Every gardener out there can benefit from having floating row covers on hand. They’re lightweight, easy to store, and inexpensive. And their uses go well beyond frost protection.
Don’t be discouraged if you aren’t up for building a mini hoop house either. In many cases, garden fabric can be draped directly on top of plants and secured around the perimeter. So the effort involved is often minimal.
Keep reading for a short list of all the ways you can use floating row covers in your garden, how to pick the right types for your needs, and some tips to avoid possible pitfalls.
What Is It?
Floating row cover, also known as garden fabric, is a white, thin, light piece of material used to shelter crops for a number of reasons, the most well known being for frost protection.
It’s typically made from polypropylene or polyester and doesn’t absorb moisture. It does, however, allow rainfall and sunlight to pass through. One piece can last multiple seasons, depending on how extensively it’s used each year.
1. Protect Warm Season Crops Against Frost
I don’t know a single gardener who doesn’t wish for more time every season. Well, garden fabric can actually allow you more time to grow warm season crops.
Garden fabric varies in weight and density. To keep plants protected from frost, you’ll need a heavier weight material that is specifically created to trap heat.
Gardens protected with heavy weight floating row covers are typically 4 to 10°F warmer during freezing temperatures.
For short-term frost protection, all you need to do is loosely lay material over the plants that are at risk, and secure it around the perimeter with rocks or soil.
Knowing you have this option will relieve stress and give you the opportunity to set out heat loving, long season edibles, like tomatoes, bell peppers, and hot peppers, earlier than usual. Peppers especially need warmer temperatures to thrive, so employing garden fabric can really make a difference.
If allowing plants to grow under cover for any length of time, it’s best to build a support structure to increase airflow, allow for plenty of room to grow, and avoid any damage that may be caused to the plants by unsupported fabric beating in the wind.
Also, you’ll want to make sure you use a fabric that still allows plenty of light through.
2. Protect Cool Season Crops From Heat, or Warm Them Up in Winter
Row covers also allow you to extend the harvest of cool weather crops such as kale by providing relief from the hot sun.
Ideally they will allow for plenty of air circulation, but still block a good amount of sunlight. Garden fabric is a great option if the weather starts heating up early in the spring, or at the end of summer when starting a fall crop.
Also keep in mind that if you are in a region that is exceptionally hot or cold, garden fabric has the potential to allow you to grow edibles you otherwise couldn’t grow.
You can also use heavyweight row covers through the winter to grow some hard frost tolerant vegetables, like cabbage and kale. This works especially well if winters are usually mild in your area.
3. Keep Pests Out
If you will be leaving covers on throughout the season, it’s important to make sure they aren’t heavyweight and meant to trap heat.
Leafy vegetables, root vegetables, and self-pollinating edibles can essentially be grown under the protection of garden fabric from seed to harvest. Bush beans are a great candidate for this.
In order to effectively keep pests out, it’s important to secure material well with staples or soil.
4. Reduce Transplant Shock
Seedlings grown indoors often can’t handle the stress of outdoor weather right away.
So, seedlings are typically hardened off, which means they are slowly introduced to the outdoors before being transplanted into the garden.
Instead of hardening plants off by setting seedlings out for extended periods of time over the course of several days, you could place plants under the protection of a lightweight row cover instead. This will cut the intensity of the weather and give plants a chance to become established.
Check Plants Often
If using row covers for an extended period of time, there are several issues to keep in mind:
First, many insects overwinter in the soil, so be mindful of any insect issues that you have had in the past so you know where to look.
As such, crop rotation is especially important if using row covers for protection against insect pests.
The last thing you want to do is to trap pests that emerge from the soil in with your edibles! So be very vigilant. If you notice any insect damage while plants are sheltered, investigate immediately.
Also, for plants that require insect pollinators, like cucurbits, you’ll have to open tunnels regularly or hand pollinate.
One of the most challenging aspects of using garden fabric is that you can’t see what’s going on in your garden unless you take the time to investigate. Regularly assessing moisture levels, temperature, air circulation, and weed growth will save you disappointment later.
If the microenvironment created by the row cover ever becomes too humid or hot, just open the ends to allow for more air circulation.
Also, weeds will likely love the protected environment, so regular weeding is necessary. On the plus side, this will give you a chance to check in on your garden beds regularly.
Getting the Most Out of Floating Row Covers
To increase frost protection by 2°F to 4°F, use two layers of material. Any more than two layers, however, and not enough sunlight will reach the plants.
Although you can lay fabric directly over plants, consider building a permanent structure. This will allow you to use the material in a number of ways, and allow for easy installation.
If stapling material to the ground, double up fabric to prevent ripping.
Store covers when dry and away from the ground, as rodents may find this makes a cozy bed.
Give Yourself the Option
It doesn’t take much to purchase a few yards of floating row cover. So what are you waiting for?
When temperatures suddenly spike in April and threaten your lettuce crop, or dip and stress out your peppers, you’ll be thankful you made the extra investment.
Do you have experience using floating row covers? What are your thoughts? We would love to hear about what worked and what didn’t. Let us know in the comments!
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Uncredited photos: Shutterstock.
About Amber Shidler
Amber Shidler lives in Cincinnati, Ohio and holds a dual bachelor’s degree in botany and geography. For four years she worked as a horticulturist, but is now a stay-at-home mom. With experience in landscape design, installation, and maintenance she has set her sights on turning her tenth-of-an-acre lot into a productive oasis. Amber is passionate about all things gardening, especially growing and enjoying organic food.