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Let's Talk About Row Cover

This blog may be coming a little late for some of you, but down in Zone 8B we’re expecting our first frost tonight! I’ve watched all the videos I can find and read all the winter prep chapters I have, so I think I’m prepared. But there’s this tiny nagging feeling that I haven’t done enough. Or maybe I made a mistake. Fellow farmers, does that ever go away?!

Anyway, I wanted to talk about what I’ve done for row cover and why it’s so important to me. I’ve made a couple mistakes along the way so I thought I better warn you before you make the same ones!

There’s a few factors to consider when deciding to cover your plants. Do you have raised beds? Then this blog may not be for you, because I’ve never covered a raised bed!

If you are growing in rows, like I am, I have a lot to offer.

First, make sure your rows are the standard 30” width. I made a 48” bed back when I lived in Seattle and when I tried to cover it with netting to protect my plants from neighborhood birds and rabbits it was really, really difficult. No standard product was wide enough and I had to sort of rig it with stakes and staples and… just make your beds 30” wide.

Next up, think about how you plan to use the row cover. What’s your goal? We moved into our house October 10th and it took me a few weeks to get the yard ready to plant. Since I had no infrastructure to start seeds in trays, I was direct seeding all my crops on November 3rd! Because of this I needed row cover right from the start. I needed it to trap heat in and keep the soil warm overnight so those seeds could germinate and thrive. On a completely different note, I don’t have a front-yard fence yet and I was a little worried about vandalism since we’re new to the neighborhood. I was hoping row cover would deter lazy criminals from ripping out any plants. So far so good…knock on wood!

Row Cover over hoops

Before actually purchasing any row cover you should determine if you are going to use it over hoops or as floating row cover. I chose to use hoops. My understanding is that floating row cover works best for late season extension on well-established plants. For example, if you have a bed of cabbages that aren’t quite ready to harvest and you need to protect them from pests or frost, row cover can be laid gently over the top and weighted at the ends. Since I was using it over seeds, it made more sense to use hoops. Honestly, the hoops are a bit of a challenge to work around, so I would recommend having wider pathways than I do - mine are 12”. If you plan to use a Quick-cut Greens Harvester (like this one) then hoops would be a massive pain and I would strongly advise against them! Anyway, the reason you need to decide if you want hoops or if you’re going to float the row cover is to determine the necessary width. I used the 10’ width and it works perfectly for my beds, but there are tons of other options so take a tape measure out with you and figure out what your garden requires.

When I was determining what length I needed for each bed, I hugely miscalculated. I measured from the top of the hoop to the ground and doubled that, since beds have two ends. This didn’t take into account the need to weigh down the ends, which requires having extra length available.

By the end I determined that the length of the row plus 6’ was perfect for my 76” hoops. These are the hoops I used and so far they’re holding up great. I know some folks use PVC and that’s probably great, too, but my ground is really compacted and full of rocks, so I knew it would be a major challenge to get a piece of rebar 12” into the ground. When installing my hoops, I used a 6” long drill bit and literally drilled into the ground on both sides of the bed. Then I set the hoop in one hole, gently bent the wire over to the other side and set it in the second hole. It was super easy to do by myself and I’ve had no problems with them pulling up or anything – even in 30 mph winds. In fact, since the ground is consistently watered now and the compost is breaking down the soil, I’ve been able to push the hoops in a little further every few weeks. I placed my hoops 5’ apart because that made sense with the length of my rows. Later I looked online at other farmers and it seems 5’ is pretty standard, so make sure you have enough hoops for the length of your beds.

I bought this row cover originally. To be honest, I love it. It’s a good weight, it’s held up nicely in heavy rains and wind. It’s overall a good product, but I have to warn you that the shipping is crazy expensive ($49 for this particular roll). If you can find a similar product locally I would highly recommend that. What was important to me was that it offered frost protection to 28F, which is basically as cold as it will get here, and it allowed for 85% light transmission. Since this is a product I’ll only use in winter when the days are already shorter, I wanted as much light to get through as possible.

But remember I said I hugely miscalculated the length? Well, I ran out of that row cover! So my last two beds are covered in this product, which I actually purchased from Home Depot but it seems they no longer carry it. I don’t like the look and feel of this one as much as my first purchase but my seeds germinated just fine under it and I think the light transmission is a little better. I’m worried that will mean its frost protection abilities aren’t as good. The point is it was FREE to ship so there ya go!

There are tons of complicated systems out there that claim to be the easiest or best way to use row cover. I originally tried this method by Fy Nyth. I bought and cut tons of PVC, screwed the fabric on, landscape stapled the other side into the ground, bricked the ends, and thought it looked great. It did look great, actually! But within a couple days most of the fabric had ripped out of the PVC (turns out you should use a fender washer between the fabric and screw head), and the PVC pieces had separated at the couplers because I couldn’t get them properly shoved together. Ultimately, I took the PVC out of the system and now I just pull taut before laying the bricks at the ends to keep the rows closed. It works perfectly fine! It takes me about 90 seconds per row to cover them at night by myself and it’s a little faster than that to uncover them in the morning. Now I’m thinking about using all that leftover PVC for my future chicken run…

I think this system is working great so far and I don’t find it cumbersome at all. I definitely had some hiccups along the way to getting this working smoothly and consistently, but I’m happy with it now. Yay, row cover!

Do you think you could use something like this in your garden? If you have any questions I could answer about designing your own row cover system, comment below and join the billie & jean’s community!

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