3 Ways to Protect Your Plants from the Cold
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I don’t know about you, but we’ve been dealing with some pretty crazy weather up here in the Pacific Northwest. For starters, we had one of the coldest, snowiest winters I’ve ever seen on the west coast. And it seemed to go on forever! We finally had our last snowfall sometime in late March and the first signs of spring began to show themselves. The promise of better days was here at last! Or so we thought.
Fast forward to today; It’s now mid-June and it is feeling more like early spring (or mid-fall) around here. Granted, we have had a few hot and sunny days and we’re definitely past our last frost, but it’s grey and rainy and definitely sweater weather.
Yesterday I was scrolling through old photos on my phone when I came across a picture I took last May of our garden in all its glory with veggies already ripe for the picking. Contrast that with a glimpse of our garden today and you’d be forgiven for assuming today’s picture was taken much earlier in the season than last year’s. A few plants are well on their way, but over all everything is behind schedule by about a month or so.
I’m honestly beginning to wonder if summer will ever arrive. As I write this, the wind is howling and the rain is steadily coming down outside. I’m not gonna lie: The thought of a cool, grey summer followed by another winter like last one fills me with despair. And the thought of a shorter growing season just adds to the pain.
It’s been a rough start to the growing season, to say the least. And it’s all related to the weather. We lost most of our early spring crops because the seeds and seedling roots were either eaten by wireworms (a pest that has thrived here this year, likely due to cooler spring temps), or they were tilled up in our mad effort to rid our garden of the pests.
Couple that with a chilly spring that has pushed back planting and transplanting dates for most veggies by at least a couple weeks, and I’m feeling like we’re definitely behind on our food production so far this year.
The good news is, we are not currently on water restrictions dealing with drought conditions. Everything is still very green and the cooler temperatures have been good for some plants that were already dying off because of the heat or preparing to bolt (go to seed) around this time last year. My peas are looking phenomenal and the broccoli is weathering the, um, weather, fairly well! But some of my heat-loving plants are struggling to survive out there.
I went to check on the garden yesterday evening before the rains arrived, and I noticed that two of my cucumber transplants had died off already. I only transplanted them a few days ago and I’ve now lost two out of the nine that I planted. Despite the late spring, it’s getting to be a little late in the season to keep starting new seeds, so I know I need to be careful not to lose anymore if I can help it.
I double-checked the soil for signs of wireworms who had potentially eaten the seedling roots, but I didn’t find any. The only reason I could think of to explain why the seedling had simply keeled over and died was the weather. Despite the fact that it’s mid-June, it’s just too cold and volatile for some of my more tender plants and seedlings out there!
I knew I had to work fast to save the remaining seedlings from the oncoming storm, but I wasn’t sure there was much that could be done at the 11th hour. Then Ryan, my husband, suggested I put clear plastic cups overtop of each seedling to help shelter it from the elements. Bingo!
I just so happened to have some clear plastic cups stashed away in our pantry, so I set to work covering each one of my cucumber seedlings and a couple of my pole bean seedlings that are just starting out. If there’s one thing I’ve really learned about starting plants from seed and keeping them alive through the seedling stage until they are big, strong and healthy enough to withstand most of what life throw’s at them out there, it’s that the process is much like caring for children. Seedlings need lots of TLC. They need to be tended to daily, they need just the right amount of warmth, water and light, and they need extra care and protection to keep them safe from anything that threatens them.
It’s yet to be seen how my little seedlings will fare under the protective dome of the plastic cups, but in theory this should protect them and save me from having to restart all of my cucumbers from seed again, further delaying the growing season. Aside from some plants we grew in our greenhouse last year, I haven’t really had to deal with protecting my plants from the cold yet. But I’m learning that as the climate (and hence the weather) becomes more and more unpredictable, gardeners especially need to be prepared for anything if we are going to be successful in raising strong, healthy, high-yielding crops.
When it comes to shielding plants and seedlings from the elements, there are several methods and tools you can use to protect your plants from the cold. The method you choose will depend on the plant and its stage of life, including whether you are growing it in a container or in the ground, as well as the resources you have to work with. You can apply these methods whether you are dealing with a long cool spring like me, you’re wanting to extend your growing season later into the fall, or you’re looking to get a jump on the growing season by getting your plants started nice and early. Here are your options:
1. Move Your Plants Indoors
Whether you’re just starting your seeds or you’re dealing with some nasty weather, temporarily starting or moving your plants indoors can help you get an early start on the growing season and can help protect tender new seedlings and heat-loving plants from the cold.
