How to Use Cloches and Critter Cages to Protect Young Plants
You just transplanted some tender young plants into your garden plot, and by the following day, they have already been eaten to the ground. What can you do to protect young plants from hungry herbivores? And what can help protect new transplants from a springtime cold snap? In this article, gardening enthusiast Liessa Bowen will discuss how to use both cloches and cages to protect your valuable young plants during their most vulnerable stages.
Farmers and gardeners spend a lot of time discussing weather and critters because both can destroy an entire crop at any moment. Young plants are especially vulnerable to both hungry herbivores and temperature extremes. Fortunately, there are ways to help protect your seedlings from both animals and cold weather.
Physical barriers like fences, large cages, nets, and floating row covers, are promising for larger-scale gardens. You can also use smaller devices such as critter cages or cloches around individual plants. A more targeted approach may be a great choice for small garden areas, occasional use, and a more budget-conscious approach.
Cages and cloches can be selectively used when and where they are most needed. Let’s explore how to use these small plant-protection devices for a successful gardening season.
What is a Cloche?
A cloche is a small enclosure that completely surrounds a plant. A solid-material-cloche can help protect young or small plants from cool weather, especially early in the growing season when young plants are particularly small and delicate. A cloche can also help temporarily protect smaller plants from browsing herbivores and insect pests.
Cloches may be around 12 to 18 inches tall and are designed to enclose a plant completely. This enclosure acts like a mini greenhouse, warming in the sun and offering light protection against early-season freezes and cooler weather. This can give you a jump start on the planting season.
Cloches are dome-shaped or bell-shaped, typically made from clear plastic or PVC material. A cloche will usually have a small opening in the top for ventilation.
This is important, as you wouldn’t want to keep your plant in a totally enclosed space with no ventilation. It may also have some anchor points around the lower edge to help prevent it from being blown off during windy weather or knocked over by passing animals.
For similar effects over a whole raised bed, try a raised bed cover.
What is a Critter Cage?
A critter-proof cage is a wire enclosure that can help protect smaller plants from animals such as deer, rabbits, squirrels, and birds. The fully enclosed wire mesh creates a physical barrier to protect crops from browsing and digging animals. Because these cages are completely exposed to the elements, they won’t provide any protection from cold weather.
A critter cage is a fairly simple idea. It will be a rounded cylindrical or dome-shaped form made from rust-proof wire mesh. You will likely find them ranging in size from only a few inches up to 12 or 18 inches tall.
They will have wire mesh along the top, not just around the sides, so that the entire plant can be completely surrounded by wire. If you have problems with rabbits and deer nibbling your young tomato seedlings, a critter cage can quickly and easily solve this problem.
When To Use Cloches and Cages
Cloches and critter cages will work best if used in spring after transplanting or whenever crops are most vulnerable. Certainly, not every plant needs extra protection. Many species do fine with a little water during transplanting and do not require much extra care or attention. But there are also situations where extra plant protection is not only helpful but essential.
Cloches are uniquely designed to protect young seedlings from cold temperature swings. For example, it’s early spring, and you are anxious to plant your tomatoes in the garden.
You look at the weather forecast and see that temperatures are not expected to drop below 40 degrees for the next 10 days. You put out your tomatoes, and shortly after transplanting, there’s a late spring frost warning. Yikes! This would be the perfect opportunity to cover all your tender transplants with cloches!
Critter cages are best used to prevent mammals and birds from easily accessing attractive crops. Critter cages don’t offer any protection from the elements, but they offer excellent protection from herbivores. Young plants seem to be especially tasty for herbivores, and a critter cage offers a very simple solution.
You will not be able to protect garden crops from every possible harm, but you can help your plants through their most vulnerable stages in many ways. You will find the greatest benefits of using cloches and critter-proof cages in the following situations.
I cannot count the number of times I have direct sown seeds in my garden and come back later that day to find that some industrious squirrel has already dug them all up.
If you want to give your seeds a huge head start, plant them, water them well, and cover them with a cloche. The cloche will serve a double purpose: it keeps the seeds warm in a little greenhouse while also protecting them from digging animals.
Plants will be most tender and vulnerable when they are young. Young plants are small, fresh, delicate, and relatively soft compared to their mature counterparts. Hungry herbivores often nibble seedlings and young plant starts. This delicate stage is also when they are small enough that you can still completely cover them with a cloche or a cage.
Older plants tend to become more resistant to herbivores because they develop tougher stems and leaves, hairier stems and leaves, or bristles, spines, and other (very effective) predator deterrents.
From the perspective of a hungry herbivore, some plants are more enticing than others. No matter how much you want to grow tulips, hostas, and pansies, if you have deer and rabbits in your area, these plants will attract them to your yard. Any time you try to establish a new plant that is a known herbivore favorite, you can give your plant a head start by protecting it within a cloche or cage.
If you are determined to grow plants that deer and rabbits love to eat, you can try to trick them. Intersperse the deer and rabbit favorites with herbivore-resistant plants and hope the hungry animals are deterred enough to browse elsewhere.
