Her Outdoors: Frappe latte greenhouses

Jane Merrick

Yesterday morning I went down to the allotment after a week of enforced absence – last Monday I was there and got caught in a rainstorm putting up a plastic covered cold frame. It was so torrential I thought about climbing inside and zipping it closed – in winter, there is nowhere else to shelter – but in the end I went home, cold, wet and bedraggled. But yesterday, that same clear plastic cloche glinted in the sunshine on Plot 35a. Winter, true winter with hard frosts and snow, has yet to arrive in south London, so my allotment is already speeding forward to spring: there are tiny green buds on the raspberry canes I planted in autumn, crocus, iris and daffodil shoots are poking through the soil. If snow is on the way, some things are going to be in trouble.

But underneath another metre square plastic tent, there are the best thing that’s happening on the plot at the moment that the frost would not get to – fist-sized pak choi, mizuna and spring cabbages. They are doing so well because I started them off in their own mini-greenhouses, made from plastic coffee cups with domed lids.

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Cabbage 'Spring Hero' in its mini-greenhouse

You can buy these in bulk online from party suppliers – the domed lids with holes are the essential bit as they protect your growing seedling from cold but let in air and water. Or, you can do what I did, and buy one frappe latte a week. I carried on buying this frozen coffee well into winter, to the bemusement of the Caffe Nero barista at High Street Kensington tube.

After drinking, wash it out (saving the precious domed lid), poke three or four holes in the bottom of the cup for drainage, fill it three quarters full with seed compost and it’s ready for sowing. I sowed my pak choi, mizuna and spring cabbages in October, but as the soil outside now isn’t yet warm enough for sowing, I’m going to start some more things this week – maybe lettuce, early peas or spinach. As October in London was mild, the frappe latte greenhouses started off outside in a cold frame in my front garden. I left the lid off the frame, so that rain could get into the pots through the hole. I planned to closed the lid when it got really cold, but that never happened, and by the middle of January the plants were fighting to get through the holes.

Cabbage ‘Spring Hero’, ‘Sennan’ and Pak Choi in mid-January

These mini-greenhouses take up more space than modules, but the plants you get at the end are robust and ready for planting out. Using clear plastic is also great for children because they can see the roots growing at the sides. The pak choi were quite fat-leaved early on, so I took the lids off, but the spring cabbages – ‘Spring Hero’ and ‘Sennan’ – were slender enough to carry on growing out of the hole. Around two weeks ago I transplanted them to my plot, under the plastic cloche (which had been there for a month so the soil was warmer than outside).

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Pak Choi ready for planting under cover

I didn’t want to ruin the leaves of the spring cabbages, so I planted them with their lids in tact – in open soil they now act like collars for extra protection from cold. If I was being really organised, I’d put some copper tape around the collar to keep the slugs off, but for now the plastic cold frame they’re all under seems to be enough.

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Pak Choi in the ground

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Spring cabbage with its lid now a collar

Two weeks after planting, and they’re going strong – but I’m keeping the cover on until spring.

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