Buyers' Guide - Horticultural fabrics

From crop protection to insulation, there is a material to meet every horticultural need, says Sally Drury.

Crop protection: nets can be used to protect crops from insect attacks or bird damage - image: Crop Solutions
Crop protection: nets can be used to protect crops from insect attacks or bird damage - image: Crop Solutions

Q. How can horticultural fabrics benefit growers of ornamentals and edible crops?

A. Every sector of the horticulture industry can make use of fabrics. For commercial growers there are materials that can create weed-free standing out areas in nurseries.

By eliminating competition from weeds, such materials lessen the competition for water and nutrients. They can also reduce the reliance on chemical weed control.

Some fabrics are light-reflective and have uses in glasshouses and plant production situations where crops can be boosted by increased photosynthesis without resorting to lighting systems or by supplementing them. Fabrics are also used in glasshouse thermal screens and black-out curtains.

Mesh and netting fabrics offer diversity of use. Some are suitable as windbreaks. Paraweb is a well-known brand in this respect. Some can provide shade for crops or protection from hail. Others have thermal properties, making them ideal for raising the temperature of soils early in the spring or for frost protection. As the climate seemingly continues towards extremes in terms of winds, rain and sudden highs and lows in temperature, these protective materials are likely to become more important in the future.

Netting can also be used for security purposes - protecting crops from insect attacks or from damage by birds. Again, climate change is possibly going to alter our needs in terms of protection from new insect pests. In addition, meshes are used to support and train crops, especially beans produced by market gardeners, and are widely used by cut flower growers.

A major fabric used in horticultural applications is polythene and its various derivatives to clad tunnels and multi-span structures for crop protection and early production. "Smart films" contain spectral filters to control the light waves entering the structure and reaching the crop. Different filters can restrict or promote certain growing habits and can deter pest and disease infestation - all helping to reduce the reliance on growth regulators and agrochemicals.

Another major use of fabrics is for insulation. This can be in the field, where soil needs warming for premium crops early in the season, or in the glasshouse to reduce fuel costs.

A wide range of fabrics are also available for lining hanging baskets. Fargro, for instance, supplies a range of pre-formed liners, coco liners and bulk roll products as well as offering a bespoke design service for made-to-measure liners.

Q. What fabrics are available for use in landscape situations?

A. Most commonly, horticultural fabrics are used to suppress weeds and reduce the loss of soil moisture by acting as mulch on beds and borders. In Europe, it is usual to see the material laid on the surface and planted through; in the UK, a layer of bark mulch or other organic material is often used to dress the fabric for aesthetic appeal.

There are many uses for netting and mesh in landscape situations, too. Climbing plants may be supported and trained through vertical mesh, and many materials are suitable for stabilising soils, preventing erosion or providing reinforcement for turf in heavily trafficked areas. Increasingly, landscape designers are using synthetic turf in projects, particularly where the client has no time for mowing or requires a clean area for children.

Materials can sometimes be used as a barrier within the soil or under a driveway to prevent particles migrating down through the soil profile. Waterproof liners are used to create ponds, lakes and other water features. In addition, strong, root-proof materials can be used to protect land from the roots of invasive weeds or to contain tree roots and prevent damage to foundations.

In sports turf, managers can use fleeces to speed up germination of grass seed in the short closed season. Fleeces can also help limit the amount of seed stolen by pigeons. A chain-link type mesh is common for ball containment in multi-sports areas, while on driving ranges, a curtain of mesh or netting can prevent straying golf balls from damaging nearby properties or causing a hazard on adjacent roads.

Q. When choosing a fabric, what are the factors to consider?

A. Longevity should be the first consideration. The fabric should last as long as is needed - that might mean a few months for soil warming or a couple of years if mulching around young trees. Windbreaks around a stand-out area on a nursery should have a long life.

Interestingly, Nottingham-based Capatex reports increased interest in higher weight weed control fabrics - often 70g or even 90g - as landscapers seek a longer lasting barrier.

Quality, strength and UV resistance should be added into the calculation, but the fabric also needs to provide a cost-effective solution to the problem. Look at the price, but remember the premium you may get for early production, an extra high-quality crop or boosted yield if you are a grower, or the reduction in chemical and weeding inputs if you are a landscaper.

It is also crucial to consider how the fabric will be installed. Does the material need to have eyelets for tying down or can it be stapled? Will it withstand having the edges covered with earth? Do you need a cherry-picker to help with installation or field machinery to lay acres of fleece? Maintenance should also be considered. Will the materials withstand the elements? Can it be patched if it is torn by the weather or by animals?

Some materials are designed to be biodegradable. Many are not. Thought should be given as to how it will be disposed of at the end of its life or when it becomes redundant and surplus to requirements. Check whether the supplier offers a collection scheme.

Q. What's new in fabrics for growers and landscapers?

A. Crops Solutions, a major supplier of insect, bird and thermal nets and sole UK distributor for Fiberweb, was the first company to develop fleece for use in agriculture and horticulture. The company has developed its own Crop Cover Rolling and Unrolling Machines - currently the largest in Europe.

Offering an extensive range of woven, knitted, non-woven and extruded materials for the protection of crops, agro-textile specialist Capatex reports a growth in anti-bird netting as more areas are planted with cherries, soft fruits and vineyards. The company is about to embark on field trials of a new anti-pigeon/anti-hail netting that is manufactured in such a way that the threads do not slip or distort. With preformed "buttonholes'", the netting can be pegged down without fear of tearing. The company is also carrying out trials with an innovative film system for vine protection at six different vineyards.

As well as supplying artificial grass on a nationwide basis, Easigrass also carries out installation. Recent prestigious projects have included Wimbledon, The Shard, the Olympic Park and the Oxo Tower.

Designed to replicate a perfectly manicured lawn, Trulawn Luxury is a new artificial grass said to have the look and feel of real grass. Olive and dark green colours have been combined with a brown weed thatch to enhance authenticity. It is as soft as grass and has the same spring-back effect but never needs mowing and does not succumb to weeds or sun.

Capatex now offers four grades of G-Tex artificial grass in 2m and 4m widths, with lengths cut as required.

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