If you grow soft fruit and also garden with wildlife in mind, you face the dilemma of vying for your own fruit with the local wildlife – particularly the bird population – of your garden.
My solution has been to grow shrubs with berries and fruits all around the edges of the garden, like rowan, guelder rose, elder, hawthorn, dog rose and berberis. This also adds height, in effect making your garden bigger (vertically) and creating a sort of woodland edge effect – a habitat especially rich in our countryside.
In the middle of the garden is a young but prolific crab apple tree, laden first with a profusion of pink and white blossom, and then an abundance of little apples which change colour through the year until they are golden yellow and large enough to be used in cookery or jelly making, then fall onto the ground a few at a time (I had to help a bit to stop the young branches breaking under the strain). There are still a few on the tree in January.
In the borders there are smaller plants with berries such as fuchsias (the dark, shiny little berries are edible, if you want to try one. On the wall and growing up the trees in the Cornish hedge is ivy, which is popular with a huge amount of wildlife and has attractive umbels of duller-looking dark berries beloved by birds at a time when they are feeling cold and hungry.
Around the garden behind our end-of-terrace house we are fortunate to have an old high red brick wall, that was built along with the house, and beyond the walled garden is another bit of garden, bordered on each side by other people’s properties and running down to a Cornish hedge that forms the boundary of a field. In the middle of this lower garden is something we splashed out on and a source of pride and joy – a put-it-up-yourself fruit cage, that arrived in shiny steel interlocking sections. My generous husband even fulfilled my request to make it octagonal, so that we can get round the corners more easily.
Inside the fruit cage are dotted raspberries, redcurrants, blackcurrants, whitecurrants, gooseberries, honeyberries, blueberries and a monster of a plant that I think is a wonderberry, similar to a loganberry. Outside the cage is a blackcurrant bush that was there before the cage went up and wouldn’t fit inside, and all the raspberries that ‘walked’ away from where they started, in order to flourish in freedom. The birds have first peck at those. The wonderberries and whitecurrants are so vigorous that they force some of their branches out through the netting each year. So however much the blackbirds may complain about being shut out of the fruit cage (and occasionally force their way in somehow), they are just as well off for berries as I am.
The fruit cage has also been a way of protecting wildlife (such as frogs and insects) from any chickens or ducks that I might allow into the bottom garden, and it served as a duck enclosure (with a home-made duck house inside) when Defra told all poultry owners to keep their birds shut in for months over the winter, as a precaution against bird ‘flu. At least the ducks provided some fertiliser and cleared all the long grass, but they were relieved to be let back out into the walled garden when the restrictions were lifted.
I made sure the cage’s netting had holes big enough to let bumblebees and butterflies in, but small enough to keep sparrows out. It was quite a rigmarole (although an enjoyable rigmarole, as I quite like being up ladders) attaching the netting all the way around the top and sides, and so it stays up all winter. On the rare occasions that we have snow here in east Cornwall, you will find me inside the fruit cage in the early morning with a broom or floor mop, knocking off the snow covering that turns the netting into a sort of snow hammock. The pure, fluffy snow bounces into the air and then showers down on top of me through the netting, turning to powder on my coat and trickles of very cold water down my neck. The dog likes to stay by my side, so we both end up with a heavy covering by the time we’ve shifted all the snow.
Back to June, and you’ll find me inside the fruit cage picking fruit, starting with the honeyberries, which are odd-shaped, often like slightly squashed bottles. They were fat and sweet this year, so the cycles of rain and sun must have suited them. Then come the raspberries, blackcurrants, gooseberries, whitecurrants … the whitecurrants are prolific every year. In 2019 the redcurrants and blueberries were the last to ripen, although the gooseberries had a very long season.
As I scoff plump, ripe berries straight from the bush, while filling tubs with fruit to be made into summer puddings or destined for the freezer – to make low-sugar jams with the frozen fruit through the year, or to top my dad’s morning bowl of cornflakes, or for smoothies, or for my comforting hot blackcurrant drink for sore throats in winter – I can watch the birds fluttering around the rest of the very-berry-filled garden with a clear conscience.