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Keeping your plants warm in winter

Ann Kelly Ann Kelly | 10:49 UK time, Wednesday, 9 September 2009

Ah, autumn, season of mists and lots and lots of things to eat! Tried Nigel Slater's Tomatoes, Courgettes and Basil last night, very nice. Though the best thing about it for me might have been that I grew everything in it (except the olive oil. Alright, and the lemon). Don't miss the first episode of Nigel Slater's Simple Suppers, tonight at 7.30pm on BBC One.

Despite the glorious sunshine outside as I write this, winter is coming so it's time to think about how to look after your plants during the darkest, coldest days. Most things need to have been planted by now, but there are a few things that'll do alright, if you bung them in now - so long as they have PROTECTION in a greenhouse, cloche, cold-frame or polytunnel.

The inside of Ann's polytunnel

I'm pretty keen on the whole winter protected cropping thing, because over the past year I teamed up with a bunch of friends to build this - my polytunnel (right). Pretty impressive, eh? Right now, I'm starting off all the leafy crops I'll be growing to give me fresh salad over winter. Yesterday I sowed a load of oriental salads and fast growing cabbages that grow brilliantly at the cold end of the year into trays - spicy mizuna and mustard leaves, refreshing mibuna and crunchy Pak Choi. Once they get big enough I'll plant them out.

Out of the more trad British crops, I'll be growing winter lettuce (try Valia Winter Gem for a midwinter salad), Miner's Lettuce which will grow happily until spring, spinach which does great at this time of year because it doesn't bolt so much, and I'm also trying American Land Cress for the first time. Endive will grow too, but I hate it so I'm not having any.

Most of you won't have a polytunnel, but there's plenty of other options. Regular blog readers will know that I'm not in favour of buying things you can bodge, sorry, make, and cloches are particularly easy to knock together.

Ann's homemade cloche

The simplest way is to buy some blue plumbers' pipe (called MDPE - the 25mm size is the best), cut it into lengths and bend it over to make hoops you can push in the ground (this is easier if you push a stick or better still, a bit of metal rod up into the end of the tube first). That makes the framework for your cloche. Then, to cover it, you need to buy horticultural plastic or fleece, which will keep the plants nice and warm through the cold weather.

Cut it to size, with a good overlap each side and end, and place it over, using planks, bricks or similar to hold it down. The very best thing is a bit of scaffold tubing as it's easy to move when you want to get in to harvest or weed. There's a good discussion of different designs and techniques over on the Allotments4all forums.

If you're at all comfortable using tools, cold frames are another easy bodge. Keep an eye out for a decent wooden box (try posh wine merchants, they quite often have them, or use a drawer from an unwanted chests of drawers). Saw the box so the top of it is at an angle, then cover with horticultural plastic, perspex or better still, a window that someone's throwing out. Perfect for protecting plants in winter, and for hardening them off in spring. There's loads of designs on the net, but I think the one at allotment.org is a nice simple one.

And if the suggestions above sound tricky, try this. Cut the top off pop or water bottles - the large 5 litre ones are best - and bung the resulting plastic dome over your plants. Hey presto - micro cloche in about 30 seconds!

Anyone got any other autumn crop suggestions? Or garden DIY tips? Love to hear them!

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