6 Ways to Use Row Cover in the Garden

There are many ways to use row cover in your garden. It isn't just for frost protection. Discover these clever ways to use row cover that you might not have considered.

by Jessica Walliser
PHOTO: Jessica Walliser

Row cover is a spun-bound, translucent fabric designed to “float” on top of plants. While at first it might seem odd to cover plants with a blanket of row cover, the truth is that there are many ways to use row cover that are extremely useful to farmers and gardeners. Today, we’d like to introduce you to 6 ways to use row cover that are designed to save time, money and energy in the garden.

6 Practical Ways to Use Row Cover

1. As a Pest Shield

Pest prevention is certainly among the most popular ways to use row cover. Row cover is made in various “weights” or thicknesses. The lighter weights are an especially useful pest prevention method because they’re more breathable than heavier grades and can be left in place all summer long. Covering a row of broccoli with a protective blanket of row cover means adult cabbageworm butterflies can’t access the plants to lay eggs. No eggs means no little green worms on your broccoli. Row cover also protects potato plants from leaf-munching Colorado potato beetles; it keeps leafminers out of your spinach crop; and it keeps destructive cucumber beetles off of cucumber vines. However, if you’re using row cover to keep pests out of the veggie patch and it’s covering a crop that needs to be pollinated in order for the fruit to set, you’ll need to make sure you remove the cover when the plants come into flower. But, since protecting young plants when they’re most vulnerable to pest damage is key, removing the cover when the plants reach maturity is typically not problematic.

2. As Frost Protection

Heavier weights of row cover are thicker and denser, providing a layer of frost protection when they’re placed on top of hoops covering crop rows. Useful both at the start of the season—when spring’s last frosts are still lingering—and at the end of the season—when fall’s first frosts begin to arrive—row cover is an excellent way to get a jump start on the gardening season or extend the harvest when the season comes to an end. Placing the row cover on hoops, rather than resting it on the plants themselves, also adds a layer of insulated air above the plants and keeps the frozen fabric off the foliage.

3. To Secure Mulch

If you overwinter carrots, beets, turnips, parsnips and other root crops in your garden, row cover comes in handy for this job, too. Insulating root crops with a thick layer of straw or shredded leaves protects them from deep freezes and destructive freeze-thaw cycles. But, often this loose organic mulch can blow away in winter storms. Covering the mulch with a layer of row cover and pinning down the edges with rocks, soil or landscape pins, holds the mulch in place all winter long. Plus, it’s easy to remove when you want to make a mid-winter harvest.

4. As Sun Screen

One of the most practical ways to use row cover is as a sun protectant. Cool-weather crops, such as lettuce, spinach and radish, begin to bolt or go to flower when summer arrives. Covering them with a layer of lightweight floating row cover keeps the blasting sun off them and can extend the harvest by a few weeks. When using row cover as a sun screen, don’t pin down the edges; instead, leave a bit of airspace between the fabric and your plants to improve air circulation and keep the plants cooler. Use hoops or plant stakes to elevate the row cover above plant tops. If you live in the south, where blasting summer sun can lead to sun scald on ripening tomatoes, eggplants and other fruits, a protective layer of row cover wrapped around the bottom half of tomato cages can protect low-hanging, ripening fruits from sun scald.

5. As a Support Sling for Vine Crops

If you grow melons, cantaloupes, pumpkins, winter squash and other large-fruited vine crops vertically on trellises, arbors or arches, you may find the fruits grow too heavy and the climbing vines are unable to support their weight. This can cause the vines to snap under the weight of the heavy fruits. To eliminate this problem, cut row cover into long pieces and create a sling for each growing fruit. It’s easy to tie the pieces of row cover to the support structure on both ends and lay the fruit in the middle of the sling.

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6. To Eliminate Cross-Pollination

If you’re a seed saver, then you know how important it is to prevent cross-pollination from occurring in certain crops. If you’re aiming to save seeds from hand-pollinated squash, melons, cucumbers and other vine crops, you’ll need to keep the flowers you pollinated by hand from being naturally cross-pollinated by insects. Row cover can be very useful for this job. After hand-pollinating the female flowers in the morning, immediately cover the vines with a sheet of row cover and leave it in place until the flowers drop and fruit growth is underway.

As you can see, there are many ways to use row cover in the garden. It’s a useful tool to have around, and if you take good care of it, a single roll can last for many years.

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