• Maureen Little

(Nearly) A Cloche Encounter

Updated: Aug 11, 2020

I got caught earlier this year. Not by the police because of a misdemeanour, but by a late frost which almost annihilated, and certainly decimated, my not-so-hardy seedlings. Poor little things. For some it was the death knell: I could almost hear a sombre bell marking their passing. Which is what decided me to invest in another sort of bell – a cloche.

Traditionally, all cloches were indeed bell-shaped, so named because cloche is the French for bell. Because of their shape and the fact that they are made from glass which makes them pretty heavy (they’re not going to blow away), their size is somewhat restricted: the largest I have been able to find have a diameter of 30cm. This makes them ideal for protecting individual plants or for warming up a small area of soil. You can also get plastic bell-shaped cloches: they’re much cheaper but the downside is that they need to be secured. They weren’t exactly what I was looking for, though. I needed something bigger.

I wanted something functional but that would also look good in the garden. The words of William Morris, the influential craftsman, writer and social reformer of the 19th century, came to mind: ‘Have nothing in your house that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful’. Well I wanted that in my garden – something useful and beautiful. After a trawl of the internet, rejecting plastic covers that looked like slightly deranged umbrellas, much larger mini-polytunnel constructions, and functional wooden coldframe-type edifices (all useful but certainly not as beautiful as I would like) I came across my dream cloche. Is it wrong to get excited about a cloche? Surely not. Just look at it! Usefulness and beauty rolled into one. I feel certain William Morris would have approved.

I don’t think I’m the first one to get excited about a cloche, however. I bet when the first one was invented back in the 17th century (1623, in Italy to be precise), many a gardener with wealthy employers rubbed their little hands with glee. I say wealthy employers because back then glass was a very expensive commodity.

They caught on across Europe extremely quickly because John Evelyn in his Elysium Britannicum or The Royal Gardens written between 1650 and 1700 lists, under his section ‘Instruments Belonging to a Gardener’: ‘Bells of Glasse, some Close, others with a tunnel for the admission of aire.’

Evelyn also mentions ‘Chasses or frames Glasse to preserve flo: & Plants from the cold winds,’ and ‘Canopies of Glasse made of Glaziers worke, and put into a frame, capable to cover a Hott-bed {at 1 foot height} and one of the sides made to open and shut with Casements; for the attempting of the aire government and elevation of choice Seedes:’

He also provides handy illustrations (these are my poor interpretations of them): the ‘Bells of Glasse’ are undoubtedly what we recognise as a bell-shaped glass cloche; the ‘Chasses’ are very similar to my very own acquisition; and the ‘Canopies’ are what we would call a coldframe.

I plan to put my cloche not on the soil but on a slatted bench which we never sit on. My thinking is that I can use it as a very mini-greenhouse, with sufficient, permanent ventilation from below, or I could give it a false, solid bottom and regulate the ventilation by the position of the ‘lid’. Either way I shall be growing things in pots or trays; they’ll be transient tenants rather than long-term residents.

So what shall I do with my super-dooper, useful and beautiful cloche when it comes? It’s a bit late now to protect my precious seedlings, but I can certainly plan ahead and think about sowing some salad leaves for the winter, or providing overwinter protection for some cuttings or autumn-sown hardy annuals. I could even pop in a couple of long-burn nightlights in it to keep the frost at bay.

Three weeks after ordering it, it arrived! But wait. My hopes were smashed, splintered and broken. Yes, you’ve guessed.

As you can see from the photos my longed-for cloche was, sadly, not fit for purpose. Fortunately, I took photos of the entire unpacking process and sent them in an email to the supplier. They apologised profusely and arranged for the damaged one to be picked up and a new one sent out. Only by the time all this happened they were out of stock. I got a full refund, which was only right and proper, but now I am once again searching the internet for my ideal cloche. I’ll let you know if I find one … or perhaps you know of a supplier? Please drop me a line if you do!