In England, the month of April is traditionally associated with very variable weather - especially the sudden (but usually brief) April showers. The nights are still very cold (we have had frost a couple of times this last week), and although there are often periods of sunshine the sun is not yet very strong and the daytime temperature is often only 10 - 12 degrees Celsius. Having said that of course I see that predicted temperatures for the forthcoming Easter weekend are 19 - 21C!
What this is leading up to is the need to be prepared to provide some good - and flexible - protection for your tender young plants. Of course every gardener's house is full of those at present.
Over the years I have gradually built up a collection of different pieces of crop-protection kit. Some of them are short-lived, like the horticultural fleece, which only lasts a year or two at most, but others are real veterans by now.
In the photo above I'm displaying 4 types of equipment. In the foreground is a simple propagator which is just a clear plastic lid that fits over a standard seed-tray. I use these for germinating seeds indoors, but they are also useful for protecting tiny seedlings on their first few outings into the garden. Behind the propagator is a lightweight wooden-framed coldframe with polycarbonate panels. I use this for bigger seedlings and small plants, keeping it closed unless the sun is shining strongly. It heats up very quickly so I often have to prop the lid open to stop it overheating. Even with the lid open this coldframe is very good as a windbreak.
Behind the coldframe are four 1.2-metre tunnel cloches. Despite being rather flimsy, (and in my opinion over-priced at about £35 each when I bought them several years ago) I use them a lot, and move them around the garden very frequently. The end-pieces were never much good and were discarded long ago. Nevertheless these cloches provide a good level of protection from frost, wind and animals and let in a good amount of light. They have protruding "feet" at each corner which can be pushed down into the soil to provide stability, or left up to increase ventilation. At present they are covering two rows of Broad Beans, but they will have to come off soon as the plants are beginning to touch the roofs.
In the background of the first photo are my plastic mini-greenhouses. I have three 2-tier upright ones, and two lower-profile ones marketed as "Seedling Greenhouses". The latter are shaped like a traditional coldframe - high at the back and lower at the front. Both types are extremely useful, and good value for money. I think I paid about £12.99 for the upright ones and probably about £20 for the others - though don't quote me on this, because my memory is a bit hazy!
In the Spring these greenhouses are absolutely vital to my growing regime. It is inside them that my early potatoes are raised, and subsequently my chillis and tomatoes inhabit them for a couple of weeks during the process of "hardening-off" (gradually acclimatising them to outdoor conditions). The greenhouses are very flexible (no pun intended). The doors on the upright ones have zips at both left and right, so it is easy enough to adjust the ventilation level as required. Furthermore they have removable wire-mesh shelves so they can accommodate two layers of small plants or a single layer of tall ones. Their only real weakness is their lightness: I always weight mine down with a few bricks to stop them blowing away!
The Jewel in the Crown of my array of crop-protection hardware is undoubtedly this upright coldframe:
Here on my blog I refer to this as the Gabriel Ash coldframe, for the simple reason that it was manufactured by a company of that name. This fabulous piece of kit costs nearly £700 to buy, but it didn't cost me a penny because my lovely wife won it for me in a competition! It is very sturdily built, in metal and real seasoned timber, so it's very heavy and in no danger of blowing away unless we get a proper hurricane.
The coldframe came with two shelves, but I seldom use the top one, which is a half-width one, because it fits in at a very high level, meaning that it is only suitable for very small plants. Again, this coldframe has a lot of flexibility in terms of ventilation, with not only double doors at the front, but also a hinged lid which can be propped open at two different angles. I sometimes use a little stone wedged between the lid and the main body, to keep the lid open just a crack so that the inside doesn't overheat. At present the floor of the coldframe is mostly taken up with pots of beans (only recently sown, so not yet germinated) and a couple of frost-tender Geraniums, while the shelf supports trays of tomato and chilli plants, which are brought indoors at night-time, by the way.
I must make mention of the good old Horticultural Fleece, some of which is visible at the right of this next photo.
Fleece like this is a very useful alternative to the "hard" types of crop-protection. It's inexpensive, lightweight, easy to store when not in use, and quick to deploy. It is best used draped over some sort of support mechanism, such as plastic hoops or lengths of semi-rigid water-pipe, or even some sticks, to ensure it has a layer of air between it and the plants. This is because the material is easily saturated by rain (or snow!) and if it then freezes the plants underneath it are not going to be happy if they are in contact with it. [NB: During hot dry weather, a single layer of fleece draped loosely over the plants can provide a useful protection from sun-scorching.]
Before I finish this post, I want to mention one other little trick I have learned. One of the biggest dangers faced by my young plants is encountered in transit from back door to coldframe and vice versa. There is a narrow gap between our house and our neighbours', and the wind fairly howls down it, even when it seems like just a gentle breeze elsewhere in the garden, so to protect my plants during this brief but perilous journey, I place each tray of plants in turn inside this large plastic crate, which acts as an all-round windbreak.
Taking the plants to and fro in this manner is a lengthy job, but if it saves them from damage, it's definitely worth it.