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.
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.
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