No-one has a perfect garden, but you can at least create perfect microclimates – areas of the garden tailored to suit specific crops that may otherwise struggle without your intervention.
Whether it’s casting midsummer shade for cool season crops like lettuce, making the best use of heat-absorbing walls for warmth lovers such as tomatoes, or offering shelter from the worst of the wind so plants don’t get battered, there’s a lot we can do to tinker around the edges of the growing conditions we’re dealt with.
Warming Soil for Early Planting
For the ever-busy gardener, the year really starts with those first sowings of the season. But while you’re sowing the earliest crops indoors or under cover, now’s also the time to prepare the planting areas they’ll go into. In most cases this means warming up the soil by a few degrees, effectively cheating the seasons to create a snug reception for your new plants. Plastic works very well – either clear plastic tunnels or dark-colored plastic laid directly onto the ground. Plastic also has the advantage of helping the ground to dry out a little – not a bad thing in regions with wet winters.
When it’s time to plant out, a layer of row cover fabric will ensure an easy transition from the cosseted conditions the young plants will have been accustomed to, while offering peace of mind against any rogue late frosts.
Using Thermal Mass to Create Warmer Microclimates
Walls, paving and anything else with good thermal mass – that’s the ability of a material to absorb heat – can be used to create warmth. The temperature against a sun-facing wall will be consistently warmer during the day and, crucially, a few degrees warmer at night too. In more temperate regions this can be of huge benefit, speeding the ripening of vegetables from balmier climes – think tomatoes, peppers and eggplant.
Clearly it’s easier to take advantage of existing structures such as garden walls, but consider adding additional temporary thermal mass around tender crops at planting out time. Drinks bottles refilled with water can act as effective heat stores; start collecting them now! Place three or four bottles around each plant to create a wall of thermal mass that releases heat at night-time, helping new transplants establish quicker.
Providing Shade for Cool-Season Crops
In hot climates the relentless heat of summer can have a depressing effect on cool-season crops such as salad leaves. It doesn’t take long for once-luxuriant leaves to wilt then wither. Adequate watering is essential but a little shade will go a long way too.
Companion plants offer many benefits, from attracting pollinators to adding trace nutrients to the soil. Another benefit for some crops is the shade they cast. Tall crops like corn or pole beans will offer a cooler microclimate for more sensitive souls living in their shadow.
Vegetables welcoming shade in the middle of the day include lettuce, spinach, radishes, carrots, cabbage family plants, peas and fava beans. Shade-casters to join corn and pole beans include any vining or climbing crop such as tomatoes, sprawling varieties of squash trained up supports and, in warmer climates, sweet potato. Sunflowers also cast cooling shade while contributing a little cheer to the vegetable garden.
Sheltering Tender Plants from Wind
Wind can be a tricky customer during the growing season. Young plants, or crops that catch the wind and act like sails – a row of tall-growing beans, for example – are easily damaged by strong gusts. But even the windiest locations can be tamed.
The solution is carefully positioned windbreaks. Living windbreaks, such as shrubs or a tall, forgiving vegetable like Jerusalem artichoke, can help to slow prevailing winds to a softer speed. Artificial screens such as woven netting are highly effective and can be used to shield permanent living windbreaks as they establish. Woven screens and hurdles made from willow or hazel look beautiful too, though you’ll need either time or money to set lots of them up.
Creating microclimates within your garden needn’t be a difficult or worrisome process. Consider each plant’s needs and plan accordingly – a little lateral thinking will keep everything thriving. Do you create microclimates to make the most of your garden? Tell us how you do it the comments section below.