I guess we always want what we don’t have. When I was living in Maine I wanted to grow crops that wouldn’t quite make it there. Our sandy loam soils were great for cucumbers, squash and pumpkins, but we had trouble maturing cantaloupes and watermelons. The season was too short. Even plastic mulches didn’t buy us enough extra growing time.
Growing tomatoes could also be tough if you were too generous with fertilizer. One of our neighbors learned that. Frost destroyed bushels of beautiful green ones. He never did harvest any ripe fruit.
Forget about sweet potatoes. We tried that once and most of the roots were no bigger around than your finger. When I moved to West Virginia my wife and I were able to grow many things I never could in Maine. I still wanted more and be able to harvest even later in the year.
Eastern North Carolina has a long enough season to mature just about any garden vegetable. That said, I still want to push the envelope even further. In a typical winter a fall garden can produce broccoli sporadically even through the coldest weather. Last year was an exception.
By cloching our garden we can stretch the season a month or so on each end and moderate the environment somewhat throughout the winter. There are several types of cloches. The word comes from the French word bell. The first ones were sections of glass in a bell shape designed to cover individual plants.
Some people use milk jugs or clear plastic bowls over plants. Some contraptions even have reservoirs to hold water. Advertisers boast plants can survive night temperatures in the low teens. This theory takes advantage of the high heat capacity of water, but it’s too much extra work for me.
The most common types used today involve making a frame with a series of curved pipe hoops and covering it with greenhouse plastic. In spring we can set up our cloch to help warm up and dry the area. This lets us plant tender crops earlier and maybe be the first in the neighborhood to harvest a ripe tomato.
Fall is when I like to protect things. Maybe it’s because plants are already growing and I don’t want to lose them. A single layer of plastic with no heater won’t save tender plants if temperatures drop into the 20s, but cloches can help keep things like tomatoes and peppers producing a little longer. Day temperatures under the cloch are warmer, so the plants still think it’s summer.
Where cloches really earn their keep is when we use them to produce fall greens, which can tolerate cold nights. Cloches buffer night temperatures but their real value is the increase in day temperatures when plants actually grow.
I love to pick broccoli all winter long and have plenty of greens for salads, the fresher the better. Since I don’t live further south I’ll just have to trick Mother Nature with a sheet of plastic.
Ted Manzer teaches agriculture at Northeastern High School.