Cloches and Coldframes

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Cloches and coldframes were two words that, until I began growing vegetables in my garden last year, had never featured in my vocabulary. Back in the autumn I sowed pea and broad bean seeds directly into the soil, assuming that they would lie dormant over the winter, as the infant harvest song suggests,

‘broad beans are sleeping in a blankety bed’.

Peas in a cloche

However, some mild weather saw them push on until they were proper little plants. They looked so vulnerable – how would they survive all that the coming winter might throw at them? It was time to investigate cloches and coldframes. Cloches and coldframes are invaluable in the attempt to protect plants from extreme weather conditions. They will shield plants from frost, fog, cold winds and persistent rain and for best results should be put up in the autumn to allow tender plants and seedlings to continue growing and cropping throughout the winter. They provide some control over the unpredictability that can make gardening a bit of a gamble in the winter. The earliest kinds of cloche, still available today, were made from two panes of glass joined in the form of a tent to cover sowings and low plants.

The glass panes were joined with wires or metal or plastic clips and, although heavy and breakable, they are stable in windy positions. Plastic cloches have now largely superseded these and some use rigid plastic in the form of tents like the glass ones and others use plastic sheeting or fleece supported on hoops to make a low tunnel to cover rows of plants or seedlings (this was my choice as you can see from the image below, although I began to see the advantage of glass after I had run out to secure my plastic version several times during recent stormy weather).

Other kinds of cloche include :

  • the original bell jar, (cloche is French for bell), formerly made of glass, but increasingly now made from plastic and which is used to cover individual plants.
  • the dome cloche, a moulded plastic enclosure with a handle and open ends that can be arranged in rows.
  • the lantern cloche, a square, free-standing cloche with a lid like a pitched roof. Victorian models were made of leaded glass panels.
  • the floating cloche which has hoops to create tunnels which can be used to support fleece or plastic sheeting over plants.
  • the improvised cloche which can be made from a bottomless clear plastic bottle and is used to protect single plants.

Inside the cloche

Most cloches are open-ended so that they can be joined together to cover a row of plants. However, if left open at the sides they will become wind tunnels, defeating the object of using them. End panels must be closed with plastic held in place by bricks or small stakes (I used some old, heavy Victorian edging tiles that were in the garden when we moved here as well as some small stakes). It is important to look underneath regularly as the soil can dry out fast and to check for any pests or diseases. When watering, cloches will need to be moved or opened and on a dry, sunny day it is a good idea to open the sides for ventilation.

Beans growing in a cloche

So, these are some of the things that I have learned about cloches

  • they are cheap and versatile
  • they occupy less space than a greenhouse and warm up more quickly
  • they are portable and can be moved around the garden as needed
  • they can be removed (or opened) to admit rain or sun
  • fleece is better than plastic as it allows some ventilation, but plastic looks better (I made one from plastic and one from fleece as an experiment)
  • they work! My peas and beans are looking very healthy, although I know we may not yet have had the worst of the weather this season.

How do you protect vegetable plants in the winter?