This method works for new seeds and seedlings as well as mature plants that are being grown in containers or have not yet been transplanted into the ground. Transplanting can shock and kill plants, so avoid digging them up and replanting them as much as possible. Once they are in the ground, leave them there unless you feel you have no other choice. Case in point: we transplanted our broccoli seedlings into the ground in May and lost one due to wireworms in our soil. To avoid losing the rest, I dug them up and planted them in containers until we had our pest problem under control. The remaining plants are looking great now! But normally I wouldn’t have risked digging them up again.
Changes in temperature can also shock plants and kill them, so make sure you harden plants off before bringing them outdoors for the first time. Hardening off simply means that you’re toughening them up to be able to withstand the elements outdoors. Bring them outside for a few hours each day to start and bring them back in at night when temperatures drop. This helps prepare them for life outdoors. After a few days you can bring them outside for good.
Likewise, if you’re bringing plants back indoors, beware of the temperature variation. Make sure you don’t put your plants that have become accustomed to outdoor temperatures in too warm of a location indoors as this could be too much for them to handle.
If possible, place plants in a south-facing window or under grow lights indoors so that their leaves get the light they need to grow. You can also help prepare them for life outdoors by gently brushing your hand over the top of seedlings. This helps mimic the motion of wind blowing over them, and helps train the stems of plants to grow strong to withstand the winds.
2. Build a Greenhouse/Hoop House
A greenhouse is a great way to protect plants from the cold and extend your growing season. In milder climates, it’s even possible to grow food year-round inside. The design and materials used in construction allow greenhouses to trap and store heat so that when temperatures drop, the greenhouse stays nice and warm.
Greenhouses can be used to start seedlings, grow heat-loving plants like tomatoes, peppers and basil, and to extend the growing season into the fall and even the winter. The downside is that they can be expensive to build and they are permanent structures, meaning you can’t move plants into a greenhouse if they are already planted in the ground. Enter the hoop house…
Hoop houses are often confused with greenhouses because they look similar and serve much the same purpose. Greenhouses tend to have a triangular, pointed roof, are built with heavy materials like metal and wooden frames and even glass, and sit on a solid foundation or are built as a permanent structure. Hoop houses, however, are rounded and dome-shaped, are built with lighter materials like PVC pipe and clear plastic covering, and can be moved easily and/or built right over top of your in-ground plants.
Hoop houses tend to be more affordable than greenhouses because the materials used to make them are less expensive, plus they are moveable, meaning you can place them over any section of your garden to protect your plants without having to move them or transplant them. The downside to a hoop house is that it’s just not quite as durable and strong and the design may collapse in winter under heavy snowfall, so it’s not as ideal for year-round growing.
For instructions on how to build a hoop house, check out the following article from Mother Earth News.
If you’re not so good with construction and DIY projects, you can purchase greenhouse and hoop house sets. Here is a simple greenhouse that also allows you to collect rainwater in the rain gutters to water your plants with. Or you can buy this hoop house kit for less than $50 to help protect your in-ground plants from the cold.
3. Use Cold Frames & Cloches
Another option for keeping plants warm and sheltered is the use of cold frames in the garden. Cold frames are essentially just mini greenhouses that you can place on top of individual or small clusters of plants to protect them. They typically have a slightly angled top cover that should be placed over top of plants facing south in order to maximize the heat and light from the sun, and some pre-built frames like this one have hinged tops so that they can be easily opened to let fresh air in and allow heat to escape in warmer weather.
Cloches are similar to cold frames, but on an even smaller scale. A cloche is simply a bell-shaped “jar” that can be placed over individual plants temporarily to help shelter them. Typically cloches are made of glass, but they can be plastic a well. Either material will work as long as they are clear to allow sunlight to enter.
The plastic cups that I used overtop of my cucumber seedlings act as mini cloches, like miniature greenhouses for each individual seedling. The cups work great in my case because my seedlings are still small enough to fit underneath, but any bigger and I would need a bigger cloche or cold frame. You could use a larger jar such as a quart-sized Mason Jar, vase or even cut a plastic bottle or milk jug in half and use that to cover plants. You can also purchase packs of plastic cloches like these ones, or if you want to be really fancy, you can go for a nice glass cloche like this one, which can also be used as a terrarium cover or as a decor piece when not in use in the garden.
Luckily there are things you can do to protect your plants from the cold and ensure a successful growing season despite the crazy, unpredictable weather. The more resourceful you are, the more options and designs you will probably come up with, and it’s very possible to work with materials you can probably find around your home and homestead. Or you can easily purchase what you need and rest easy knowing it is a sound investment in your garden and, in the end, in ensuring your food supply.
If you have any other tips or methods you use for protecting your plants from the wind, rain and cold, please let me know by commenting below! Stay warm and protect those seedlings!