Protect Summer Crops From Birds and Sun With Garden Netting

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PHOTO: BROWNIE HARRIS
Susan and Franklin Sides use garden netting to shut out excess sun, late (or early) frosts and beaked berry bandits.

Protect summer crops from scorching sun and scavenging
songbirds with garden netting.

Protect Summer Crops From Birds and Sun With Garden Netting

Once upon a time, an acorn plunked Chicken Little on the
head, convincing the skittish hen that the entire sky was
falling. As a gardener, I can empathize with that feathered
paranoiac. When a hot July sun shrivels up tender greens or
flying thieves ransack the fruits I nursed from seedhood,
I, too, feel like the sky may be tumbling down upon all my
gardening efforts. Our fabled chicken covered her head with
tiny wings. Fortunately, we can use better
shields–shade and bird nettings. They are, indeed,
wonderful panaceas for two of summer’s most common
gardening headaches.

Shade Garden Netting

I understand the reluctance of most growers to
intentionally exclude sunlight with a shade
garden netting–we’ve all read over and over how important it
is for crops to get enough sun. But there are times when
parts of any garden, except in areas with the coolest
summers, could benefit from a bit of extra shade.

Consider some examples. Perhaps you’ve dreamed of a
picture-book fall garden, but were brought back to reality
when sunburned broccoli seedlings gave up the ghost. Maybe
you’ve wished you could still enjoy fresh lettuce when the
tomatoes ripen in July. Or you might wonder what to do
about an August carrot sowing that never sprouted due to
lack of moisture and drying winds.

Let shade cloth come to the rescue.

Inventive gardeners have made shade for years using window
screening, onion bags, snow fencing and taller plants, but
now the highly effective nettings that have long been in
commercial use are available for home growers, as well.
Woven from polypropylene or saran, this black, green or
clear material buffers the brunt of the sun’s rays and
helps cool the air (much as window screens do in your
home). As a bonus, shade cloth also slows the force of
drying winds.

Fifty percent shade netting cuts the sun’s intensity by
half and has a multitude of uses. You can set it over newly
set-out transplants to slow photosynthesis for a few days.
This will put less of a strain on roots which have enough
to do settling into a new home without supporting a burst
of new growth. Used over direct-sown seeds, shade cloth
helps keep the soil moist (even 1/2 inch of dry soil can
mean death to newly germinated plants) and slows the rate
of transpiration (water loss) from those tiny new leaves.
Some gardeners lay boards or fabrics such as burlap on top
of newly sown rows for this same purpose, but that practice
may promote disease, encourage slugs and actually wick
moisture from the ground. And while it’s true that solid
cloth suspended above seedbeds won’t cause those
problems, you’d have to remove that light blocker just as
soon as the plants germinate.

You can also try using 50% shade cloth to persuade
quick-bolting plants like lettuce and spinach to keep
growing into the summer, but 10% to 30% netting works
better for this purpose. The more open material allows
enough sunlight to penetrate so that the plants don’t
easily become leggy. Even so, you’ll want to pull the cover
over your crops only during the hottest hours, say from 10
o’clock in the morning until four or five in the afternoon.
One drawback: The lower percentage netting is harder to
locate.

In what seems like a contradiction in terms, shade cloth
can also help protect from frost. On a tip from David Duhon
(author of One Circle: How to Grow a Complete Diet in
Less Than 1,000 Square Feet),
we tried laying 50%
shade cloth right on top of last fall’s lettuce on cold
nights. Sure enough, that frost shield enabled us to hold
onto our salad bed until December.

Although mature plants (like our fall lettuce) may be stout
enough to support a shade cloth, most often you’ll need to
suspend it above your plants. Roll it out over arched
sections of PVC pipe, a wooden frame, or stakes that have
been placed throughout the bed and along the sides. You can
water shaded plants less often than normal, but when you
do, first pull the netting back. Watering through shade
cloth is uneven at best and downright damaging at
worst–drip lines concentrate run-off at certain
spots. And watch your step: The stuff is notoriously slick
when folded onto itself.

Bird Garden Netting

Bird garden netting doesn’t aid the growth of better fruits and
berries, but it does help you keep the ones you
produce. Think of it as flexible fencing. Unlike crawling
insects or raiding mammals, birds can zero in on their
target from any angle, making a wraparound barrier your
most reliable defense.

This woven polypropylene fabric (also called protective
net) has larger holes than those in shade cloth and lasts
from five to 10 years. (Those with ultraviolet inhibitors
have the longest life expectancies.)

Used correctly, bird netting is extremely effective. Used
incorrectly, it’s simply a waste of time. As far as tree
fruit goes, the biggest mistake (perpetuated by drawings in
some of the catalogues that sell the stuff) is draping the
fabric over the tree and letting it hang down the sides
like a bedspread. Even a bird’s brain can figure out the
answer to that one: Fly up from underneath, sit in the
branches, and begin dining. So gather and tie the extra
material around the trunk like the wrapper on a candied
apple.

When protecting small berries (or even let tuce and
tomatoes), avoid draping the netting directly over the
plants. Instead, place it on some sort of frame that keeps
it off the plants. Birds have trouble landing in netted
trees, but they can stand right next to a row of netted
strawberries and peck out the morsels, or they can perch on
stakes, branches and nearby bushes to attack covered
blueberries.

There’s no reason, then, to let scorching sunlight or
hungry birds give you a Chicken Little complex (“The crops
are failing! The crops are failing!”). You don’t have to
panic and throw up your hands. Instead, throw up some nets!


A Few Sources of Fine Garden Netting Fabric

Bountiful Gardens
Willits, CA
30% shade cloth, 8 feet wide, $2 per running foot. 50% shade
cloth, 6 feet wide, $1.50 per running foot. 6 feet by 25 feet 1 inch-mesh
bird netting, $9, 25 feet by 25 feet 7/8 inch mesh bird netting, $32.
Also offers useful clips and pins. Prices do not include
shipping and handling charges.

W. Atlee Burpee & Co.
Warminster, PA
Bird netting: 7 feet by 20 feet, $6.95 (item B-90217); 14 feet by 14 feet,
$8.45 (B-90399); 14 feet by 45 feet, $21.95 (B-90423);14 feet by 75 feet,
$27.95 (B-90613); 28 feet by 28 feet $29.95 (B-91181). Add $1.50
handling charge, and 6% sales tax if you live in PA or CA.

Gardener’s Supply
Burlington, VT
50% shade cloth, 5 feet by 20 feet, $16.95 (item 9-243), with six
hoops, $19.95 (9-247). Bird netting, 4 feet by 50 feet, small mesh,
$7.95 (5-304); 8 feet by 20 feet, small mesh, $7.95 (5-305); 28 feet by
28 feet, large mesh, $24.95 (5-306);14 feet by 14 feet, large mesh,
$7.95 (5-307); 13 feet by 39 feet, large mesh, $15.95 (5-308).
Prices do not include shipping and handling charges.

A.M. Leonard, Inc.
Piqua, Ohio
A large selection of polypropylene shade cloth, providing
30%, 47% and 55% shade and from 5 feet by 24 feet wide, costing
9¢, 11¢ and 12¢ per sq. ft., respectively.
$6 customizing charge on orders under $50. Bird netting
varies from 7-1/2 feet by 21 feet ($5.99) to 30 feet by 30 feet ($29.99).
Shipping and handling approximately 15% of order cost.