Crop protection and outwitting weeds I don’t remember asking the pigeons to eat my pea seedlings. I imagine it is them. There are gaps in the otherwise full section of row. Peas are universally enjoyed by everyone who lives in this garden. Mice and voles eat the seeds and young shoots. To ward them off I cut up something prickly and sprinkle it thickly along the row, either gorse, hawthorn or anything similar. Slugs make a beeline for the young plants. Garlic spray helps. And then the pigeons get in on the act. I have learned to get a net over the peas as they emerge, or I will find big gaps and uprooted plants. You can do this one of several ways. The first way is to bash in some low stakes at intervals and put the net over them, with bamboos out to the side to keep the net taught and away from the peas. Bear in mind that a pea-filled pigeon is heavy and could weigh down the net enough to grab through. The second way involves putting on a bigger net straight from the get-go. Peas need a structure to climb on. They are self-clinging because they have tendrils and don’t need to be tied to the support (though they might need a slight push to make contact). We use fence posts with chicken wire attached and try to get it in place before sowing. If you do this then you can get the net over the pea fence and support it out from the row, well away from the peas. Try to weed the peas before the weeds get too big, but with the sharp hawthorn it can be painful. If you prefer to avoid using hawthorn, set some mouse traps. Peas are a lot of fiddle in the early days, but ok once they get growing, and the harvest is worth it. Brassicas also need a lot of help when planted out. When you plant them, make a surround from something impervious (we cut up dog food sacks), 15 cm square. Cut a slit halfway across so that you can lay it flat and wrap it around the stem at ground level. Weigh it down with some stones so there is no way for a fly to access the soil. This is a very effective way of preventing cabbage root fly from laying eggs in the soil next to the plant. If they do get access, you will see one of your plants looking unwell, then starting to wilt and turning purplish. A slight tug will pull it out, and you may not find the grubs, but you will see a poor root system. Don’t compost plants that may be carrying pests or diseases. They will eventually attack anything you put the compost on. Take precautions in advance against slugs, white butterflies, and pigeons. We sometimes resort to slug pellets, the seemingly environmentally friendly ones that contain ferric phosphate and not the ones that contain metaldehyde. Song thrushes (whose breeding has been badly affected in past years in the UK) nest here successfully. They eat snails and slugs and don’t appear to be affected so the pellets seem a trustworthy product. Once you have protected your cabbages, sprouts, calabrese and/or broccoli at ground level, you need to finish the job by netting the whole lot. It has to be high enough so a butterfly landing on the net doesn’t make contact with the growing leaves underneath as they grow. Check the ultimate size of the plants and add on extra to determine net height. While enjoying a cup of tea we watched a cabbage white butterfly (very common) fly over the net looking for a way in. It found a hole and was in like a shot. A good tight net, held taught and secured properly at ground level, will prevent egg laying. Their caterpillars are ravenous. Keep a constant check as birds can get tangled in nets. I have found that a clothes peg is a quick fix for a small hole in a net, but a larger hole needs a darning needle and garden twine. And I no longer put kale or red cabbage under the net. They take so long to mature that the caterpillars have dropped off, tummies full to bursting, and by November they are long gone. I tolerate a few holes as long as there are no caterpillars inside. My early carrots, sown about a month ago, are emerging. I have learned the hard way that they need protection as soon as they come up. It is slightly early in the year for carrot root fly to be on the go, but milder springs do result in earlier emergence of some species. In some years, the emerging main crop carrots have been attacked at the seedling stage, so it is better to set up a barrier right after sowing. If you see seedlings of a funny colour (orange or purple) they have probably been attacked. Some gardeners recommend an impervious barrier (mesh, corrugated iron, polythene…) like a low wall around the carrot bed to a height of 80 cm. Carrot flies travel below this height and therefore cannot reach the carrots. This doesn’t work for me, so I cover them with a cloche of enviromesh or lay fleece over them. Last year I cut up marjoram and feverfew which grow nearby (both smelly) and sprinkled them on the cover, and I had very clean carrots with no maggoty holes. You need to keep an eagle eye on the cover so that it doesn’t come loose in the wind. Check often, as even a small rupture may mean an incursion and the loss of some of the row. The carrots will put pressure onto the cover as they grow, so take action if you need to. Check for slugs early on. The weeds are now actively growing. By observing the root structure of a weed, you know how to remove it effectively. Many weeds have a simple structure with a stem going upward and a root going down before branching. Sever this type of plant with a dutch hoe, just below ground level and below the stem/root junction. Some weeds have stems that travel at the soil surface, and when a node (leaf junction) contacts soil it will root and form a plant (strawberries do this). We call these stems ‘runners’ but biologically they are called stolons. You can sever the stolon at the mother plant by clipping it off and fork out the plantlet. Still others have stems that travel just under the soil surface, and root at frequent intervals as they grow. Couch grass is one of these (pictured). It is best to tackle this with a fork, carefully tracing the rhizomes and removing the whole of the root network. Lastly there are those plants with storage roots like taproots. Storage roots store carbohydrates which provide plants with energy to draw on for sprouting and growing when conditions are favourable. If you hoe these off, they will draw on more stored energy and grow again. And again. Docks are a classic example. You need to remove as much of the taproot as you can, then do it again as soon as it sprouts (so it doesn’t build up more stored energy), and probably again. Tackling these last categories of weeds can be daunting but it is simply psychological warfare. The more persistent organism will win, so keep at it and you will exhaust the plant. It may take a few goes. Covering the area with old carpet or similar can be an effective follow-up to starve emerging shoots. Sometimes we are just short of time and welcome a low-energy fix. Granny permits as it’s in a good cause. She loves carrots.