaceful, surroundings – it also means we have a lot of wildlife to deal with. I frequently see foxes on site if I arrive early. There will often be hundreds of birds perched around the site. Local cats like to have a wander around too.
We have pretty good security – a large, 3m tall steel fence surrounds the site. Little chance of humans entering uninvited. But animals seem to find their way in without issue.
I hate netting, with a passion. I appreciate it to be necessary though. In the past, I’ve used old cloche frames, with netting permanently fixed to it using cable ties. This allowed me to simply lift the frame off the bed to access crops for harvesting or weeding. It worked, though you’re obviously limited in terms of height. No good for brussels sprouts or sweetcorn. It’s also expensive, unless – like me – you happen to have them going spare.
Another solution I’ve used before is MDPE piping to form hoops, with netting draped over and clipped to it. Again, this was effective at protecting the crops. What I didn’t like about it though was the huge effort it took to access the crops without ruining the netting. I’d find myself putting the task off, and thus allowing the weeds to take hold.
Finally, the small net tunnels found on the high street and elsewhere work well for small plants or seedlings. But they are seldom big enough for most crops.
Some other plot holders use timber frames with netting stapled to it. At a glance, that seems to be a reasonably good solution if your beds aren’t too big. I will likely attempt something similar to protect the strawberries this year.
Accessibility and ease are fairly important to me. I like to keep on top of the weeds, as best I can. I also need a solution that isn’t too cumbersome or heavy to use on a day-to-day basis. That has to lead me to evaluate ‘walk-in’ solutions.
There are numerous options available here. Some are hideously expensive. While I don’t doubt they are of good quality, even I have my limits in terms of cost justification on an allotment plot! On another site nearby, a number of plot holders have used old polytunnel frames which they’ve draped with netting. Some have even made entire walk-in structures using only MDPE piping. A similar ‘off the shelf’ solution is the Walk-In Wonderwall, which is available in numerous sizes.
Of course, different crops call for different types of protection. Crops such as strawberries only need netting from birds. Brassicas need a finer netting to keep butterflies away. Carrots call for the finest protection – micromesh, to keep carrot fly away. We can’t however simply use the finest netting on everything – some crops need pollinators such as bees to be able to access them. There is, therefore, no ‘one size fits all’ solution. Unless of course, you’re prepared to do all the pollinating yourself. Believe me, I’ve considered that option too!
I’m tempted to go in one of two directions. Option one is a mix of polytunnels, polytunnel frames with ‘pollinator-friendly netting’, and walk-in wonderwalls. This solution is something I could easily expand over time. I already have 2 polytunnels, and frames are relatively easy and cheap to acquire. The issue I have with this is that it doesn’t maximise the space as I’d need to leave gaps between each frame for access. I also have some concern about how visually appealing such a mix would be, as crazy as that sounds.
The second option is to build a walk-in timber frame. This is again something I could extend over time, but more crucially I could maximise the space available. Timber also has the advantage of being suitable for vertical growing applications too. Being timber, I dare say I could find a way of making it visually appealing at some stage too.
Overall though, I do need to prioritise a productive plot over a visually appealing plot. In the end, it’s maximising the yield that will dictate what I do.