Unfortunately, covering a plant with a cage works only while the plant is small enough to fit within the cage. Some varieties of plants (hostas, for example) will be favored by deer regardless of how large they grow.
Protection From Pests
There are plenty of animals that eat plants, either exclusively or occasionally. Pests can cause tremendous damage to a plant and can easily and quickly kill a plant. Insect pests nibble on leaves, while mammalian pests can eat an entire small plant with one bite.
For vegetable gardeners, young seedlings of tomatoes, peppers, lettuce, and peas are often favored by hungry rabbits. If you are starting these plants from seed or transplanting out young plant starts, you will want to offer your plants some protection to get them started.
Mature tomatoes and peppers may be less attractive to rabbits than delicate young plants and seedlings.
If you want to protect your plants from insect pests, you will need to have a barrier that insects can’t penetrate. Critter cages have holes that smaller insects can get through, but larger insects like moths cannot. A cloche can be a perfect barrier to protect small plants from small insect pests, but will also keep pollinators out. Even though your cloche probably has a small ventilation opening at the top, many insect pests will preferentially seek plants with easier access.
Plenty of birds will nibble on young plants and eat the fruits of mature plants. You may not be able to protect mature plants with a cloche or cage, unless your mature plant is very small and low-growing, such as a strawberry plant. It can be very tricky to protect plants, especially larger fruiting plants from hungry birds. Sometimes you just have to accept that you will share your crops with the resident wildlife.
Birds don’t typically bother small young plants. They generally prefer foraging on the fruits and seeds that the plant produces at maturity. If you do happen to have birds nibbling on your smaller plants you could easily protect them with a cloche or critter cage. These are both much safer for birds than thin netting which can easily entangle birds.
There are many mammals that cause problems for gardeners. Deer and rabbits are widespread garden pests that munch on tender young plants, more mature plants, vegetables, and flowers. Squirrels are ubiquitous and known for eating plants and digging holes in soft garden soil, sometimes uprooting young plants in the process. Raccoons, opossums, skunks, mice, rats, and others can also cause plenty of problems for gardeners.
Putting a cloche or critter cage around smaller plants can help prevent most damage caused by mammals. If your plant is growing through the top opening or a cloche or through the wires of the cage, determined mammals will often browse on anything they can reach. If you can secure your cage to the ground, this can help prevent it from being knocked over by persistent browsing.
Natural elements such as wind, rain, snow, hail, and generally cold weather can negatively affect plants. If your plant cannot handle occasional weather extremes, you may wonder how to offer some effective protection. Sometimes you need to cover a plant for a single cold night; other times, you may want to keep your plants covered for a few cooler weeks.
A greenhouse-like cloche can help shield your plants from occasional adverse weather. You may have tried to wait until after the last spring frost, but there always seems to be one or two more bursts of cooler weather before the nighttime temperatures are consistently warm. During these cold spells, you will be especially grateful to have some convenient cloches to protect your cold-sensitive plants.
Depending on where you live and what plants you are growing, cloches and critter cages could be used during any season. One nice thing about these devices is that they are extremely convenient to have on hand. They don’t require any assembly or setup. You just need plants small enough to accommodate them.
You may follow recommendations to wait until after the last frost date to transplant tender annuals outside. But what happens if the temperature drops to near freezing after your plants are in the ground? You can use cloches to protect young transplants from an overnight cold snap.
Use both cloches and critter cages to protect young seedlings and spring transplants from hungry animals. Cloches can be especially handy for spring gardening because they serve the dual purpose of helping insulate plants from the cold while protecting them from predators.
In most climates, you shouldn’t worry about damaging cold weather during summer. By mid-summer, many plants will be large enough to be safe from predation. If you used cloches to warm your plants in the spring, you can safely remove them when the air and soil temperatures have warmed sufficiently in the summer.
But if you have any late transplants or want to start summer seedlings for fall harvest, you will still need to protect these young plants from the ever-present garden herbivore. Because the hot summer sun may heat up an enclosed space too much, use a generously-sized critter cage to protect young plants while they’re getting established.
The gardening season does not end with the start of cooler weather. As the summer crops wind down, it’s time to start fall and winter crops, and these new seedlings will benefit from predator protection. Depending on your local weather and the crops you are starting, you may find either cloches or cages work best for your specific needs.
If you are not starting any new autumn crops, don’t stash away your cloches just yet. Autumn is an excellent time to ensure all your gardening gear, including cloches and cages, is clean and free from mold, mildew, dirt, and debris. After thoroughly cleaning and drying, your gear can now be stored for the winter.
You may not grow much in the winter, but if you live in a warmer climate, you could still have an active winter gardening season. If you are growing winter greens, you may want to protect them with cloches to give them a more greenhouse-like winter environment. Floating row covers or miniature, portable greenhouses are also excellent choices to help winter greens during mild winters.
Critter cages may not be terribly useful for most winter gardeners in colder climates. Some browsing herbivores will be hibernating for the winter. If you have some greens being eaten by herbivores, you could certainly put critter cages around them as a simple solution to that problem. However, critter cages excel at keeping moths at bay, and some moths are still active in the winter in warmer parts of the United States.
