11 Amazing Uses For Row Cover in Your Garden
Not sure if or why row cover actually works in your garden? In this article, gardening expert and former organic farmer Logan Hailey shares why you need to be using row cover in your garden, and the many different benefits it brings.
Row cover, or garden row fabric, is a thin, breathable fabric with many versatile uses in the garden. It allows sunlight and water in while keeping bugs and extreme weather out.
The lightweight material is typically spun-bonded from polyester or polypropylene and is designed to protect your crops from environmental stressors. It’s been proven to increase yields and reduce pest damage.
It is available in various thicknesses and sizes, each specially suited to different seasons, crops, and climates. Here are 11 incredible uses for row covers in your garden!
Benefits of Row Cover
Row cover is the organic grower’s secret to beautiful, blemish-free produce without the need for harsh pesticides. It is also a key component of season extension, allowing you to grow crops in cooler weather without constructing an entire low tunnel or greenhouse.
This gardening fabric is:
- Frost protection (adds 2-6°F of frost protection)
- Floatable (able to lay directly on top of crops), or it can be draped over hoops
- Lightweight (from 0.45 oz./sq. yd. to 2.2 oz/sq. yd.)
- Easy to transport around your garden
- Reusable year after year (when stored properly)
- Easy to cut to size
- Fairly affordable
- Translucent to allow 90-95% of sunlight in (depending on thickness)
- Easy to drape over your crops
- Designed to be left on some crops from seed to harvest
- Able to keep flying pests out
While the benefits of this cover are tremendous, row fabric still has a few drawbacks:
- It is a synthetic material (not biodegradable).
- It can rip over time.
- It doesn’t allow pollinators to access your crops (you’ll have to pull it off).
- Rabbits, rodents, and deer can rip or chew through it, but it’s unlikely.
- It cannot protect from soil-dwelling pests.
- It does not provide as much frost protection as a plastic tunnel.
How to Use Row Cover: 11 Uses for Gardening
Whether you want to extend your season or protect it from pest damage, there are so many different uses for row cover in your garden.
Protect Spring Crops From Late Frosts
The most common and popular use for row covers is as a frost protectant. Like a frost blanket, this fabric can be draped over nearly any crop to keep it cozy on chilly nights. The cover provides insulation and adds 2-6°F of warmth to crops. Because it is typically draped directly over the vegetable, this heat is concentrated right at the root zone where it is needed.
With row fabric, you can start your vegetables earlier in the season and harvest them sooner. The fabric gives you a bit of a buffer that allows you to plant in the ground up to 3 weeks sooner than usual. This is particularly advantageous for crops like:
In far northern New Hampshire, I’ve seen spinach growing in February with the protection of row cover. Although row fabric won’t make tomatoes frost-tolerant, it will give a little extra resilience to young plants.
As a professional organic farmer, we hardly ever put a transplant in the ground without a cover. The added protection for the first few weeks acted like a mini-nursery to keep plants cozy on cold nights and help them adjust to the outdoor environment.
Pro Tip: If you want to keep row cover on for several weeks while larger spring crops establish, consider draping it over hoops. For example, you can plant baby kale and brassica starts extra early in the spring. Then, attach hoops to your raised beds and secure the row fabric over top to create a mini-greenhouse that still allows rainfall in. Because the hoops suspend the fabric high up, more heat is held inside the tunnel and the kale plants can grow taller and wider.
Reduce the Risk of Transplant Shock
Transplant shock is a stress response when plants are moved from one location to another. It most commonly occurs when you transplant spring seedlings into the garden from their indoor-started cell containers.
The more care you take during transplanting, the less likely your plants will suffer from transplant shock. Cramming a baby squash plant into a compacted soil hole can cause root damage and stress, mainly because cucurbits (squash family crops) despise root disturbance. But even when you are extra gentle with seedling roots, sometimes shock is inevitable.
Row fabric buffers against temperature extremes and moderates the humidity near the plant’s base. It also keeps out harsh winds, pests, and abrasive rainfall during those early days of establishment.
