Put Some Cloche On

Most areas of the world do not boast climates conducive to growing everything we’d like to eat year-round.  Most backyards do not boast enough space to justify or accommodate a full-sized greenhouse.  Thus, one staple of an Urban Homesteader’s garden space is some type of cloche.

Cloche means ‘little bell’ in French (originally, cloches were little bell-shaped domes that fit over individual plants) and its main objective in the garden is to make the area inside warmer than the area outside, thus warming the soil.  It also must offer access to light for the plants inside.  It can be just about any size; from a 2 liter soda bottle with the bottom cut off, to a plastic frame over a seed flat, to a 3′ deep and wide box, to a 50X15′ section of Re-may stretched over bent PVC pipes.  As long as it is some sort of structure, has light-porous material (windows, clear plastic, Re-may cloth) and can be opened and closed (or lifted off) with relative ease, you’ve got yourself a cloche.

A cold frame is an adaptation of the cloche, and offers a bit more protection as its box-like structure keeps out drafts and its placement is a bit more permanent.  Here’s the box-style cold frame I built for my backyard entirely out of reclaimed materials.  It’s made of plywood that angles down on the sides so that the back is about a foot high and the front about 8 inches.  I attached an old window with 2 hinges to the back side of the box (the angling is to aid water run-off on top and allow for a little more captured sun in the back of the box.)  Super simple, quick-build.  I’ve even mounded the sides with sod clumps from the garden area I’ve dug up.  This will help insulate the box and hold in more warm air.

The only problem with a cold frame like this (especially under the perpetual cloud cover of the Pacific Northwest) is the sun exposure is drastically limited due to the solid sides.  That’s where a box cold frame like this comes in handy:

Another cloche option looks like this one in this food bank-supplying community garden.  Just a wooden frame with 4-mil plastic stretched and stapled over top.  It’s about 3 feet high and easily moved around.  If you try this, just be sure to get at least the 4-mil plastic, 6-mil is even better, but anything less than that will tear too easily.

And just about the cheapest of all larger cloches: the bed-long bent PVC and row cover design.  Coils of black PVC pipe were cut into about 2 1/2 foot long sections, bent over and stuck in the ground on each end and heavy-duty plastic (or Re-may cloth) was stretched over and weighted on both sides by bricks (you could also use stakes or make some large wire staples) or some other heavy objects.  The plastic is good for really heating up the soil and letting the sun through, but the Re-may is a better option for letting in rain water.  I made this cloche for about $5 in all; pipe, plastic and bricks.

Cloches are something you can really get creative with: upturned flower pots make great overnight cloches if a frost is threatening, simply remove them from the plant once the temperature warms up the next day so the plant can get some light; cutting off the bottom of a milk or soda bottle (keep or remove the cap depending on the temperature) makes for a great individual plant cloche too; or even an upside down dish drainer with a small length of plastic stretched over top can make for a windowsill or small lettuce or herb bed cloche.

It’s also a good idea to have an efficient watering system in place with cloches; either drip line running underneath a long covered bed, or regular hand watering, because the warmer temperatures inside the cloche cause a bit more transpiration (water evaporating off of the plants and soil) and can heat up and dry out your plants faster than when uncovered.


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