Fruit Cages and Plant Protection for Growing Soft Fruit
FRUIT CAGES AND PLANT PROTECTION
I can’t honestly say that soft fruit are uniquely attractive to birds but they are certainly high on the list of garden plants that suffer most from bird damage. I know that some vegetables are commonly damaged by pigeons, while fruit trees, and pears especially, seem extraordinarily appealing to bullfinches. But birds of many types find soft fruit plants worthy of their attention at most times of the year. The fruit are clearly desirable to them as food in the summer, although they do tend to ripen at a time when there is plenty of other food material available. Most gardeners find that it is during the winter months that birds cause the greatest damage by feeding on the buds, and it’s in the cold months, with food supplies in general fairly low, that a fruit cage really pays for itself.
I know that I share many other gardeners’ sentiments in saying that I simply couldn’t grow soft fruit without proper protection. At a pinch, canes and bushes can be protected by throwing loose netting over them, but this is rarely very satisfactory and I have to say that my own considerable investment in plants and time would be wasted without the added cost of a decent cage. There are now several proprietary fruit cages available in fairly readily assembled kit form. Most comprise a light tubular aluminium frame over which light-weight plastic netting is fitted. Modern modular construction means that almost any size of cage can be constructed to fit your own range of plants. Alternatively, a more robust cage can be made from rustic poles of treated timber but whatever method is used, a fruit cage should be no less than 2m (6ft) tall.
The netting should be chosen carefully and be of a mesh size that will exclude small birds and yet be unlikely to trap their legs. The ideal mesh is between about 1.3cm (1/2in) and 2cm (3/4in) across. The side netting on proprietary fruit cages is usually plastic but galvanised chicken wire makes a stronger construction for cages with wooden frames. Galvanized wire should not be used for the top netting, however. Not only is it harder to support than lightweight plastic, but damage to fruit plants will occur from zinc, washed from the netting by rain. Lower cages of similar style, about 30cm (12in) tall (and with no door) can be used for strawberry beds, although growing earlyunder cloches obviates the need for any additional protection.
Achieving a balance between glut and scarcity (or, in historical times, between feast and famine) is a problem for anyone who grows food plants. In our gardens, it is, of course, more of an inconvenience than a disaster if all of the strawberries and raspberries ripen in the same week; but it is annoying nonetheless.
PLANNING FOR CONTINUITY
Fortunately, there is a way around the problem. Individually, soft fruit plants are fairly small; even a blackcurrant bush is a modest thing compared with a plum tree. You will, therefore, almost invariably grow more than one plant of each type of fruit (a great many more in the case of strawberries). By ensuring that your plants include at least two and ideally more varieties with different maturing times, you will be able to have continuity of cropping.
Under each variety description, I have indicated if it is early, mid-season or late-maturing, although I have resisted trying to relate these times to calendar months because the season overall will vary by up to two or more weeks from region to region. Apart from strawberries (where complications such as longevity of the plants are involved), raspberries offer a much greater range of varieties than any other soft fruit — a reflection of their high commercial importance.
Almost without exception, soft fruit are self-fertile and there is thus no need, as there is with many tree fruit, to ensure that you have compatible varieties able to cross-pollinate each other. If space in your fruit garden is limited, however, then choose a range of several varieties that ripen sequentially for those types of soft fruit (like raspberries) that remain fresh for a very short time on the plant, and have a single variety of those (such as gooseberries) for which the cropping season overall is short or one on which the fruit will hang on the plant for a reasonably long period.