It is interesting how many photos you see of kitchen gardens in glossy magazines where the fruit and vegetables are perfect, but completely uncovered. Delicate spring seedlings (unaffected by frosts & chats-a-toilette) , blowsy summer cabbages (repulsive to caterpillars, invisible to pigeons), prize-worthy carrots (unloved by larvae), abundant autumn berries (blossom and fruits miraculously ignored by birds).
In truth, none of this perfection would be remotely possible if the beds weren’t protected with frames and netting (or fleece and micro-mesh) for most, if not all, of the plants’ growing season. I can only assume the art director has deemed such devises offensive to the Marie-Antoinettish (no pun intended!) idyll they want us to drool over. And drool, I most certainly do.
Allotments, by contrast, are celebrated ‘honest’ spaces. Photos of these revel in the jumble of up-cycled pallets, plastic bottles, bed springs and bicycle wheels. They are depicted as a joyous collective of inventive creativity, unencumbered by the rules of suburban etiquette. These, too, make the heart leap.
But back in a garden, particularly a small, town garden or country garden that is overlooked by you (and maybe neighbours) day in day out, ‘allotment chic’ doesn’t seem so easy to pull off. One too many disintegrating plastic bottles and suddenly we’ve recreated the set for Steptoe & Son when what we really wanted was a slice of Sissinghurst.
We have to accept we can’t have a productive garden without frames and nets. At the affordable end these can, as the art director knows, look ugly. A penchant for lurid green, blue and orange seems to permeate ‘clever’ garden equipment. Personally, I don’t want a Dyson-esque garden.
Of course, there is nicer stuff to be found that blends in… Stylish wrought iron, with twists, balls and finials etcetera, but it is really, really expensive. And it’s often depicted as garden ‘art’ to justify the price.
The answer is, make your own. If you have the time (and twine), want an artisan look and have a creative bent, you can do this with canes, willow and hazel sticks.
If you want something less rustic, I came up with this simple, elegant idea last year to match the beds, and have given it a good testing. Pigeons have perched on it, rain, hail and gales have lashed at it, cats have circled it. Butterflies have head-banged, relentlessly, at it. It’s easy to move, to pack away, to adjust. Aesthetically, it blends in. It’s super-quick to make and cheap!
AND you don’t need any tools. Just access to a lamp-post. Curious? Let’s begin!
For your average 1m to 1.2m (that’s 3 to 4ft) square raised bed*, you will need:
- 4 x 2m long black-coated steel rods (for larger beds see below*). I used 6mm gauge rods, but a heavier 8mm is also suitable (any larger and you can’t bend it). I bought mine at B&Q (That is the ‘orange’ place, isn’t it?). They were about £3 each, but you can get them cheaper on Amazon. I’ve also used twisted raw steel rods, that you see set in concrete. They are more ‘rusty-rustic’, if that’s a look you prefer.
- A packet of small black plastic garden ties.
- 4x4m of butterfly net. The best is the soft knit-woven net. It’s more expensive but it doesn’t scratch you or tear. It folds away easily. It lasts. It drapes and folds to make nice, tidy corners. It’s black. Make sure you get the smallest possible holes (7x5mm or less). The larger ones butterflies can squeeze through. (And believe me, they will!). Don’t scrimp on the size… There’s nothing more alluring to butterflies and birds than net that won’t quite reach the ground.
- 8 large black bulldog clips or clothes pegs.
- 8 metal “U” shape net pegs.
There are links to source all these items from Amazon at the bottom of this post
Step 1: measure and mark a centre line on your metal rods (with a bit of cello tape, or chalk etc). Find a fixed metal post (I used the washing line post, a sign or lamp-post will do). Take the rod round the back, hold the ends with both hands, so that the mark is centred with the post, and gently pull both ends equally until a right angle is achieved. Don’t go too far, as you can’t bend it back. Stop, check, then do a bit more if necessary to get a right angle. Do this with all 4 rods.
step 2: mark 30cm on one end of each rod, and push each rod into a corner of your square/rectangular bed up to the 30cm mark, keeping them straight, and as close to the bed frame as possible**. (If your beds are much larger than 1.2m (4′) square*, then you can build several sets of these frames, as required for the space, and tie them together for strength). You can push them in deeper to get better stability, but remember that cabbages grow big.
Step 3: bring 2 diagonally opposite rods together so that they overlap and create a bridge, and loosely lash them together where they overlap with 2 plastic ties. Don’t tie too tight just yet. Do the same with the other two rods. (These will have to go over the first two).
Step 4: fiddle about with the rods and the ties until you are happy that they are all more or less straight, equidistant, and where they all meet on top is the centre of your bed. Add another tie at this point, in a figure of 8, around all four rods. Check again the position, and now tighten up all the ties as tight as possible. I like to turn the tail ends down to stop net catching on their tails. If you want, you can also snip the ends off the tails.
Step 5: drape your net over the frame so it is even all round, and secure to the rods with 8 bulldog clips, or clothes pegs. (Roll the excess netting at the corners first to keep it tight to the frame and neat). Use the metal U pegs, (2 on each side works best) to secure the bottom edges of the net inside the bed frame so there are no entrance gaps for butterflies or birds.
Step 6 (optional): If you would like your rods to stay black, then I would recommend painting the bent corners with a coat of Hammerite anti-rust metal paint, as otherwise they will flake and rust over time. I’m about to touch mine up.
Et voila! You have stylish, inconspicuous frames and nets for your beds!
*This frame fits beds 1m-1.2m square. For longer, rectangular, larger beds, simply double or triple the frames, and tie the rods together where they meet, which will make them extra stable too. Buy netting large enough to cover all the frames in one go.
**They work best on raised beds where the bed edges contain the rods and lend stability, but I have also used the idea on open beds, adding extra set of rods in windy spots, in a Union Jack fashion.
Frame Fame! Not a glossy magazine shoot, but a shot from a garden competition last summer:NB As part of my trial, I used a different construction on the bed on the right, trying to make it a ‘lift off’ design to save fiddling with nets. This worked OK, but as I didn’t get the bends right, it always looked wobbly. The bed on the left is constructed as I’ve described, and kept its shape.
PS Once you’ve mastered the lamp-post technique you could try something more adventurous! Here’s a robust lift-off ‘cage’ I made some years ago on a willow-sculpture course. (I must get it back from my mum’s garden!) It’s a bit more creative, and was made with a mix of 6 and 8mm steel rods. It was originally inter-woven with willow, but that soon disintegrated, so I replaced it with net.