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They aren't pretty, but they get the job done.

They aren't pretty, but they get the job done.


Several of my readers have commented on my cloches, made on-the-cheap from various bottles that largely have come from my household. By and large, these are one- and two-liter soda bottles. We had an entire winter’s supply of plastic bottles in our garage, awaiting recycling, when the idea came to me that I might be able to use them in my garden.

(Actually, if truth be told, we really don’t drink that much soda from bottles. I, however, love seltzer water, which I buy in two-liter bottles, and average about one bottle a day, whereas my daughters are fans of Walmart’s flavored seltzer, which comes in one-liter bottles. Between the two of them, they probably average eight to ten bottles a week. Yes, that’s a lot of plastic, but our water here is very bad quality, and even purifying it doesn’t seem to remove the bad flavor.)

Initially, I cut the bottles roughly about one-third down from the top of the cap. Two-liter bottles are 12-inches tall, and using a utility knife I cut the bottles at the point where the label ends, somewhere between 7-1/2 and 8 inches from the bottom. I cut the 10-inch tall one-liter bottles in about the same place, two-thirds up from the bottom, along the edge of the label. Then I’d remove the labels and use the bottoms. Later, when I ran out of bottoms, I realized that the tops also could be used with the shorter seedlings.

When I place the bottles over my seedlings, if the surrounding ground is soft, I can push the bottles down into the soil an inch or two, which secures them from toppling or getting blown about in the wind. We have had some windy days, but I have only had a couple of bottles desert their posts. With the fence around the garden — which is really not fencing at all, but deer netting secured to stakes — none have blown away to liter my neighbors’ yards. When I covered the spinach seedlings, which had sprouted in place in their garden setting, I soon learned to loosen the soil surrounding them with my hand spade before attempting to secure the bottles over them. Otherwise, the flimsy plastic of the bottles curls under and the cloches don’t stay in place.

One of the reasons I really like the cloches is that I can pile up the mulch fairly thickly around the plants and close to each individual plant without smothering the seedlings underneath. As the mulch settles into place and weathers down after steady rains, it forms a nice ring around the plants without actually touching the stems. My regular readers may recall that I have been fighting unusually high pH levels in my soil — it measured above 7.5 when we first turned over the soil in March — and after an initial application of aluminum sulfate that brought the pH down to just under 7.0, I have been attempting to maintain and perhaps lower that a bit more with pine needle mulch, graciously provided by my next-door neighbors. The cloches help prevent the needles from actually touching the seedlings, thus avoiding any possible burning from their high acid content.

The cloches also have very nicely protected the plants from rabbits, mice, raccoons, squirrels, ground hogs and all of the other Rodentia that prey from above the soil. Additionally, they had been very effective against the much-despised cutworms that strike from above — that is, of course, until the cloches were removed. They didn’t seem to protect them from underneath though, and the cutworm species that attacks the roots were able to achieve their mayhem unhindered, even with the cloches in place. I’m hoping that I will not have the problem with cutworms in subsequent years as cultivation alone seems to work against them as time goes on.

The two-liter bottles, by virtue of their larger circumference, fit over larger peat pots. I have sprouted my seedlings in 2.5-inch and 1.75-inch biodegradable cells, and the one-liter bottle cloches do not fit around the larger cells. So I have used them on the seedlings in the smaller cells (the lettuce and spinach, for example) and saved the two-liter bottle cloches for the seedlings in the larger cells. My lettuce plants have gotten so large now though that I am transferring the larger cloches to them as they become available. I expect I’ll soon be harvesting some of the lettuce, perhaps within the week.

However, I find I actually prefer the smaller one-liter cloches whenever I can use them. I have found that the flimsy plastic on the larger bottles curls under with age, which makes it harder to push them down into the soil. Loosening up the soil around the small plants first before pushing in the bottles over them helps prevent the curling, but in time the plastic eventually curls anyway. I extend the life of these larger cloches by trimming off an inch of the plastic when it starts to curl, but they will end up in the recycling bin before the season’s end, I’m afraid. The smaller bottles, on the other hand, will likely survive several seasons.

As I’ve needed larger and larger bottles, I started cutting off the bottoms of the bottles instead of the tops. I only take off between an inch and two inches when cutting from the bottle, which gives me a couple of inches more in height. This also is actually a better design functionally for cloches. The plastic at the bottom of soda bottles is a tiny bit thicker, which makes for a sturdier cloche. And the tapered top of the bottle allows debris to slide off easily, optimizing the sun that reaches the plants inside. Additionally, I have the option of removing the bottle cap and watering the seedling inside the bottle without removing the cloche, when I think that not enough moisture is reaching the roots directly under the cloche. This isn’t a frequent problem, though. Being able to mulch up close to the seedling allows the soil to retain moisture much more effectively between rainfalls. And, of course, I water with a soaker hose, so as long as the roots are getting what they need, it doesn’t matter whether or not the surface soil is damp.

I’ve been so happy with my improvised cloches that I’ve started using just about every plastic and glass container that would otherwise head straight to the recycling bin. This is what I’ve learned: I don’t like the gallon-sized milk and water bottles. The plastic in our gallon bottles is milky in color and translucent rather than transparent. I don’t think the seedlings inside get enough light or enough water to best sustain them. I love juice bottles the best, especially the large round Juicy Juice bottles. They are made with a thicker plastic, but are big enough in circumference to fit around larger peat pots. And when the bottoms are cut off, I have the same tapered top and the same option of using them with or without the lids.

