Protecting early spring vegetables in your garden

Protect your young vegetables from cold weather, animals, birds and insects.

 Larva and damage to corn seedling. These softbodied, stout worms curl up tightly when disturbed. Photo credit: Clemson Univ-USDA CES Slide Series,
Larva and damage to corn seedling. These softbodied, stout worms curl up tightly when disturbed. Photo credit: Clemson Univ-USDA CES Slide Series,

In several weeks, the first of the cool season vegetables will be headed into home gardens. Michigan State University Extension Horticulture Educators and Master Gardener Hotline staff will begin answering questions on how to keep those little plants or seeds safe so they can grow into big plants. The big word here is protection. It could be protection from cold temperatures or birds or animals early in the season. It all depends how unlucky that particular garden happens to be.

Some options for cold protection

Until the end of May, there is always the unpleasant opportunity for cold weather. It could be a frost or a freeze overnight. It is possible to protect cool season plants from frosts, but it is much more difficult if the temperature drops below 32 degrees Fahrenheit. It is possible to get light frosts through the end of May into the beginning of June.

Floating row covers. If there are rows or groups of plants to protect, using something called a floating row cover can offer some protection. This is a large piece of lightweight spun-bonded polyester or finely woven material. It acts as an overnight barrier between the cold air and the tender plants. It can be draped over plants but for the best protection, put something like rocks or boards on the edges of the fabric where it touches the soil to prevent cold air from sliding under the edges. As soon as the air warms in the morning, remove the row cover. Or a layer or two of sheets with sticks to keep the sheets from crushing the plants is a quick solution. Do not use plastic tarps because they can transmit cold and plants can freeze if their leaves are touching the plastic.

Milk jug cloche. Long ago, wealthy gardeners covered individual plants with a glass bell jar called a cloche. It protected plants from frost damage. Today, the rest of us not-so-wealthy gardeners can create our own cloches from a plastic gallon milk jug. With the bottom cut out, it is placed over a plant and gently snuggled into the soil. A small stake is positioned close to the handle and a bag tie connects them to keep the cloche from blowing away. Take the lid off the jug during the day to let hot air escape and close it at night for maximum protection.

Animal and bird protection

Some gardeners have problems with bird or animals picking seeds out of newly planted rows or grazing off tender young plants.

Roll of eaves trough screening. Buy a roll of narrow aluminum screening sold to cover eaves troughs. Gently bend the screening into a “U” shape and place as a protective tunnel over the seeds in the soil. Place a few slim sticks or heavy wire through the wire screen to act as anchors so it cannot be pushed over. Put several sticks at the ends of the tunnel so they are blocked. The advantage of the shape is that it allows seedlings to come up and not get stuck through the screening. Flatten the wire out and roll up for another use when seedlings are large enough.

Hardware screening or hardware cloth. This heavy wire has square openings one-half inches wide. It can be cut into strips and bent into a half-hoop. This allows larger plants to enjoy protection. Bend sturdy wire into a hairpin shape and secure the wire to the ground. Chicken wire has holes large enough to let certain animal pests through so know who your pest is before buying wire.

Insect protection

When putting tender transplants into the garden, the first weeks are critical. In some gardens, cutworms will sever the stems just above ground level during the night. They create a clean cut and the top of the plant will be lying next to the remaining stem. To protect transplants, use a folded newspaper collar about two inches tall immediately after planting. Snuggle it into the soil and make sure it overlaps so cutworms cannot surround the stem. You could also use toilet paper or paper towel tubes cut to size and slit to surround the plant. Smart gardeners are into recycling and know that this paper protection does not need to be removed. It will just disintegrate during the growing season.

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