Beginners Guide To Cloche Gardening

First, cloches. There are several types you can buy in glass or plastic. There are three types of glass cloche -the tent-shaped, the flat-top barn cloche and the barn cloche. The barn cloche is the most widely used because it allows headroom across its whole width and so can house, say, three rows of lettuce and five or so rows of carrots or radishes. The flat-top barn cloche, as its name implies, has a top sheet of glass which can be removed to allow ventilation.

Plastic cloches – made of either thin polythene or stronger plastic – come in two main types, and have the advantage of being light and easy to handle. But the light plastic cloches must be anchored to the ground and this poses problems when they have to be lifted for weeding and watering or to provide ventilation. However, there is a popular type of plastic cloche designed to make access easier. It’s called ‘the tunnel’ and consists of very thin plastic stretched over a wire framework in a continuous tunnel (hence its name). By pushing up the plastic on either side of the tunnel you can get at the crop inside.

Sizes of both glass and plastic types vary, the glass ones being about two feet long, one to two feet high, and six inches or a foot wide. Plastic cloches measure anything up to three feet in length, and are usually eighteen iches wide. Obviously you must shop around for the size which suits your purpose.

Glass cloches give the best protection because they stand up to rough weather, but their storage presents a problem. Plastic cloches are cheaper, lighter and easy to store, but don’t provide 100% frost protection. Unlike glass, plastic will deteriorate over the years, although there is a rigid, almost unbreakable type which, it is claimed, has a life often years.

Cloches are designed to give protection. In bad weather you can use them to cover the soil and keep it dry and warm, thus enabling you to sow or plant successfully much earlier (particularly helpful in northern, colder parts of the country). You can, Of course, set cloches in rows with the ends sealed by glass panels. You can use them as propagators and, particularly with larger cloches, you can raise the maximum number of seedlings in the smallest possible area.

In planning and preparing for cloche gardening remember never to set them over ground which contains couch grass or other perennial weeds – they’ll grow a jolly sight faster than your crop!

A good way of using cloches is to set out a double row on a six-foot wide strip of ground, with a gap of about six inches between rows. (It’s important to include a two-foot wide path in your six-foot wide strip.) Alongside, allow for another six-foot wide, vacant strip of ground (or more, depending on space available). Basically the system used is as follows: Plant or sow a double row and cover it with cloches. In due course, plant or sow in the vacant strip of ground and move the cloches over to cover those rows, leaving the first crop to mature in the open. As soon as this has been harvested, prepare the ground for the next sowing or planting and move the cloches back again. Thus the cloches will be in constant use. You can also intercrop, which involves growing a quick-maturing crop in the same strip as a slower growing main crop, harvesting the former sometime before the latter is ready.

Now on to garden frames. These are a ‘must’ for every serious gardener. They afford splendid protection for tender plants in winter and encourage quicker and earlier growth, thereby helping one to force crops out of season.

You can make a frame quite easily. Use two- or three-inch thick breeze blocks cemented together for the walls. The back of the frame should be about eighteen inches high and the front about eight inches. (You’ll have to chip away the blocks to make the necessary angles.) Cover your frame with ‘Dutch lights’. These are wooden frames containing glass or plastic sheeting.

You can, of course, buy frames, and they come in various designs in wood, metal, brick, plastic and fibre-glass. There are two basic types – the ‘cold’ frame and the heated type, in which electric warming cables are used. These transform each frame into a mini-greenhouse. There are other ways and means, of heating frames, though, and again you should shop around to find what best suits the purpose.

With a little initial planning much can be accomplished in a frame. For a start it makes a splendid propagator for numerous cuttings and seedlings. Seeds can be sown in frame soil or in pots or boxes inside the frame. If your frame is heated you can start operating during February – late March if your frame is ‘cold’. Hardy and half-hardy annuals are ideal for sowing in frames. They’ll produce strong plants ready for planting out in late spring. Lettuce, too, is an ideal crop for the frame. You can sow suitable varieties in late October and plant out seedlings a foot apart in December (these should be ready for cutting in late March). They’ll need protection against frost, though, and you must provide ventilation to offset mildew. And don’t water them too much! Carrots, turnips, radishes, marrows and cucumbers are also good subjects for the frame, and it’ll give a good start to those outdoor tomatoes. Try growing melons in them, too.

Frames are also ideal for cultivating early-growing bulbs, potted up ready to be brought out to delight the eye and the nose indoors. And they’ll help with acclimatising plants raised in the warmth of the greenhouse to the rigours of ‘outdoor life’. By transferring them to the frame, and by lifting the lights by degrees, thus exposing them to more and more cooler air, they soon get adjusted or ‘hardened ofP to the great outdoors!

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