Tools of the Trade: Row Cover

Every pursuit has tools that make it easier to be successful. Ask any gardener and they’ll pull out their own favorite tool with a wry grin and and a long story about why you have to have this tool

Row Cover is one of my own top secrets of success. I use it in all seasons at all different times of the growing season.  Also known as frost cloth, it is a light-weight white fabric that looks just like interfacing. Row cover’s great attribute is that it creates a protective barrier between the seed, plant or soil against the ravages of sun, wind and cold. It’s also handy for protecting against insects like flea beetles. Here’s how I use it throughout the seasons:

Spring Right now, row cover is in the garden over areas that I’ve seeded that I want to help germinate.  The row cover protects the germinating seeds and seedling from getting too dry because the gardener forgets to water often enough.  It also is a physical barrier that protects against harsh sun, wind or hungry birds.  Temperature under the row cover is a few degrees warmer which is enough to speed up germination.

Any Season When you are transplanting, row cover can be the secret tool that enables your plants to survive transplanting.  I use it when I transplanting out seedlings I’ve grown indoors, or plants from the nursery, or even perennials I’m moving in my own yard.  Keeping leaves from desiccating from sun or wind is the keep to successful transplanting.

Mid Summer Lettuce lovers keep their greens from bolting too soon by covering them with row cover.  In Spring the row cover kept heat in…now, it keeps the hot summer sun out and lowers the temperature around the plants.  Lettuce stays sweeter longer.  Eventually, lettuce still bolts, but about the time that happens, it’s time to reseed the garden for fall greens.  Row covers then keep the seeds moist enough to grow.

Fall So often a frost comes one early fall night that kills lots of your warm season plants.  It’s a shame because there are often another two or three weeks of good growing time for tomatoes or other tender vegetables.  Five degrees of protection under row cover means your tomatoes survive a light frost.

Winter If you have a greenhouse, row cover inside the greenhouse and give you an extra zone’s warmth. I visited an unheated greenhouse in snowy Colorado this week that had lettuce planted last Fall and now being harvested for fresh greens.

When to take row cover off  The one-time row cover isn’t helpful is when your plants need to be pollinated. Bees and moths and butterflies need to be able to fly from flower to flower gather nectar and pollinating the plants.  Lettuces and greens don’t need the pollinators, but strawberries and peas and anything else that flowers and sets fruit does. Once you start to see flowers, you need to pull the row cover aside.

Keeping the row cover on OK, if you’re in a windy area that’s the biggest challenge. Big farming operations dig a trench alongside their beds, put the row cover in and then fill in the trench with soil to hold the row cover down.  Home gardeners can place a few rocks strategically placed or even a heavy piece of lumber.

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