The most common symptoms of transplant shock are:
- Yellowing leaves
- Stunted growth
- Slow recovery
Like any living being, a drastic move from one environment to another requires a period of acclimation. Plants need time to recover after transplanting, but the amount of time depends on the conditions you provide.
Imagine moving from the peaceful Tennessee countryside to downtown Manhattan. If you had a job and a group of friends waiting for you in the city, the transition might be quicker and easier.
When plants have a piece of fabric over their tender leaves, they are able to recover from transplant shock more quickly. Diluted kelp solution and high-quality compost are also great additions to prevent shock.
Retain Continuous Moisture
Row fabric has the unique quality of allowing water to filter through while simultaneously retaining moisture underneath it. When you lay these covers over your crops, they reduce evaporation. This retains soil moisture for longer periods, especially during hot or dry weather.
Drought isn’t the only issue when growing vegetables. Many crops, particularly carrots, beets, tomatoes, and tender greens, demand consistent moisture. Water stress is caused when the soil dries out and then gets drenched. This feast-or-famine watering cycle can lead to woody carrots, concentric rings in beets, or poor fruit set in tomatoes.
In other words, you don’t want the soil moisture to fluctuate from extreme dryness to extreme moisture after irrigating. Row cover helps you maintain a moderate and consistent moisture level, leading to happier crops. It’s incredible how well this material balances out the extremes of water, temperature, sunlight, and wind.
The fabric also keeps the wind off the soil and leaf surfaces, which reduces the drying effect. If you irrigate with drip lines or soaker hoses, the row fabric holds the moisture in place so you can water less often.
The only downside to this property is the risk of disease. In humid climates, row cover can reduce airflow and lead to foliar diseases like powdery mildew. One way to mitigate this risk is by draping your covers over hoops rather than laying them directly on the plants.
Pro Tip: Never seed carrots without a row cover over the top. Carrots are notoriously finicky about soil moisture during germination. If you secure a cover flat over the top right after seeding, the soil stays moist longer. However, it is crucial to remove the fabric when watering to ensure full soil infiltration. Vegetable farmers use this trick all the time and it can drastically improve your germination rates.
Speed Up Germination
Waiting for seeds to germinate can be agonizing for an impatient gardener. Things can move even slower when direct seeding in the garden. If you want to speed up the process (and improve your stands), this is one of the quickest uses for row covers.
This gauzy fabric encourages rapid germination by concentrating warmth and humidity right at the soil surface where seeds need it. Your seeds will stay cozy and moist beneath this protective layer rather than facing the drying effects of wind and sunlight. The row fabric allows enough light to reach the seedlings while keeping them safe from harsh conditions.
When I worked on the top organic farms in the country, we rarely direct seeded without using row fabric. We put it over everything from lettuce mix to root crops, spinach beds, squash, and melons.
It tremendously improves early seedling establishment and ensures you don’t waste a bunch of seeds. You can also enjoy hot summer days without worrying as much about new seedbeds drying out.
Unfortunately, rodent protection is the only thing this fabric can’t do for germinating seedlings. However, it does deter them. If voles and mice cause many problems in your garden, you may use row fabric in conjunction with a critter cage. Alternatively, get an outdoor cat!
Protect Seedlings From Pests
Pest exclusion is one of the organic farmer’s most popular uses for row cover. Aside from aphids, flea beetles are the bane of any vegetable grower’s existence! They are particularly annoying for anyone who loves pristine arugula, radishes, bok choy, or kale.
These annoying little beetles have shiny backs and large, powerful rear legs, allowing them to hop to tremendous heights when disturbed. They leave behind a million tiny shot holes in vegetable leaves and can quickly decimate a newly germinated crop. They especially love brassicas (cabbage family crops).
Once again, row cover comes to the rescue! Rather than relying on chemical control (pesticides) or solely biological control (beneficial predatory insects), this is considered a physical barrier or an environmental control.
