Garden mesh: friend or foe?
How useful and necessary is garden netting? Is it just so much almost-instant landfill?
If you are going to be growing anything more than a few salad vegetables on your patio, you are probably going to need some netting. Netting offers us some protection against the depredations of birds and insects and even mammals.
Sometimes, despite wanting to take a holistic view of gardening, it can seem a bit of a war; half the animal kingdom is up for exploiting you hard work! It is one of the few downsides of grow-it-at-home experience - from time to time your crops get eaten before you get a chance. This can be especially soul-destroying if you have put in hours or days of work or if you have spent a lot of money on seeds or seedlings.
Timely use of some netting can often prevent this situation from arising. However, it's worth taking some time to work out what types of garden mesh are best from a green point of view and which are best for your needs.
There are lots of types available, from insect netting to bird netting and even deer netting. The exact purpose you want it for will govern what's best. The garden net types found in most garden centres and shops is general purpose, mainly for deterring birds, small animals and larger insects.
Picture: Fruit cage netting can be invaluable if you want a decent crop.
Most garden netting is made from polyethylene and similar materials. It is durable if it is not snagged or torn but it can deteriorate quickly if weeds are allowed to grow through it, or if it is carelessly handled or stored.
Stretchy black netting is good for small areas where you want a temporary shelter. Non-stretch netting is better for covering a large, defined area in a more permanent or semi-permanent way.
Non-stretch netting is usually sold in packs of different sizes. Stretch netting is more often sold on rolls and you buy a measured amount, as you would for fleece or other fabrics.
The quality of garden netting is variable. The cheaper kinds may snag and tear too easily, so check that what you buy is fit for purpose.
There is biodegradable netting for big environmental projects. It is often made from jute or other natural fibers. It is mainly used for stabilising soil while plants get established. Obviously there would be a big disadvantage to garden netting which biodegrades too readily. But a netting which biodegrades effectively after a decade or two would be a useful advance.
Make sure you dispose of broken polyethylene netting by taking it your local recycling centre.
There are a myriad ways to use garden netting effectively. You can make small cloche-like enclosures around your plants with bendy tubing (plumbing blue pipes are sometimes used as they bend yet hold their shape well.)
You can fence off areas of the garden or plot using garden netting, much as if you were using garden wire fencing. The problem with this is that weeds tend to invade the edges and gradually undermine your efforts and may even cause your netting to tear. This method is therefore best used over a shortish period of time, or if you are able to be assiduous in keeping weeds in check.
You can also create a special structure on which to hang your netting. Special interlocking plastic tubes are good for this as they are adaptable and snag-free. Bamboo poles, or wooden poles can be used in this way, tied together to make a framework but they do snag more easily. Netting can be tied on or just draped over and secured at ground level with ground pegs (tent pegs are good, or you can buy pegs made for the job from some garden centres). You can also buy Bio Landscape Fabric Pegs from Amazon - these ones will eventually bio-degrade. They are still strong enough to go into the ground, though.
One of the best ways to use garden netting for small areas is to create wooden frames and attach the netting as permanent side walls. This works well for such plants as cabbages and dwarf peas. Big sprawly plants are less easily accommodated. The advantage of this approach is that you can move your frame easily and swiftly when it's no longer needed, or to access the plants for weeding and other tasks.
You can certainly use garden netting to create fruit cages, especially if you are growing only a small crop. For larger areas it's worth buying galvanised wire netting.
Most garden netting is made from polyethylene which takes several hundred years to biodegrade.
If you use it be sure to dispose of broken netting properly as it can be a hazard to wildlife. All plastic netting is vulnerable to snagging and tearing, so it may be better to invest in wire netting for most of your garden protection.
Garden netting can deter birds reasonably well.
You will certainly find it invaluable for soft fruit, such as redcurrants and strawberries. If you are enclosing plants temporarily make sure that the netting used is suspended so that it does not touch by several inches. Pigeons are specially good at walking on netting if it is too close to the plants - then they rip a way though the netting, causing plenty of damage to the crop. Young seedlings are well liked by pigeons and other wild birds.
If you are wanting to protect permanent plants it may be better to go for wire netting as it is far more durable. I use wire netting to keep out the rabbits and the local deer with reasonable success. Even the wire netting occasionally gets nibbled through by hungry rabbits!
Check the netting at least once a day as small birds can easily get trapped. If they find a way in they seem to forget just how they did it and panic at the approach of humans, so it's good to have a section of netting which can be easily folded back to allow them to escape.
Many small seedling plants are at the mercy of birds in their early stages so it's a good idea to carefully net such plants. More mature and larger plants are generally less desirable so you may manage without netting ( - or switch to insect netting later in the season).
|Picture: A floating cloche of polypropolene material - see below for details|
Butterfly netting comes at approximately 7 mm sized squares and is a great help when it comes to growing successful brassicas (cabbage family plants).
A very fine mesh netting can be very helpful as a way to keep insects off your crops. Anyone who has grown broccoli or other brassicas knows what a menace cabbage white butterflies can be. They can completely colonise a healthy crop and their emerging larvae make short work the strongest green leaves. A good butterfly netting can make a huge difference - the difference between crop or no crop in many cases!
There is also insect netting available which will keep out small insects such as carrot fly from your precious crop. Fine mesh polypropylene can be used as a "floating cloche" (shown above) over the whole crop. It is usually used as frost protection but also does a good job in keeping insect pests at bay.
This does not stop light, water or air getting to the crop but helps maintain a good temperature and deters insects such as carrot fly.
For more about this approach please see my page on cloches.
Products such as sacking or burlap can also be pressed into service for heavy-duty netting and crop protection - from birds or cold. See the side bar for an example retailed by Amazon.
You can also save some money by recycling old net curtains. They will provide a fair amount of protection from insects and birds.
The same reservations apply - they can trap birds and they will mainly become landfill after a few seasons in the garden. They also do not tend to look very aesthetic, so are perhaps best reserved for out-of-the-way corners of the plot.
There are also ways to reuse common household fabrics. The easiest and probably the best is curtain netting and other light fabrics such as muslin.
Plastics such as bubble wrap or polyethelyne sheets and bags can also be used to good effect as a stop-gap solution. The problem with these is that they are unsightly and likely to degrade enough to be a nuisance. However they do not biodegrade properly, so fragments of plastic can end up in your vegetable beds.
I've used curtain netting and even old thin sheets with moderate success on red currant plants. They don't look great but they do keep the birds off if pegged down well.