One of the things I like most about permaculture is the way it forces you to become more creative, because you want to make do with a much lower level of required resources than the rest of society. I think that this part is a natural fit for me, seeing as how my wife and I always loved to go “dumpster diving” for the stuff that other people set out — even before I had ever heard of permaculture! In this post I’m going to share a contraption for getting warm weather plants in the ground a few weeks before you normally could out of materials you can find in your recyclables or trash. I know it works because I used it last year with success — hopefully it helps you out as well.
Last week I listened to an excellent episode of The Survival Podcast with Jack Spirko on starting seeds. I highly recommend it — Jack provides a lot of great information for people on any level. However, he did not mention the cloche as a season extender — and it has proven to be a great one for well over 100 years. As far as function goes, it’s basically a cold frame for one plant. The original garden cloches were large inverted glass jars, such as the ones shown below:
I’m admittedly way too cheap to spend the kind of money it would cost to get glass cloches, and I’m also pretty sure I’d break them. But I do like the concept of them. I made some out of milk jugs a few years ago that pretty much looked like these after they were in place:
There were two problems I found with this kind of setup. First, they had to be removed when the temperature got high during the day — so plants would bake when I didn’t have time to take care of them before leaving for work. This was fixed easily enough by just popping the tops off of them, so the excess heat would vent to the outside, although the cloche was compromised against a hard frost. The second problem was that given just a slight breeze — they blew away. I would find all of my cloches gathered in the corner of my garden after a storm.
The solution I came up with — I might have read it somewhere, but honestly can’t remember a source — was to use a stake to anchor it down to the ground. I happen to have a neighbor down the road who has a good-sized clump of tall bamboo in front of her house — she’s nice enough to let me thin it out a little bit each year to get materials for building trellises. I use the thin tops of the bamboo to make these stakes — they are exceptionally strong at only the thickness of a pencil — but you could use any number of things. In the layout below, I used a wooden chopstick I found in our kitchen drawer.
In the image to the right, I’ve taken the cap off of the used jug and begun to cut the bottom off with a basic utility knife. Most of the jugs have a line where the plastic transitions from smooth to rough, so it’s easy to make a relatively straight cut.
This picture shows the jug after I’ve cut the bottom off. It doesn’t have to be anywhere close to perfect — note the jagged piece on this one. The important thing is that it’s relatively even so that it will completely enclose the seedling where it meets the ground.
The next step is to notch an “X” in the top of the jug handle. This is where your anchoring stake will slide through the jug, holding it to the ground. By putting the stake through the handle, we help to keep the stake anchored in one fixed spot rather than spinning about the stake, if we had put it in the middle instead.
Here’s the completed cloche. The chopstick stake fits snugly through the handle so the jug doesn’t spin. You can either put these over early transplants of frost-susceptible plants, like peppers, or use them to direct-seed tomatoes and cantaloupe a couple of weeks earlier than normal.
When I used these last season, I had one additional step that I think helped to solve the problem of an open vent at the top and allow you to extend the season for a good 3-4 weeks. Before placing the cloche over the plant or seed, I grabbed a couple of handfuls of small rocks I gathered from the beds, and arranged them in a ring-pile around it. The rocks served as a heat sink, absorbing the heat of the sun during the day to prevent it from getting too hot, and radiating it back to the plant at night, helping to provide enough warmth to get through the infrequent mid-late April hard frost.
Hopefully this post gives you a concept that you can use in your own garden. Or, better yet, something that you can build upon into something even more effective. As always, I welcome everyone’s thoughts on this as well as any alternative ideas you might have.