Row Covers - many uses

If you've never used row covers, you're in for a pleasant surprise. They are simple to make and use, and very effective.

They can be very beneficial in many regards, and will support your interest in healthier plants, protection from the elements, and an extended gardening season.

This article discusses what they are and how they work.

But first, let's talk about common vegetable gardening needs that might benefit from a cover.

The Need for Row Covers

Vegetable gardening isn't all smooth sailing. At times, there are pesky problems that show themselves and give you fits. Not to worry, there is likely a solution to just about every problem you can possibly imagine.

One of the needs we have early and late in the growing season is protection from frost. It can nip tender shoots, freeze out young plants, cut short our season, and generally give us cause for concern, especially if our weather is unpredictable or our growing season is short.

In Wyoming, we have both of those problems; a short growing season and unpredictable weather. How about freezing rain, hail, 28 degrees F, and blowing wind on June 7th? Well it happened in 2007.

My tomatoes often need more time to mature what with September 20th usually being our first frost date, and June 1st being the earliest we can plant.

Another need is protection from bugs. My broccoli gets infested with cabbage butterfly worms, the Colorado potato beetle strikes just about everything except potatoes, and thrips had a feast on my cucumbers last year.

Also, for some of the summer vegetables, we need to extend the growing season to allow them to produce a finished product without using a greenhouse. Plants like peppers and squash enjoy a bit more heat, but in a dry climate the evening temperatures drop substantially at night.

Lastly, even some of the cold hardy vegetables need protection from harsh winter weather if they are going to hang in there and provide a harvest over the colder months of the year. And, perhaps you don't want to build a greenhouse for these plants.

Okay, let's look at how covers for your vegetables can help with these and other needs.

Row Covers to the Rescue

A simple light covering over our rows of plants can provide tremendous benefit to many crops. There's a fleece type material that helps keep bugs out, and can give protection against a light frost.

Here is a fiber plant cover for frost protection from Gardens Alive. This product offers good light transmission and serves as a temporary season extender.

The fleece type material allows limited exchange of air, and it's a good deterrent to bugs that see your vegetable gardening efforts as a big sign that says "Free Food" for all comers. The covering let's in plenty of light and helps trap warmer air inside. It provides frost protection that is especially valuable if you're trying to coax your veggies into producing at the end of the season.

If you'd like to be brave and extend the season, you'll need a heavyweight fiber plant cover to provide additional protection. The tighter fibers trap more heat inside, but they also cut back on the light that's offered. Be sure to vent these row covers when temperatures approach 80 degrees, otherwise your crops inside will start to get too warm.

If you use a heavier netting, it can act like shade for your plants, and could reduce yields somewhat. Make certain your netting isn't servicing as shade cloth too.

If bugs or critters are your problem, and colder temperatures aren't a worry, there is row netting that can thwart all but the most clever and persistent of four legged and six legged creatures. This row netting will help keep bugs on the outside looking in.

Here is an offering from Gardens Alive. It's a very lightweight fiber plant cover that is designed for use in any season. It has excellent light transmission qualities, and it designed specifically to keep out bugs.

A neighbor of mine puts clear poly row covers over her peppers and eggplants to keep them elevated in temperature. Her row covers are standard hardware store poly film arched over the plants with the use of PVC hoops and PVC clips that snap into place to hold on the cover.

If you want your row covers to last, make certain they are UV treated, otherwise in high sunlight and high elevations, they probably won't make it more than one season.

Here the folks from Gardens Alive offer their "Tunlcover" which is one of the poly plant covers available in the marketplace. These row covers come with wire hoops for easy installation. If you're trying to be serious about extending your season, this type of cover is a must. If you put something like this inside a garden tunnel or greenhouse, they are even more effective as season extenders.

For the more bold and adventurous among us, there is the garden tunnel that acts like a giant cover for multiple rows of plants. It provides a way to walk among your plans - almost like a greenhouse - but without added heat, electrical hookups or a permanent structure.

If you're already using a garden tunnel or greenhouse, a floating row cover can be very useful. It drapes over the rows of plants to give an added layer of protection from cold air. It acts like a mini-greenhouse within a greenhouse or garden tunnel, thus establishing a micro-climate around your plants.

This approach to double covering can get cool weather crops to survive in cold weather, and help insure that winter vegetables make it just fine even in steady cold winter weather. I'd go for a triple cover of clear materials if you're expecting your winter vegetables to make it for many days below zero F.

An alternative to triple clear coverings is to drape old sheets or newspapers over your row covers each night to help capture warmth from the ground during those exceptionally cold times. These must be removed in the morning to allow the plants to capture natural light and heat from the sun, but they can be an effective measure for a cold snap.

Precautions with Row Covers

When using covers for your crops, be certain to exercise common sense and foresight so you aren't shooting yourself in the foot with the use of a cover. Here are some tips for using covers wisely.

  • Covers that seal down tight to the ground, and aren't made of material that breathes, can elevate inside temperatures quickly because of the small enclosed space. High temperatures kill plants in a matter of a couple of hours, so allow them to vent during the sunlit portion of the day.

  • For some plants, you might want to have covers in place all the time to protect from bugs.

  • Using stakes and other hold-down devices will help ensure that the wind doesn't send your row covers into the neighbor's yard. Here in Wyoming, if it isn't nailed down, it's headed to Nebraska.

  • Hoops, arches or other such supports will help keep your covers from stressing the branches, leaves and shoots of your plants.

  • If you're using an opaque cover as a temporary protection against a cold night, be certain to remove it in the morning so your plants can get exposure to the sunshine they were meant to have.

Row Covers Wrap Up

Sometimes the idea of row covers doesn't feel natural for many of us involved in vegetable gardening. After all, it's a covering over plants that should normally be exposed to the sun without any interposing material. Nevertheless, there are particular problems and needs that only a row cover can meet.

Give these resources a try to see how well they work for you and your vegetable gardening interests. Especially for the cold hardy vegetables, you'll probably be surprised at just how well they work to allow plants to grow and provide a harvest during portions of the season that normally wouldn't be conducive to growing or harvesting vegetables.

Done with Row Covers, take me Home

Take control of your food supply by growing your own vegetables. When it comes to self-reliance, there is no skill more basic and essential than being able to feed yourself.

Create your own marketplace alternatives by growing a wide variety of fresh and organic vegetables. It's one the best things you can do for your household budget and your health. Know what's in and on your food.