Why your garden needs row covers

Row covers can help our vegetable gardens survive fall and winter weather.
This is how our garden really looks most of the time. These row covers do wonders to protect our crops. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

In photos, my garden looks pretty great, right? Row after row of bright, happy vegetables all living together.

If you visited it in real life, you might be surprised.

The reality is that 90% of the time, our garden looks like Grandma’s couch, slipcovered with plastic. To walk into our garden is to walk into a sea of gauzy white structures. Our vegetables are so precious that we keep them protected with row covers for most of the year. Some of the benefits of row covers include:

  • Creating a mini greenhouse environment. By warming the soil, row covers add weeks of life to your garden in the spring and fall and can help prevent frost damage.

  • Keeping pests out. Row covers are incredibly effective at keeping out flying pests, such as cabbage moths, carrot rust flies and leaf miners.

  • Retaining moisture and improving seed germination. Row covers help to retain moisture and provide shade during hot, dry weather. This can make a huge difference with seed germination.

  • Protecting against storms. After a hot, dry summer, Vancouver was hit with one of the worst storms in recent history. Nearby trees were knocked down, but our garden wasn’t damaged at all because row cover material is incredibly effective at diffusing wind and hard rain.

    Row covers can help our vegetable gardens survive fall and winter weather.

    Our row cover hoop structures on the day they were installed. We used bamboo and wood to make them extra-strong. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

If you’re a first-time gardener or concerned about looks, row covers might not be for you. For those who want to take their gardens to the next level and grow year-round, you’ll be amazed by how this simple technique makes growing food so much easier.

To build row covers for a four foot by eight foot wood-sided raised bed, you’ll need:

  • Three lengths of 1” PVC plumber’s pipe from a hardware store
  • A hand saw
  • 1” waterline pipe-stays or another type of bracket to hold the pipes in place
  • Bamboo canes and string (optional)
  • Lightweight floating row cover material from a garden supply store – enough to cover your beds plus extra to spare.
  • Clamps from an office supply store or dollar store.

Cut the the pipes into lengths of about ten feet with a small hand saw. Screw the waterline pipe-stays into the wooden sides of your bed, opposite each other, one at each end and one in the middle. Fit the pipes into the pipe-stays, bending the flexible material to create a dome shape and poking them about a foot into the ground.

To make the pipes more stable, consider tying a length of bamboo across the top with string.

Loosely drape the lightweight floating row cover material over your beds. You may need to overlap two sheets to get full coverage. Use clamps to hold them in place.

This technique is incredibly adaptable. If your bed is a different size or doesn’t have wooden sides, you can cut the pipes to a different length and poke them into the ground without pipe-stays. You can even drape the floating row cover material directly on your plants (with lots of slack) and weigh it down with rocks.

Some people think of row covers as only being helpful in cold weather, but I leave them on most of the time for most of the year, except when I'm harvesting or doing other maintenance. The lightweight material we use is a true insulator that takes the edge off whatever the temperature is outside, whether it’s summer heat or winter cold. Row covers do wonders to keep out insect pests in the summer. Once winter is on the horizon, I’ll add an additional layer of clear plastic sheeting to really keep things warm.

Try not to tear the delicate row cover fabric. If you’re working with flowering plants like tomatoes, leave the ends open so that bees can get in!

Protecting container gardens

Container gardens can be protected with a mini version of the techniques above. While you won’t get same soil-warming properties as with a large raised bed, row covers can be effective at preventing storm damage on container-grown crops. I saw this in action last spring, when I taught a gardening class where students sowed seeds into wine-box planters on a roof deck. We built mini row covers, and to my amazement and great relief, they survived multiple hailstorms and windstorms.

To build a row cover for your container garden, you need to get creative. Instead of plumber’s pipe, use bent wire hangers. Or experiment with old aquariums, bubble wrap and the clamshells that come with commercial salad mixes. The idea is to protect your container-grown crops from the worst of the fall’s wind and rain.

Late summer and early fall, while the weather is still nice, is the perfect time to get your garden ready for the cold and storms that are sure to come.

Rebecca Cuttler is an urban gardening teacher, member of the Vancouver Food Policy Council and board member of the Environmental Youth Alliance. She blogs about urban food gardening at http://abundantcity.net.

Row covers can help our vegetable gardens survive fall and winter weather.

Container gardens can be protected with mini row covers. The green hoops shown came from a dollar store, but if you can’t find them, improvise with wire hangers. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

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