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Saturday, April 2, 2016

Cloches - Spring Gardening Goes Under Cover

Spring weather in Michigan is variable (to say the least).  One day it is a typical spring day:partly sunny, 55-60F (13-15C), and perhaps raining lightly.  The next it's cloudy, 32F (0C) and snowing (like today).

4/2/2016 Brighton, MI - Does that look like spring to you?  Me neither.

Because of the variable weather, it is smart to plant your early spring crops under some kind of protection.  Your choices include: A hoophouse/greenhouse, a cold frame, a low tunnel, floating row cover or a cloche.

In this post I discuss a good way to make a very sturdy, long lasting, and fairly economical cloche.  These stand up to UV rays, are light, easy to move, easy to set up and can last for many, many seasons.  They are also inexpensive.  One 4ft. x 1ft. (1.4m x 0.3m) cloche costs about $15 (in 2016) in materials, or $45 for a set of 3. They take less than a half hour to make once the materials have been purchased. (All price estimates from the year 2016 in Michigan.)

But first, I must give credit where credit is due: to European gardeners.  I have been watching a lot of YouTube lately and have seen cloches like the ones I am blogging about in the background of the British TV show "Gardener's World," on the YouTube channel "Lavender and Leeks", and in the periphery of various allotment gardens on the YouTube "Horticultural Channel."  I have NEVER seen these discussed on an American gardening program or blog of any sort.   We seem to be attached to low tunnels made from PVC and plastic sheeting for some reason.  Now maybe I have missed something... but just in case these wonderful devices have been over-looked in our culture, I want to share how to make them with "all y'all."

12 x 2.17ft (3.7m x 0.7m) Polycarbonate Panel
Things you will need:
  • Pieces of clear polycarbonate roofing panel (these come in 8ft. (2.4m) and 12ft. (3.7m) x 2.17ft (0.7m) lengths)
  • Roll of 10 gauge steel wire
  • Several 2 to 3 ft. (1m) sticks (tree limbs, bamboo or rebar)
  • Either a tin snips, trauma shears (strong scissors), or jigsaw
  • Either a strong wire cutter or a bolt cutter
  • Gloves
  • Seeds or seedlings to plant 
 1.) First, buy a clear polycarbonate roofing panel from your local big box store.  These range in length from 8ft. (2.4m) to 12ft. (3.7m) pieces and in price from around $22 to $36 each (in 2016).   Not all stores carry these, so it is a good idea to call ahead before driving to the store.  These panels are typically used as roofing for sun rooms or sheds.  They are durable, weatherproof, UV light resistant and last a long time.  They are also flexible, light, easy to move, and easy to cut to size.

2.) Next buy a roll of thick, flexible wire.  10 gauge steel wire works well. A roll of 50ft. (15.24m) of galvanized steel wire costs around $10.

- If you want to cover a garden area of the same length as the piece of polycarbonate that you bought, skip the next 3 steps.

Measure & cut the polycarbonate panels to size.
3.) Measure the width of your garden and/or the length of garden space that you wish to cover.  Then, measure the same distance along your polycarbonate panel, and draw a cut line with a marker.  My beds alternate between 4ft and 3ft in width. So, I marked out 3 and 4ft distances along the polycarbonate panel.  If you bought a 12ft. (3.7m) panel, you should be able to get 3 panels of 4ft. (1.2m) lengths out of it OR 4 panels of 3ft (0.91m) length.

4.)  Measure and mark out 1ft. x 1ft. (0.3m x 0.3m) squares on the panel. These will later be used as end pieces for your polycarb cloches.  

Bolt cutters work well to cut 10 gauge wire.
5.) Cut along your measured lines.  To do this you can use either a very strong pair of scissors (such as medical trauma shears), a tin snips or a jigsaw.  You can buy tin snips or a jigsaw at any hardware store.  Medical trauma shears can be purchased at a medical or EMS/Police equipment store.  You could find either or both on as well. The plastic is a bit tough to cut with the snips or scissors. If you have weak hands or arthritis I recommend either using the jigsaw or recruiting someone with strong hands to help you out.

NOTE: If you don't own a pick-up truck or van, steps 3-5 could be done in the parking lot of the store where you bought the polycarbonate panels.  That way you can fit them into your car.

6.)  Measure out 3.5 (1m)to 4ft. (1.2m) pieces of 10 gauge wire.

Be smarter than I was: Wear gloves.
7.) Cut the pieces of wire to size with either a bolt cutter or very sturdy wire cutter. I recommend wearing gloves while doing this for safety.  The wire ends are sharp and can cut you.  So be smarter than I was... (see picture, right).   Bolt cutters and wire cutters can be purchased at any hardware.  The bolt cutter is a lot easier to use for this purpose than the wire cutter.

8.) Carry your wire and polycarbonate pieces out to the garden.

Pin the pastic in place with wire arches.
9.) Plant your seeds or seedlings.

10.) Flex the polycarbonate over the top of the seeds or seedlings.  Pin them in place with 2 arches of the 4ft (1.2m) pieces of wire. 1 arch of wire should be placed at each end of the length of the polycarbonate panel. Be sure to sink the wire firmly into the soil on either side of the arched plastic so that it holds in place securely.

Pin the end piece in place with sticks.
11.) Place a 1ft x 1ft (0.3m x 0.3m) piece of polycarbonate plastic on each end of the polycarbonate cloche.  Pin these in place with 2 approximately 3ft. (1m) long sticks, pieces of bamboo or rebar.

So far, these cloches have stayed in place despite 60mph (96.5kph) winds, and have protected the soil against 3 inches (7.6cm) of snow in my garden. 

 We will see how my protected cold weather seeds turn out in a later post.

Until then,  happy gardening! :) 


  1. Love this idea. It would be a good idea for a quick start on root crops or radish or even smaller lettuce seedlings. I'm in Prince Edward Island, Canada, I think were are the same zone, since I chuckle at my last frost date :)

  2. No doubt! I am using them over seed for carrots, turnips, chard and leeks. We will see if the seed germinates. Hard to tell after all this snow!

  3. Also, I have always wanted to bisit PEI. Like a lot of girls, I grew up reading the "Anne of Green Gables" books. When I think about it, the author's descriptions of the countryside sounds a lot like Michigan - all except the red soil and the ocean.

  4. I've lived here since 1998. Originally from Cornwall Ontario (Eastern Ontario). I really like it out there. Spring is very long, summer short, fall long. Winter is a roll of the dice. I guess that is why I like it here. I love weather, and the challenges it provides to the gardener.

  5. Very cool. It is good to love your home. :)