Tromba bed

A cloche protecting a squash plant.
Those are environmentally-friendly slug pellets, by the way!

It has been a difficult spring for gardeners, and their plants, here in the UK. If you’re lucky enough to have the space (and funds) for a greenhouse or a polytunnel then that goes a long way to protecting plants from the vagaries of the weather, but for everyone else cloches are a good solution to the problems it brings.

There has been some expansion in what is called a cloche, but to my mind it is simply a small structure designed to protect a single outdoor plant (or a group of young plants) from the weather or from pests. Planting outside early in the spring can be a bit of a risky business, with plants eager to grow but at risk from frost and chilling winds; a cloche can be the halfway house that allows the weather to improve, or the plants to harden off, before they are fully exposed. A cloche can also protect seedlings from slugs, snails and aphids – all of which will enjoy their succulent stems and behead them before they get much of a chance at life.

Through the summer, a woven cloche (wicker, perhaps) keeps larger critters out and offers a little sun protection to plants like lettuce, whilst allowing air and water to flow.

And as the days start to shorten a cloche extends the autumn, protecting plants from frost as you’re reaping your late-season harvests. You can even use cloches throughout the winter, to protect hardy plants from the worst of the weather. Although they’ll survive on their own, you can harvest cleaner and more tender leaves from plants that have been given a little bit of protection.

Originally, cloches were bell-shaped structures; most people would recognise Victorian glass cloches, which make an attractive addition to a garden – they’re still available, although they might not fit your budget. Some people have concerns about glass in the garden, particularly if they have children or pets. Plastic versions might not be quite as visually appealing, but they are safer and normally come with vents that allow you to control (to a certain extent) the environment inside. Plastic cloches come in various sizes, but remember that they’ll need pegging down to stop them blowing away on windy days.

Barn cloches are contraptions made from sheets of glass and specially-made wires. You assemble them by snapping the glass panels into place so that you have end up with a glass tunnel. Sheets are propped up for ends, and then removed when more ventilation is required. Barn cloches are easy-to-store and reusable year after year, but there’s a knack to putting them together and I can’t help but think you need nerves of steel to manhandle glass in that way. Fortunately, plastic versions are now available.

These days you can also get lots of pop-up covers for raised beds, and crop protection tunnels. As far as I’m concerned, these go beyond cloches and in to larger crop protection structures, so I will cover those in another post :)

Cloche hints and tips

  • It’s important to note that you can’t simply pop a cloche over a plant and leave it to its own devices. If the sun comes out suddenly, or you’ve trapped a slug inside, then you’ve sentenced your plants to a very quick death. Keep an eye on the weather forecast, and remember to open the vents (or prop your cloche up) to allow air flow if the temperatures are warm. Doing so prevents your plants from over-heating, but good air flow also discourages fungal diseases from taking hold.

  • Depending on the design of your cloche, it may direct rainfall down to the roots of the plant, or it may deflect it elsewhere – so check regularly whether you need to water.

  • Give your cloches a good wash in hot, soapy water before you put them away, so that they’re ready to use when you need them again. A clean surface is free from pests and diseases that might bother your plants, and allows the maximum amount of light to shine through.