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Lightweight, translucent spun-fabric row covers are a gardener’s secret weapon. Vegetable gardeners can use them to extend the spring and fall seasons and make a garden even more productive.
Row covers are thin sheets of spun polypropylene that can be laid gently over a bed of vegetable seedlings or tender flowers. They’re inexpensive, easy to use, and versatile. They provide up to eight degrees of frost protection, and protect seeds and seedlings from being dug up by mischievous squirrels or hungry birds. Row covers let light, air, and moisture through, but protect plants against desiccating winds. They even create a slight greenhouse effect to get seedlings off to a quick start.
This year, I took the advice of my friend Amy Hicks, an organic market gardener in Charles City, Virginia, and tried a summer-weight row cover over my squash seeds to protect the plants from squash bugs and squash vine borers. Just as the seedlings came up, I covered them with a thin row cover supported by hoops made of one-inch plastic pvc pipe.
I had moments of doubt as the squash plants grew and their leaves started pushing up against the row cover, 16 inches above the soil level, but Amy suggested I leave the cover in place until I could see lots of squash blossoms and even the first tiny squash. By that time, the plants were big enough to hold their own against most bugs and blights. Amy reminded me to check the squash foliage for harmful insects, but I didn’t have any problems. I harvested enough ‘Golden Egg’ squash to share with all the neighbors.
Then, in late summer, I laid row cover over my beet and Swiss chard seeds, to help the seeds germinate and to keep the squirrels out of the bed. Once the seeds were up and growing well, I pulled off the row cover. My plants have thrived in the cool fall temperatures, and the local squirrel population seems content with acorns and walnuts.
Beets and Swiss chard are cold-tolerant crops; they can be harvested through the winter in my garden in Virginia, but if temperatures dip into the 20s, I’ll cover them with winter-weight row cover. In cool climates, a double layer of winter-weight row cover can extend the harvest of cold-tolerant crops well into fall and early winter.
A standard sheet of row cover is 6 feet wide and 20 feet long; for a 4x4 raised bed, cut a six-foot length to allow for the height of the bed and the hoops. Use 2” x 4”s to anchor the ends of the row cover outside the beds.
Row covers are great for flowers gardeners, too. Lisa Ziegler, a cut-flower gardener in Newport News, Virginia, covers her beds of calendulas, zinnias, and other flower seeds sown directly in the soil with row covers for up to two weeks. The covers speed germination and protect the young plants from wind and from squirrels and rabbits. Once they’re well up, she takes the cover off.
Row cover fabric is pretty durable; a standard 6 x 20 sheet is big enough to cover several four-by-four-foot raised beds, and the fabric can be used again and again. Roll it up on a broomstick at the end of the season; even if it’s a little tattered, it will still do the job next year.