Natural pest control techniques such as companion planting can control most of your small garden pests such as insects, but what can gardeners do about birds and animals?
The seasonal event of birds and other critters stripping fruit trees clean is nothing new for farmers, but urban gardeners are now seeing more birds, rats, possums, and all manner of uninvited creatures raid their beloved productive gardens for food! There’s a reason why this is happening, and thankfully there are solutions.
Why Are All These Critters Eating My Garden?
Even though, generally speaking, there are less plants and trees in urban areas compared to wild natural areas, the vegetation in cities does support some wildlife. When these minimal urban ecosystems are disrupted, urban wildlife is seriously impacted. When urban trees and gardens are torn up and built over, the critters that reside there are forced to find new homes and sources of food – and your nice well-kept garden is as good a place as any!
Why are urban trees and gardens being ripped up? For more housing of course. We’re seeing some very concerning trends emerge as governments continue to ignore the issues of overpopulation and food security, and try to squeeze more and more people into already crowded cities, based on the ill-founded and logically flawed economic ideology of ‘continuous growth’ (which, on a finite and limited planet, defies the laws of physics!)
This government-created problem is generating a feeding frenzy for property developers. The pattern is the same everywhere, larger properties with established trees and gardens are being bought up at an alarming rate by developers for ‘redevelopment’. Existing houses along with established trees and gardens are being bulldozed, the topsoil removed. The end result is that living plants and trees are being replaced with lifeless concrete. Single residences with gardens are being replaced with higher density units or apartments with only token gardens or no gardens whatsoever. To further compound the problem, we’re also witnessing the ‘Mc Mansion’ fad – even though families living in cities are getting smaller, typically a couple with one or two children, their demand for increasingly larger houses is on the rise. As a result, were seeing the construction of oversized, multi-storey houses that occupy almost the whole block, leaving almost no garden space.
The consequence of irresponsible housing development and irrational social fashions is that the destruction of urban trees and gardens which wildlife depends upon. With nowhere to live and nothing to eat, all the displaced wildlife makes a beeline to the nearest remaining garden in the area!
As long as this kind of housing construction continues to displace trees and plants, the problem will continue to get worse. There are various ways to discourage the hordes of marauding wildlife from plundering your garden and to minimise their damage. One solutions to prevent fruit and vegetables being eaten by birds and animals is netting. In this article we’ll look at the various kinds of netting available and see how to best use them to protect our gardens.
With that said, it’s always nice to leave a little of the food we grow accessible to local fauna and share our surplus.
Types of Garden Netting
Want to net your garden? First you must decide what you’re going to protect. Foliage or fruit? Next, decide what you’re protecting your garden from – animals, birds or insects? Once you’ve answered these questions, then you can them pick the most appropriate netting for the task!
The first type of netting we’ll look at is bird netting. As the name implies, it’s designed to protect plants and trees from birds, it may also be useful against some animals, but insects will get through the wide mesh. Bird netting is not all the same, it comes in different mesh sizes, colours and construction. So, what do we look for in good bird netting?
The mesh size is important, if the mesh holes are too large, birds may get their heads stuck in the netting and get strangled. Killing native birds in your garden is never a good thing, and I’ve heard many reports of this happening. Choose a mesh size that barely fits your finger through, that’s safe for birds.
The colour of the netting is also a critical consideration. White netting is highly visible, and some people don’t like it because it’s not aesthetically appealing, but by the same token it’s highly visible to birds and prevents them accidentally flying into it and getting tangled or injuring themselves. Black netting is almost invisible in certain situations and presents an unnecessary hazard to birds.
The construction of netting determines how long the netting will last and how effectively it will work as a barrier. Woven netting is soft and pliable, making it very hard to cut through. Very sharp scissors will cut it, but slightly blunt scissors make cutting it a very arduous task. I know from experience, I work in a garden nursery part time and have to cut lengths for customers! Woven netting is a little more expensive than extruded netting but lasts much longer. Birds will not chew through woven netting, not even parrots, and being harder to cut will make it a more effective barrier against chewing animals such as rats and possums. Extruded netting is the cheaper type of netting with solid strands as opposed to woven, and is very easy to cut through by comparison.
We’ve just covered what we look for in good netting, but what would constitute really bad netting? One of the nationwide hardware and gardening ‘superstores’ here in Australia (which shall remain nameless) was infamous for selling nasty cheap quality black coloured wide-mesh extruded plastic netting – the worst possible combination imaginable. Many people I spoke to who bought this insidious netting stopped using it after extricating strangled birds from it! Thankfully this retailer no longer stock it.
How to Use Bird Netting
To use bird netting effectively, support it above what you’re protecting, make sure you leave a space between the netting and the goodies underneath. Bird netting has to be supported above any fruits, nuts, or berries that you wish to protect. In the picture below, with the bird netting draped over the branch of the almond tree, small parrots such as the rainbow lorikeets can simply put their beaks through the mesh and eat the almonds at their leisure.
The persimmons pictured below are well away from the netting, so there’s no way to reach through the holes to get the fruit. Separation between the netting and the fruit or whatever else you’re protecting is important!
Bird netting can be draped to cover small fruit trees – keep your trees pruned low to make netting easier. In this example, the tree branches are cut to keep the netting a short distance from the fruit, allowing for complete coverage of the tree and keeping the fruit well away from the netting itself. If I were protecting from birds that get underneath or ground-dwelling animals, I would bring the edges of the netting closer to the trunk of the tree to prevent entry.
