There is nothing better than at the first summer backyard barbeque you are able to provide juicy, ripe tomatoes right from your own garden because you used a tomato cloche early in the season. You had the fantastic idea to get a jump start on the summer growing season by getting those tomato plants into the ground late April (after the last real chance of frost) and now you are slicing into a mouthwatering beefsteak on the 4th of July! Tomato sandwiches with mayonnaise, BLT’s, a crisp garden salad, or a burger with the works; all taste better when the tomatoes are your own handiwork.
Let’s discuss the tomato cloche in all of it’s varieties. Remember, the word ‘cloche’ is a French term meaning ‘bell’ and was first used to describe those glass bell jars introduced to gardening circles in the 1600’s. Those bell jars are still in use but in modern times the word ‘cloche’ is used loosely to describe almost anything that provides plant protection from frost and poor weather conditions as well as protection from birds and other garden pests.
The modern tomato cloche comes in all shapes and sizes. My favorite for both aesthetics and function is called by a few different names, Wall-O-Water, Kozy Coat, and sometimes Season Starter. This little beauty is such an interesting addition to the garden. To use this type of tomato cloche you fill the plastic pockets making up the cloche with warm water and place it on the ground, opening the bottom wide while closing the top making a teepee shape. The red color of the plastic has been rumored to stimulate tomato growth. You can place the tomato cloche on frozen ground several days prior to transplanting and the tomato plant will be perfectly fine. The water will absorb the heat during the day and provide warmth to the plant throughout the cold spring nights. The manufacturer claims that even during a serious frost (down to 16 F) this tomato cloche will fully protect the young plants-even when the water is frozen! I haven’t been so bold as to use these that early in the season but I have used them mid April and they have worked wonders. They also look charming in the garden.
Another type of tomato cloche is called the Hot Cap or Hot Tent which is little wax paper tent (chicken wire is an easy frame) with holes punched into it for air circulation. These should only be left on the tomato plant for ten days or so after transplanted. By then the plant will most likely be nearing the top of the hot cap and hopefully frost should no longer be an issue (depending on your zone). Pay close attention to the weather forecasts and especially the daily temperatures and remove the tomato cloche once the weather warms to avoid over heating your tender tomato plants.
You can also start your tomatoes early by using a cold frame which is a much larger project to undertake but does yield great results. The cold frame is essentially a large rectangular box placed outside in direct sunlight with a higher back wall and lower sides and front. Any building material will suffice, bricks, repurposed wood, etc. A plastic covering is draped on top of the frame to protect and warm the tomato seedlings, an environment up to 10 degrees warmer than the external temperatures. This is a large scale tomato cloche and a bit more effort but certainly worth it to the serious gardener with plenty of room in the yard.
Along the same lines as the hot cap mentioned earlier, you can easily use an old milk jug toward the same outcome as the store bought tomato cloche. Cut off the bottom of the jug and place it over the seedling. You can place a stick in the center of the jug to hold it in place and also keep the cap off during the day and placed back on at night to retain more heat. The same can be said for a soda jug or any plastic bottle but the milk jug is large enough to allow for a little extra growth. As a side note, I have friends who use old bicycle inner tubes filled with water to provide protection to their plants. The black inner tube and water absorb heat during the day and at night warm the earth surrounding the plant. What an interesting idea!
Good luck with whatever type of tomato cloche you choose to use and remember that nothing tastes as good as something you’ve produced with your own hands. I know I can’t wait pull that first beefsteak off of the vine!