How To Use Cloches and Cages
It’s very simple to purchase and use pre-made cloches and critter cages. First, you will need to identify which items you want to buy.
- If you want to protect small plants from occasional cooler weather and small insect pests, a cloche would be ideal.
- If you need something to prevent herbivores from eating your seedlings or are trying to prevent moths from laying eggs on your plants, cages would be the perfect solution.
You may find that you have viable uses for both cloches and cages. Once you identify what your needs are, you will be able to choose the best product for that purpose.
Any gardening style you use can benefit from plant protection systems. You will probably be able to keep out larger mammals, such as deer, opossums, and raccoons, with a tall garden fence that completely and securely surrounds your garden plot.
Even if your garden is fully fenced, you may still encounter problems with squirrels, young rabbits, birds, and weather.
Tall metal raised beds may be above the reach of rabbits but will still be accessible to deer, birds, and persistent squirrels. Shorter raised beds and many container gardens will offer little protection from animals and will likely be completely vulnerable and accessible to any animal that wanders by.
If you are growing vegetables using an in-ground garden with rows or ground-level beds, use cloches or cages around select individual young plants. The cloches will probably be most useful to get your plants off to a strong start.
Once the plants have filled the available space within the cloche, you will need to remove it and allow your plant to grow freely. It will be larger, taller, and stronger now than when you first planted it in the ground.
Vegetables aren’t the only garden plant that gets munched by animals. Many flowering plants also need protection, especially when they are young. If you are planting flowers and need to protect them from rabbits who view them as a colorful buffet, consider using critter cages around the most vulnerable and valuable plants.
Deterring With Herbs
Herb gardens are typically not bothered by too many animals. Most herbivores do not like strongly scented leaves and will generally steer clear of things like rosemary, lavender, oregano, dill, and parsley.
Deer and rabbits may do light sampling but usually stop after a few nibbles. A cloche could still be useful, however, when transplanting small seedlings, giving them a bit of extra protection from the weather.
Graduating From Protection
When your plant outgrows the container and its leaves are pressing up against the sides and top, it’s time to remove the cloche or cage and let your plant enjoy unrestricted growth.
To remove a cloche, lift it straight up over the top of the plant. Be cautious when removing a cage to be sure the plant hasn’t tangled any of its leaves and stems through the wires.
If this is the case, you can carefully guide rogue stems back through the holes or do some trimming if they’re too badly entangled.
Cloches and critter cages have distinct limitations to their effectiveness. They can offer tremendous benefits but cannot effectively protect plants in every situation.
Most cloches and critter cages will not fit over larger plants. To fully protect full-sized garden plants, such as tomatoes, peppers, or beans, you may need to create a chicken wire or hardware cloth wrap for the lower 2 feet at the base of your plants. This can help protect them from rabbits, but will do nothing to stop deer from munching at the tops.
A cloche can help protect a small plant from a brief bit of colder weather in the springtime, and it could protect winter greens in mild winter climates. But severely cold winters where the weather drops below freezing for extended periods of time will be too cold for frost-sensitive plants, even with a cloche.
If you want to protect your beautiful flowers from hungry rabbits, you may want to use a cage rather than a cloche. This will better allow you to see and appreciate your flowers. Pansies, for example, are a favorite of rabbits and deer. Because these stay small during their entire flowering season, they can be protected by cages. In this case, cages would be very effective but only if you don’t mind enjoying your plants through a wire cage.
If you keep your plants covered while they are flowering, this will prevent or limit access to pollinators. Any open-pollinated garden plants will need pollinators to allow the plants to develop fruits. Chances are, however, that your young plants will outgrow their cloches before they start flowering, and then pollinators will have unrestricted access to them.
While using an enclosed cloche to protect plants from cooler weather, the greenhouse effect is a good thing. But using an enclosed structure in full sun on a hot day may create an oven effect and be too hot for many plants. A critter cage will not offer any insulation and would be better to protect young plants from animals during the warmer months.
When it rains on a critter cage, the entire plant and the ground around it still get wet. If you are using an enclosed cloche, make sure your plants receive enough water. If your cloche isn’t designed to let water in, you may have to do some supplemental watering to be sure the soil around your tender plants stays suitably moist.
If you are bothered by moles and voles burrowing and tunneling in your garden and disturbing your plants, neither a cloche nor a critter cage will not be practical. Moles and voles create an underground network of burrows and will not be affected by above-ground enclosures. Consider using a sturdy, taller variety of raised beds for your garden with a protective mesh underneath to prevent burrowing.
There are several products that gardeners can use to increase their productivity and gardening success. Garden cloches are convenient and highly effective in protecting tender young plants from occasional cool weather, particularly at the beginning of the growing season.
If you have problems protecting young plants from browsing animals, you will likely enjoy the many benefits of critter cages. These are especially helpful in hot climates where you don’t want to scorch your crops.
A cloche can fill both roles if you want to protect the same plants from both cool weather and herbivores. If you have a stash of cloches and cages on hand, you will probably find many uses for them to help your garden thrive!