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Wouldn’t you know it. Just as we transplanted our young pepper seedlings into their permanent bed the sun disappeared and the clouds thickened. Rain, unexpectedly, was imminent.

Pepper plants are of tropical origin, and they need warmth. A cool spring rain can set them back just when they are supposed to begin their growth spurt, and a prolonged rain or cool spell can stunt the plants and lead to poor production. Needing to construct a temporary shelter for the seedlings, and short on time and materials, we turned to one of our time-tested construction techniques – using natural materials, a few bits of string and a scrap of poly plastic.

This simple ‘cloche’, or cold frame, serves as a mini-greenhouse which protects seedlings from cool spring weather, and is removed as soon as the weather warms. It can be adjusted at each end for ventilation as needed. It’s sturdy enough to withstand a strong wind or heavy rain, yet can be easily lifted when the seedlings are well-established, and moved to another garden bed where new seedlings are being set out.

And best of all, it only took 45 minutes to build and cost nothing in materials. Here’s how it’s done:

1. Cut six small curved branches from a conifer tree.

If you have cedar trees in your area, these are ideal for this project since cedar has natural rot-resisting qualities. We used cedar for this project, but you can also use the small ‘bendy’ branches from most conifers. Look for branches that are curved, and cut them each to about 5’ – 6’ in length. (If you want a taller cloche, then use longer branches.)
Conifer tree

2. Trim the branches and sharpen the thick ends.

Use nippers to prune off any branch spurs and use a hatchet to sharpen the bottom end of each branch so it can be speared into the soil easily.

3. Stick the ends into the soil and push them down at least 12”.

This design uses three hoops. Push the branch ends into the soil about 3’ apart and about 3’ across from each other. If this is too hard, then your soil may be too compact. If your soil is adequately prepared for gardening you should be able to push the ends into the bed without difficulty.

sticks in soil

4. Pull the opposing branches into a hoop and tie them together.

When pulling the branches together, you can twist them around each other which helps to form the curved shape. Then tie both ends tightly with several wraps of string to secure the hoops. We used sisal for the string since this is what we had on hand. A braided nylon string would be better since it would last for years, but that’s your choice.

At this point you may notice that your hoops don’t line up at the top. It’s OK, the next step will fix that. Don’t waste time trying to make it look perfect at this stage.

5. Set a straight stick along the top and lash it to the center of each hoop.

Use a straight branch, a broom handle, or a length of 1” x 2” lumber (we used a split piece of cedar) to make the ridge for your cloche. Simply lay it along the top and tie it securely to the hoops, taking care to pull each hoop into position so that the ridge is tied to the approximate center. This pulls the whole construction together so it looks uniform.

6. Attach the clear plastic sheeting to form the cover.

Cut a piece of clear poly wide enough to cover the hoops and long enough so that is extends about 18” beyond each end of the cloche. Set the sheeting over the frame and fasten it to the hoops at each end with a few staples. Put a few staples into the ridge as well. Now you can roll up the surplus plastic at each end to the desired opening size. Voila, you are finished!

To use the cloche, simply roll up the ends to allow adequate ventilation as needed for the plants. If the weather gets cold or the nights are chilly, then roll down the ends for added warmth. Just remember to open them up again when the sun comes out or you may risk overheating the enclosure.

When your seedlings no longer need protection, the cloche is easy to remove. Simply tie a string at the base of each hoop at ground level, and stretch it across to the opposite side of the hoop and tie it off at its base. Do this to each hoop. This is to prevent the bottom (in-ground) ends of the hoops from springing outward when you lift them out of the soil. Once the hoops are tied off at ground level, simply lift the whole cloche up and carry it to the next bed where it is needed. At the end of the season, remove the plastic and untie the top ridge from the hoops, and then the hoops can be laid flat against each other for storage in the shed without taking up much space.

Although this little cloche is intended to be a temporary shelter for seedlings, you may be surprised how long it lasts. If you use good string to lash it together, like nylon twine, it will hold up for many years of use. In our garden, we still use the first “temporary” cloche we made over 30 years ago!

I love getting something for nothing, especially when it can give such long-lasting value!