Any clear glass or plastic container can be put to use in this way. The only limit is the size of the opening. Smaller jars can be used on tiny first sprouting plants and replaced with larger ones as the plants grow. In time, of course, the plants will outgrow them all, but by that time they will have a more solid footing in this world and be less vulnerable to attack. A loss of one leaf on a large plant is not the potentially fatal blow that it means to a seedling. Roots are larger, stems are sturdier, and leaves are more plentiful on older and larger plants.

Just a few of our pea flats, snug and cozy on our sunporch

Just a few of our pea flats, snug and cozy on our sunporch

We like peas. We eat peas all year round. I put peas in macaroni and cheese. I add peas to ramen noodles. I like baby peas on salads. We eat snow peas raw as snacks. And, while my children aren’t as crazy about sugar snap peas, I can open up and prepare a 16-oz frozen bag of them and eat them all by myself. In short, this family is pea-nuts.

So, in planning our garden, it made sense to buy a package each of snow and sugar snap peas (Dwarf Gray Sugar and Mammoth Melting Sugar, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.). I couldn’t decide between two varieties of shelling peas (Dark Seeded Early Perfection and Burpeeana Early, W. Atlee Burpee & Co.), so I bought both.

Yes, four packages of peas just for us. Well, I suppose we’ll share, but still — that’s a lot of peas. Because I was concerned about getting the pH of our garden soil down to around 6.5, I ended up planting the peas in flats to buy us a little time. I had intended to move them before they ever sprouted above the surface of the potting mix, but with more than a week of dreary and rainy weather and a couple of writing projects thrown in, I didn’t get a chance to put them into the garden until late last week.

As of today, I have about 100 pea plants in the ground. That amounts to about a double row 25 feet long. I have lots more to go. The rest of my peas are sitting outside next to my front door waiting for me to get them tucked into their garden bed. And they are very impatient. Some seedlings are now reaching three inches, and their strong roots have pushed out of the peat pots in desperate search for more dirt.

When I planted the first seedlings the other day, I was amazed at the tenderness I felt placing each one into its place six inches from its sibling on each side. Is there any more beautiful shade of green than that of a pea seedling? This particularly happy shade reminds me of clover. Or shamrocks. And the round shape of the early leaves also brings to mind those same comparisons. But the tiny little tendrils, soon to entwine and hold onto the fence/trellis I have planned to circle the garden’s periphery, stir memories of infants’ reflexive, trusting grasp around a parent’s outstretched finger.

Yesterday it snowed. An April snow is not so unusual here in northern Indiana. I’ve been told not to worry — that the peas are cold-hardy. But I worried anyway. And I had my son go out to the garage to find a tarp to cover the seedlings sitting outside on our porch.

But I was less worried about the pea seedlings I had already planted. While putting them into the ground, I had become worried that rabbits would nibble on my little plants before I got the protective fence in place. That’s when I remembered we had a large number of one- and two-liter plastic bottles in our garage waiting for recycling. It occurred to me that I could cut off the tops and use the bottoms as individual green house covers for the pea seedlings. So that’s what I did, enlisting family and friends for as many as we could round up. In the end, I also used the cut-off tops to cover the smaller seedlings, as well as some glass canning jars I had found in the basement. I pushed the plastic securely into the soil (although I am a bit worried about what chaos a heavy wind might create), and then laid down between the bottles a two-inch blanket of pine needle mulch. So, when the snow fell, I was confident that my little seedlings were well-protected and would survive.

And, once the peas are in place and their trellis fence has been installed around them, I can use the very same plastic bottles to protect the lettuce and spinach seedlings, which are next in line to be planted into the garden.

The snow yesterday was very wet and has already melted, leaving behind a very cold and damp garden. I didn’t venture out to plant yesterday, but I’m hoping we’ll have warmer and dryer weather soon so that I can get in the rest of my peas. Wish me luck.

I’ve been inspired by Joe Lamp’l’s attempt to start seeds on the cheap. (See Joe’s blog here and The $25 Victory Garden Facebook group here.) I wish I had thought to do this before I spent $24 on empty seed flats earlier this spring.

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At first, I thought I would like the milk bottle starter best on top right, as it has a flat side. To open, with a utility knife, I cut three sides of a rectangle on the milk bottle’s side facing the top, leaving the last side of the rectangle uncut so that it can act as a hinge. Inside the bottle I layered 2 c. water topped by 3 c. potting soil formulated for seed starting. Last, I scattered spearmint seed over the soil, then used my fingers to cover it up just a bit. I taped the whole thing shut along the cut lines with packing tape.

However, the two-liter soda bottle (pictured bottom left) ended up being my preferred starter. After removing the label, I used packing tape to attach two wine bottle corks to one side about three inches apart. This is a very nice solution to keeping the bottle from rolling about. Then, as I did on the milk bottle, laying the bottle on it’s side, I used a utility knife to cut three sides of a rectangle on what is now the top side of the bottle, leaving the last side to serve as a hinge to fill the bottle with water (1 c.), potting soil (1-1/2 c.) & some seed (I used oregano) scattered on top and lightly worked in with a finger tip. I sealed the bottle shut with packing tape.

I think the two-liter bottle is the superior choice. It’s more slender and will fit on many window sills. It also is more transparent, allowing for better sun. Ironically, I believe it is more sturdy than many of the purchased seed-starting flats. When the seedlings are ready to transplant into the garden, take off the tape and the seeds then can be easily scooped up and replanted.

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