Bird netting is not the only netting option though, there are other types of netting which offer additional benefits as we shall see…
Insect Exclusion Netting
Bird netting is quite effective at keeping most pests at bay, but it has several disadvantages. For starters, the mesh is wide enough for most insects to get through it.
Then there’s the issue of tangles! If you’ve ever tried covering thorny bramble berries such as loganberries, boysenberries and other members of that family, you’ll be familiar with the annoying experience of thorny bramble canes tangling in the netting, or even worse, eventually growing through it. Even some tree branches tangle bird netting, and that can be really frustrating. Thankfully, there’s an easy solution – we can use a much finer mesh netting, it’s called insect exclusion netting.
The very fine mesh of insect exclusion netting prevents branches poking through or growing through the holes, so the netting drapes easily over trees and plants, even if they’re thorny or twiggy and prone to tangle up the wider-meshed bird netting.
As the name implies, this finer mesh netting keeps insects out – all insects, including pollinators such as bees. This of course is not a problem, think about it for a moment. Why would you net fruit bearing trees and vegetables such as tomatoes when they’re in flower? Once the flowers have started turning into fruit, then you net! With leafy greens and winter brassicas, net them when they’re first planted as seedlings so nothing gets in to eat them as they’re growing, they don’t need pollination. It simple common sense really.
Netting berries growing on a fence with insect exclusion netting is effortless, it can be draped across like a curtain, supported or fastened at the top, and if the berries are close to the mesh it’s not a problem as the mesh is to fine for birds to reach through, the holes are far too small. To harvest the berries, simply lift the bottom up of the netting and reach under. What could be easier than that! As you can see in the picture below, the finer mesh is more visually discrete, it isn’t as stark as bird netting aesthetically.
The great thing about insect exclusion netting is that it doesn’t just come cut to length off a roll, it also comes fashioned into bags, so you can just cover the fruit, rather than the whole tree.
This is what fruit protection bags constructed of insect exclusion mesh look like, they’re big drawstring bags that you place around the fruit, then pull and tie the string to secure into place. This large bag is 30cm x 30cm (1’ x1’) in size, and can fit around a large cluster of fruit with ease.
In the picture below I’ve used one of the fruit protection bags to cover a bunch of grapes to protect from birds, works great! Why use the bag you may ask? Surely there are so many grape bunches to cover that this would be inefficient? Consider that any pest solution can be used in combination with any other, this is a lone bunch hanging from the arch over a walkway…
The rest of the grapevine I’ve trained to run over ten metres along the side of the house to shield it from the hot afternoon summer sun to reduce cooling bills. I’ve covered the grapevine with a very wide piece of bird net that covers the entire length of the house!
If you’re wondering how I got the netting up there, this tool, the WOLF-Garten Utility Tree Hook helped! Of course, you can carry out this task with a tall ladder too.
Getting back to insect netting – if you thought the bags were a great idea, well how about a fitted cover for a tree?
Pictured below is the Ryset Fitted Insect Net – basically it’s insect netting sewn into a cube shape without a bottom and a slit in one side to use as a door. You can make a frame to fit it over, or just lift and place it over a tree as I have done with my mulberry tree (which I keep pruned down to size using the summer pruning Backyard Orchard Culture technique).
Here’s the full product description from the manufacturer’s website – “A formed and fitted net designed to cover a tree. 2.4m diameter top with sides 2.89m high sewn around the circumference. The sides overlap 600m to provide a door for easy placement of the net over the tree, and easy access to the tree when fitted. 2mm Woven, 45gsm WHITE UV Stabilised net for Excluding most Flying Insects such as Cabbage Moth, Fruit Fly and Codling Moth. Also used for Bird Exclusion and to Reduce Sunburn. 20% Shade Factor.”
Does it work? I reckon so! Freshly picked, ripe, sweet black mulberries!
As we’ve seen, we can net whole trees or just the fruit, but there’s another possibility, we can net whole garden beds using frames as supports.
Netting Garden Beds
The ways that netting can be used to protect gardens is only limited by the imagination. Here are some great ideas worth sharing that I saw in gardens that I visited and had to photograph. Thanks to Guy and Susan from Local Food Connect for letting me take photos!
Here’s an example of a garden bed completely under netting. This frame is made using pairs of steel star-pickets in the ground with thick irrigation pipe placed over them. The whole lot is then covered in bird netting. It’s spacious enough to house fruit trees and whole vegetable garden beds underneath.
In the picture below you can see the frame built around the raised bed without the covering. This frame could be covered other materials to create a shade house or a greenhouse. It’s a very versatile design.
Here’s a closer looks at the construction detail, a star picket in the ground screwed to raised garden bed timber frame with irrigation pipe over it.
Just as innovative is a frame constructed of PVC pipes, joins and fittings, used over smaller vegetable garden raised beds. In this picture the bird netting drawn back. With a setup like this covered with insect netting, you can garden all year round under cover, free of insects and most other pests.
In conclusion, netting is a viable pest control solution, especially when combined with other methods as part of a well thought out pest management strategy. No single solution will take care of all pests, but when we take an integrated pest management (IPM) approach and use a range of solutions together, such as netting and companion planting for example, we’re much better positioned to deal with whatever pest problems we encounter.