The birds and the bees

By: Andrew Steens

Often times in the garden my goals and practises clash with Mother Nature. That is the challenge of being a gardener – to both work with and against nature at the same time.

Never more so than in the case of the birds and the bees. On the one hand, birds do essential work in controlling pests and pollinating some crops. On the other, they dig up seedlings and cause serious damage to fruit crops. Bees don’t have such a split personality, but efforts to control pests, including birds, can impact bees.

To combat plundering birds, I have enclosed my berry and grape plants in a cage of galvanised mesh. I made the mistake earlier of using 5cm mesh, only to find that blackbirds simply hopped straight through. Obviously, their feathers make them look much larger than they are.

Now I’ve covered the berry house in 2cm mesh, like the plastic bird mesh most people use, but I’m fairly certain that bird mesh also proves too much of a barrier to honey bees. I noticed a dramatic drop off in bee numbers once I finished putting the mesh roof on the berry house.

Most berry crops are partially self-pollinating but set fruit much better when pollinated by bees. I might have to peel back the mesh roof at berry flowering time, placing it back when the fruit start ripening.

I have a similar issue with my greenhouse. It now looks like a tropical jungle but is free of all pests due to the installation of insect-proof mesh over all openings. Despite the lack of bees, we’ve been eating well-pollinated and very delicious tomatoes since Labour Weekend and the first capsicums and chillies are ripening nicely.

The secret? Using the same two fingers that I would use to gesticulate at any fruit thieving birds, I rattle the plant stems vigorously every morning. This rapid vibration helps dislodge pollen, which then settles on the stigma to pollinate the flowers. Again, all good until Mother Nature throws a spanner in the works, or two actually. Eggfruit, although related to tomatoes and capsicum, has pollen that is more difficult to dislodge. Some varieties also have numerous spines on the stem, which makes my two-fingered task a little painful to say the least.

To deal with this it looks like I’ve got two options; one is to use an artist’s brush to do the transferring manually, the alternative is to borrow my son’s electric toothbrush each morning and hold this against each flower stem to vibrate the pollen off. If you see me in the greenhouse in the morning looking like I’m brushing the teeth of my eggplants, don’t think I’ve gone completely mad.

Andrew Steens


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