Early-bird planting Home: With simple glass covers, you can shelter new growth from winter's last blasts.

March 01, 1998|By Marty Ross | Marty Ross,UNIVERSAL PRESS SYNDICATE

My husband and I keep a pair of old sash windows in the basement for that fine day -- which never seems to come -- when we will make a sturdy cold frame for the garden. What we really need in the interim is a nice assortment of handy, good-looking, plant-pampering glass shelters to take the sting out of spring, to protect seedling marigolds, to encourage the parsley to germinate and to fool a couple of young tomato plants into thinking summer is well on its way.

There are several such practical and charming devices designed to fit over a plant or two set out in the garden some weeks before prudence would otherwise allow. Not incidentally, these simple little inventions also give the garden the feel of an Old World kitchen garden, meticulously tended by someone who has more time than most gardeners today can actually muster.

Bell jars

In the 19th century, gardeners coddled plants with bell jars. These graceful blown-glass domes, often with a great knob of glass at the top, were set over seedlings to trap warmth and moisture.

Glass is an excellent insulator, and young plants thrive under the domes, but they have to be closely watched. On sunny days, the jars must be propped up on a stone or a brick to vent the heat that can build up in them.

Bell jars were sturdily made, but they were, of course, relatively fragile, and antique specimens are hard to find. New bell jars, made of recycled glass, are practically indistinguishable from those used 100 years ago. You don't even have to put them to work to appreciate them. Their voluptuous curves look good in the garden, and they're pretty indoors, too, on a counter in the kitchen or on a dining-room buffet.

Bloomsbury Market sells a line of garden products that reflect the style and tastes of the Bloomsbury group, a circle of artists and writers who flourished in London in the 1920s and '30s.

Sotera Tschetter, the market's owner and designer, was looking for a combination of form and function when she traveled to England for inspiration, and she came home with plans for a collection of miniature conservatories called hand lights.

The company's charming hand lights are, in effect, little greenhouses, about 2 feet tall, with removable roofs topped by fleur-de-lis finials. You can take the roof off on balmy days, and put it back on if high winds or low temperatures threaten.

The sturdy steel and glass hand lights are pretty, but not at all prissy.

"I'm anti-Victorian," Tschetter says. "I don't want the garden to look like a whole junkyard of items."

Nevertheless, she considers four or five hand lights in the yard highly decorative. The company also makes a line of half-sized hand lights for tabletop decorating.

In the 1970s, the backyard gardener's hand light was not quite so stylish. My father made his own portable greenhouses from gallon milk jugs by cutting the bottoms out. In the spring his garden looked like a colony of plastic igloos, each protecting its tender tomato plant.

Sophisticated jugs

The milk jugs were an elementary form of much more elaborate designs to follow. The Wall o' Water, invented in the 1980s, was a flexible plastic cone with a number of tubular reservoirs that can be filled with water.

It traps heat in the daytime and releases it slowly at night. The technology allows gardeners to plant up to two months early in some situations.

A botany professor in Kansas has invented a similar product called a "plant house," a three-part rigid plastic cone that is larger and more durable than the Wall o' Water.

Of course, cardboard boxes or bushel baskets can be placed over the crops in a pinch, and they give the garden a certain devil-may-care insouciance. They don't let light in, though, and must be removed during the day. Spun fabric row covers (Reemay is one brand name) also can be laid over early or late crops to protect them from a light frost.

If you're not a vegetable gardener, you may not have much use for the science behind these fancy products, but it's fun to experiment with the possibilities, and it would never hurt to have a good-looking set of bell jars or hand lights on the porch, in case the weather gets a little too rough for your marigold seedlings.

Sources

* Bloomsbury Market Inc., 403 S. Cedar Lake Road, Minneapolis, Minn. 55405. Sells hand lights suitable for indoors or out. Prices range from $120 to $301 for large hand lights; miniature versions cost $12 to $36. Phone: 800-999-2411. Catalog is free. Bloomsbury Market products also are available at Garden Escape on the Internet: www.gardenescape.com.

* Gardener's Supply Co., 128 Intervale Road, Burlington, Vt. 05401. Carries Wall o' Water and spun fabric row covers. Phone: 800-955-3370. Catalog is free. Smith & Hawken. Sells handblown bell jars (firm calls them cloches in its catalog) in three sizes, made of recycled glass, priced from $16 to $34. 1300 Smith Ave., Baltimore. Phone: 410-433-0119. Catalog is free. On the Internet: www.vgmarketplace.com.

Pub Date: 3/01/98

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