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Tips for Creating Row Covers for Your Garden

If you struggle to keep your garden safe from winter frosts and chills, or you aren’t sure how to protect tender shoots from snow, then you should consider creating row covers. A row cover is a type of protective shield for your garden that can keep it free of snow, frost and hail. In addition, it can help to insulate your garden from the cold. If protecting your garden over the winter is a major concern, then a row cover is exactly what you need.

But how do you know if your garden needs a row cover, and what plants will it protect? Read on to find out when to cover, how to cover, tips for covering, and when not to cover.

When to Cover

The first question you may have is when is it cold enough to require a cover? While covers can actually provide a lot of benefits such as helping ground thaw in the spring, they are mainly used in the fall and winter. Your garden should be covered if you have tender plants or if the temperature drops enough to freeze hardy plants.

You can expect your garden to experience frost when the temperature drops below 32 degrees, which hardy plants may be able to weather for a short while. However, if the temperature drops to the 25- to 28-degree range, expect a deep freeze. Hard freezes will devastate your garden, and the only way to protect your greens will be to create an insulating cover.

An important thing to note is that different vegetables also freeze at slightly different temperatures. Sensitive plants like tomatoes, sweet potatoes, and squash may die at 32 degrees, while cauliflower and cabbage can often weather temperatures as low as 27 degrees. It is better to be safe than sorry and insulate all your vegetables, but take the time to learn what their different temperature needs are. This will allow you to create the best insulation and cover needed for all your plants.

How to Make a Row Cover

There are many different tutorials and guides you can find on how to create a row cover or tunnel, but the basic idea is quite simple. You just need to create an insulating tunnel that goes over your plants. This can be created either with thick gauge mesh bent into a tunnel shape or with a plastic sheet thrown over a PVC skeleton.

To create a PVC and polythene row cover, you will need something like rebar to hammer into the ground lining your row, creating a base. Then, cut PVC pipes and curve them into hoops, attaching them to the rebar foundation. Add a polythene sheet over the structure. This provides the basic row cover, but it often helps to have a central ridge pole over the tops of the hoops to provide structure and keep them from falling over. In addition, the ridge pole keeps the tunnel from collapsing under the weight of snow.

A good row cover will be able to protect your plants from being frozen by the cold, crushed under snow, battered by hail, or blown away by the wind.

Row Cover Tips

A few things to note about row covers: first, while they protect your plants from snow and hail, they can also create a slight greenhouse effect, which you can take advantage of. Humidity affects plants along with temperature. If the temperature drops but moisture condenses on the plants, it will sometimes heat them up enough to keep them alive. However, during dry freezes, the moisture on your plants may evaporate, stealing away the heat and life of your garden with them.

Because of this, it is important to not overwater plants during a freeze. In general, you should track of weather reports and temperature drops, only watering a few days before a freeze, or only in the morning. However, if you have a row cover, you don’t have to worry as much about your plants losing their moisture or getting frozen in the first place. You can give your garden a small watering before you cover them up later in the day.

Another thing to keep in mind is sunlight. Try to keep track of when the temperature drops and rises. Cover your garden as the air chills, and uncover your garden the next morning as the sun and temperature rises. Let your plants get as much sunlight and heat as they can during the day, and use the row covers to trap that lovely warmth in with them at night.

When to Not Cover

While row covers are useful, there are some plants that are delicate enough that it is better to protect them by harvesting them or moving them inside. Extremely sensitive or tender shoots, herbs, and greens should be harvested. These include plants like tomatoes, peppers, beans, and most squash and melons. Cucumbers, okra, and sweet corn also do not do well in winter freezes.

Easy Alternatives to Row Covers

Give your garden the protection it needs! If you don’t have the resources to create a full row cover, don’t fear. There are plenty of easier ways to insulate your garden.

Many plants can be insulated with basic coverings like plastic sheets, blankets, bed sheets, and drop cloths. You will want to make sure these coverings are propped up with stacks and held down with bricks or stones. This creates a rudimentary row cover, but a more structured row cover tunnel will often be better able to protect plants from both the cold and from being accidentally crushed under the weight of snow or hail.

You can also spread a thick layer of mulch, shredded leaves, or newspaper pieces. Try to make it two to four inches thick. This kind of cover helps to protect your plants from freezing and thawing, which will disrupt their cell walls and cause them to burst. Of course, this type of cover can be susceptible to high winds or freezing over, depending on how soggy they become.

In addition, many yard elements like trees, rocks, and shrubs can provide natural protective covers and heat sinks for your garden. Also, if you plan ahead and plant vegetables close together, their mingling canopies will protect them from losing heat. But be sure to protect their tops from frost damage! Rocks and bodies of water, including water jugs, will absorb heat and release it through the night, giving your plants some extra fuel.

If you are creative and plan ahead, you can create insulating covers that will protect your garden from frost damage. Be sure to stay ahead of the weather and brush off any snow that falls on your garden bed. By covering your garden rows, you will be able to remain self-sufficient and protect your plants through the winter.

By Deborah Goldberg