The Mess of Protecting Plants from Stress

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Kale seedlings in plastic milk carton cloches

This time of year my garden is so littered with pots, cloches, and flapping sheets of row cover (garden fleece) that it looks just plain trashy. This is a temporary state of affairs that will soon pass as the weather settles down, but meanwhile the view is cluttered at best. The untidy scene is worth bearing in light of the good work being done by various mud-smudged objects, each of which has an important job that helps protect young veggies from the stresses of the season.

Cloches for Cabbage Cousins

I live on a hilltop, where strong winds howl every time a weather front moves through. Violent winds torture seedlings with unnecessary twisting and tearing, which slows their growth. Wind is especially traumatic for cabbage family seedlings, which include broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, kale and kohlrabi. These little guys have such broad leaves that gusty winds jerk them around like tethered kites, so wind can be much more damaging than cold.

Cloches to the rescue! Whether you make them from plastic milk jugs or use purchased cloches, well-anchored cloches are the best way to shield cabbage family crops from wind, cold, and even visits from cabbage white butterflies. Just be sure to allow for ventilation on sunny days by leaving cloches open at the top, because unventilated cloches can cook the seedlings inside. Whenever you want to provide wind protection for widely spaced plants, cloches are the way to go.

Using blankets for frost protection
Old blankets make excellent protection against frost

Blankets for Potatoes

Wide beds of potatoes present a challenge that can’t be solved with cloches. Over the years I have come to expect a 50:50 chance that a late freeze will try to nip back potatoes that have been up and growing for a month. Old blankets spread over the plants provide excellent insulation from sudden cold, so I keep several handy for this purpose. The blankets may mash the plants a bit if they get soaked, but the stems will spring right back when fair weather returns. Between now and then, I often fold my garden blankets to match the dimensions of newly seeded beds, and use them to keep the soil moist while seeds beneath germinate. I store my garden blankets in a dry place after the weather turns warm, and then get them out again in the fall.

Shade Covers for Leafy Greens

It’s best to transplant during a period of cloudy weather, but sometimes all you get is sun. Lettuce, bok choy, radicchio and other leafy greens especially appreciate a few days of shade after transplanting. This is best provided by covering them with light-colored plastic nursery pots for two to three days after setting them out.Light-colored pots don’t heat up the way darker ones do, and some filtered light reaches the seedlings through the pots’ thin walls and drainage holes. And, should a spring thunderstorm develop after all, the pots will protect the delicate seedlings from pounding rain.

Tulle tunnel
Thin netting or fleece protects seedlings from many pests

Cozy Tunnels

When in doubt, a tunnel covered with spunbound row cover (also called garden fleece) will protect young plants from wind and cold, as well as insects, deer, dogs and other unwanted visitors. Cozy though they may be, row cover tunnels look terrible, and I don’t like the glistening plastic particles they shed after a few seasons of use. For that reason I’m gradually replacing my traditional row covers with homemade versions sewn from lightweight cotton, purchased as cheap remnants at the fabric store. If you can sew a straight line, simply stitch two pieces of fabric together lengthwise. Most cotton fabrics are 45 inches (114 cm) wide, so a double width is just shy of 90 inches (228 cm) – plenty wide enough to cover a wide bed when held aloft with hoops and weighted on all sides with boards, bricks, or stones.

With all this going on, it’s no wonder that my garden has a scruffy, rumpled look. But not for long, because these ugly duckling days will soon give way to the singular beauty of a robust food garden.

By Barbara Pleasant

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Show Comments


"Thank you for this article. I am just in the process of making home-made protection cages for various veg and feel happy that my garden will not be the only one displaying mud soaked flapping material over the spring. What is the best way to cover tall Brussel Sprouts and tall Peas? "
Marie on Friday 16 April 2010
"This spring I'm cutting plastic milk jugs in half, throwing away the cap and punching holes in the bottom. Each milk jug gives me two covers to keep my transplants healthy and growing until frost dangers pass. "
Clarice McKenney on Friday 16 April 2010
"Thanks so much for sharing all of these ideas! Perfect!!"
June S. on Friday 16 April 2010
"I'm with you Barbara. For the time being it will be worth it. I'm in southern California so we're starting to put out our warm season veggies. My tomato seedlings are doing well and I did put a couple of trial eggplant seedlings out early. They are doing okay with plastic water jugs but flea beetles got in them already so I also put floating row covers over the jugs. When it's time for the jugs to come off I save money by laying tomato cages on their sides over the eggplants, etc. and cover them with row covers pinned down real good."
Sharyn on Saturday 17 April 2010
"Thanks for the good tips, I especially like the suggestion of sewing the remnant cotton together for a cover for protection from the elements. I live in Tx., and did not get a chance to put my mums in to the ground before the cold came in. I took a piece of large material I had on hand, (actually it was a blend of material) and covered them between a gardenia bush and the porch for protection. When I uncovered them(5 plants in separate pots) this spring they were green and starting to bud. "
Pat on Saturday 17 April 2010
"Last year my other half was going to throw away some old "net" curtains.I said "I'll have those for the allotment" with a wry smile she said"ok,it should pretty when you put them up!" Some of them are now over my Calabrese seedlings which are doing very well so far...So boy's when wifey says she wants new "nets" don't cringe just "recycle the old ones.....Sorted !!"
melboy on Tuesday 20 April 2010

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