This section is from the book "The Gardener V3", by William Thomson. Also available from Amazon: The New Organic Grower: A Master's Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener.
We have long had great faith in old herring-nets as shelter against winds, frosts, and animated plagues of the higher winged class. Against wasps and flies, to which we are now compelled to add hornets, nets of the liner textures are necessary; still the old herring-net is the most generally useful as a protective material. It is only since reading Mr Sutherland's sensible article on the subject that we have the moral courage to say so. Some years ago a celebrated clerical amateur gardener, a near neighbour of ours, all but excommunicated the old herring-net in severely caustic terms. He said that the hanging up of a herring-net before a Peach-tree, in order to shelter it, was like the shelter a sheep would experience behind a hurdle on Salisbury Plain in a snow-storm. The apparition of that luckless sheep has ever since haunted our mind when the old nets have been brought into use, and made us half ashamed of our faith in them. We have never, however, abandoned that faith, and hasten to make a public confession of it.
At first sight, there does not seem to be much shelter behind a herring-net, but in practice it is found to have a wonderful effect in breaking the force of the wind, and also in retarding radiation; and when it is doubled or tripled, it is sufficient for anything in spring.
Almost everybody will have observed the wonderful effect the branches of deciduous trees have in warding off frost from the ground underneath; or how a very thin sprinkling of litter, amounting to the thickness of three or four straws or leaves, will quite prevent frost from entering the soil; or, more correctly speaking, the few straws prevent the heat from escaping from the soil. We have repeatedly had occasion to observe that a Rose arbour, of 9-feet span, with a lattice-pattern of wood-work 6 inches wide, on which the Roses were trained leafless in winter, and not much better than the Salisbury hurdle, would resist frost, if the wind was still, up to 10°. Now, the virtue of the herring-net does not, we believe, lie so much in itself, but from its acting as an auxiliary to the brick wall behind it, or the ground underneath it; and all the better if the wall be hollow from the foundation, with a good sound coping projecting well over. This conservation of the heat of a wall, but especially of the earth, is not half taken advantage of in spring.
Every one looks out their old herring-nets when the birds begin to peck the first-ripe Strawberries, but the proper time should be when the first blossoms are beginning to open, the nets elevated sufficiently above the beds to allow a man to walk underneath in a stooping position. The same remark applies to Gooseberries and Red Currants, which are often spoiled by late spring frosts. The cloche, the ground-vinery, and the numerous new modifications of the same appliances, are quite as much heat-conservers as they are plant-protectors.
We remarked that the herring-net was, of course, of no use as a protection against wasps and flies, but it is effectual against butterflies, which are not quite the innocents some people imagine: just witness a quarter of Broccoli or Cabbage, with its leaves reduced to skeletons, at this season. Hundreds of these pretty pests may be seen on a hot day alighting on the quarters of winter-greens; and depend on it they are bent on mischief to the gardener; and depend on it prevention is better than cure in this instance also. I think I hear some amateur expressing gratitude for this hint.
Old herring-nets can be bought very cheap, if the business is set about in a direct way. Let any gardener, who has the fortune to be so situated, drive into the nearest fishing-town, after the fishing season is over, with a few loose shillings in his pocket, as we have often done and mean to do again, and he will have no reason to grudge the time and trouble. We say this because we are certain that advertised prices prevent many gardeners from using the quantity of nets they would wish to have. Tradesmen who collect and repair them have a right to be paid for their labour, however.
Shelter, apart from old herring-nets and spring frosts, is a most important word in the gardener's vocabulary. A slight amount of shelter, in the shape of a wall or hedge, may mean a fortnight or three weeks in the coming in of a crop; the difference of a few yards may make a subtropical or an alpine climate: in the one instance, as we this season experience, Cannas, Castor-oil plants, and others of the subtropicals, luxuriate like Docks; in the other, blown to ribbons - the difference not being so much in heat as in shelter. Shelter, in the majority of instances, determines the success or otherwise of planting, either as to time or position; at present it may be winter-greens with a broiling sun pouring down on them, when the shelter of an inverted flower-pot, put over each plant through the day and removed at night, would supersede hours of labour in watering. Shrubs, wall fruit-trees, and bushes may now be advantageously shifted, if they be sheltered from the midday sun by mats or canvas.
Not long ago we witnessed the wholesale loss of a large extent of newly-planted specimen shrubs and trees, especially Conifers, in which a garden architect and a gardener were both concerned, from the neglect of the simple consideration of shelter: an old mat on two sticks placed at the windy side of the shrub, a piece of canvas, or some boughs, would have saved scores of pounds' worth, and the purse of a public company replacing them.
This season we have remarked the sheltering effect of cross projections built against a south wall breaking the east wind, and preventing curl in the leaf immediately behind them, while those trees fully exposed have been in miserable plight: we cannot help thinking that arrangement ought to be more generally adopted. Zigzag walls have been recommended for the same purpose - that of sheltering the trees in the angles. Common Laurel or Holly hedges, in short or long stretches, should, however, be extensively used to break the force of the wind near glass structures, athwart exposed corners, and even, in some localities, to partition the kitchen-garden. They are much used where we write, and have a most sheltery effect. Shelter in winter, when deciduous trees and shrubs are supposed to be at rest, is too much overlooked: the last winter's experience has convinced us that the old herring-nets ought to have been in use over the wall Peach-trees, for although the wood was mahogany-coloured and hard, we believe the sunshine by day, and the excessive radiation at night, had evidently paralysed them. This we know by being able to compare some which had considerable protection with many which had none.
We have been told that, in Russia, Vines and fruit-bushes are protected in winter by being laid down and covered with soil in the autumn, unearthing them again in spring. This is a hint which might be adopted in a modified form, the arctic winter compelling the Russian to take a lesson from his bear, and make his Vines hybernate for a time. Although such extreme precautions are not necessary with the Vine in our climate, yet much can be done with less hardy plants by using similar means. Supposing a wall or trellis-work covered with some of the Passifloras, Tacsonias, Ticomas, Lapageria, and other nearly hardy plants which will suggest themselves, where they would be at home in summer and flower grandly, which we know by unloosing them in autumn in time, and laying them along on the ground and sheltering them with Fern or straw, uncovering them during open weather. We know from the trial we have already made, that some of those plants behave themselves much better than being entirely under glass, and can be made an interesting addition to the subtropical garden.
The Squire's Gardener.