The cover encases your crop in a pest-free zone where no flying bugs can enter the area. This is particularly important when establishing a bed of spring radishes or baby arugula. You want those leaves to be blemish-free and tender for your gorgeous spring salads.
When using a row cover for this purpose, I highly recommend installing drip lines before you lay the floating fabric over the crop.
This will allow you to irrigate your greens or roots without lifting the cover. If your garden has a lot of pest pressure, one tiny whiff of those crops could bring the bugs full force. Thankfully, you can combine this strategy with companion planting to add beneficial predatory insects to your defense arsenal.
Once you add physical barriers to your pest management strategy (alongside biocontrol and preventative sprays like neem), you truly practice integrative pest management, which is exactly how the pros manage pests organically.
Unfortunately, row cover does not protect from soil-dwelling insects like cutworms that may already be present in your garden. However, many root-eating pests are in the larval stage of a moth or fly. By keeping your crops covered, the adult pest version won’t be able to lay eggs on or next to your plants.
Deter Birds and Animals
We love birds when they bathe in water baths and eat pesky grubs, but they can really wreak havoc on a crop of tomatoes, strawberries, or blueberries. Similarly, deer and rabbits can be cute in their natural habitat, but we don’t want them nibbling on all our hard-earned garden produce. A fabric barrier can keep them at bay.
Although an extra-hungry deer might rustle through the fabric, it is unlikely. Some rabbits will burrow beneath the fabric, but this is still uncommon.
And when birds can’t see your bright, juicy strawberry fruits from the sky, they tend to keep flying. The white color of the row fabric reflects sunlight, so your garden beds become far less appealing to hungry animals. It also disguises the scent of the vegetables.
Row cover is far cheaper than a deer fence. Aside from your deer-resistant native and ornamental plants, no crop is safe from the browsing of these hungry herbivores.
If you live near a forest, your garden may begin to look like a sea of white blankets. But hey, you’ll be harvesting beautiful blemish-free fruits and vegetables for most of the year! Some tradeoffs are worthwhile.
Pro Tip: There is one very important creature that needs access to your crops— bees! When covering crops that need pollination (melons, squash, tomatoes, peppers, etc.), it is crucial to remove the row fabric once the plants start flowering. Bees and butterflies cannot access the blossoms underneath the cover! If those flowers don’t get pollinated, you won’t have any fruits.
If you are extra dedicated, you can replace the covers at night and pull them back each morning. But this isn’t always necessary. Often, by the time a crop is flowering, it is robust enough to face the elements and pests on its own.
Organic Mulch Support
Have you ever tried mulching your beds with straw or dried leaves, only to find that heavy winds or rains ruined your hard work? Row cover can help with that, too.
If you’re tired of finding mulch scattered all around the yard, consider draping a piece of this agricultural fabric over the bed and securing it with sandbags. This will hold mulch in place throughout the winter to nourish your soil and prevent weeds from popping up.
Your mulch may also decompose quickly because of the extra warmth and moisture beneath the cover. Microorganisms love a cozy, wet environment to break down organic material. Think of a compost pile! The fabric helps create optimal conditions for decomposition throughout the winter months.
Applying covers for mulch support is extra easy when growing in raised beds. Simply layer your mulch as thick as you’d like (up to 6” of shredded straw can dramatically improve soil texture and fertility), then blanket it in place and secure the edges with small sandbags or rocks.
A Cheaper Version of Shade Cloth
Intense sunlight can cause sun scald or sun scorch on plant leaves. This is particularly common when nursery crops or houseplants are moved outdoors without enough time to acclimate to direct sun. Southern climates also receive harsher sun rays that can burn even the toughest of sun-loving plants.
If you don’t want to invest in spendy shade cloth, a very light layer of garden fabric can do the trick. The reflective nature of the white fabric, combined with the breathable holes, prevents the sun from hitting your plant leaves as harshly.
The only caveat to consider is the heat. Even the thinnest row cover may cause too much heat retention near your crops if it is triple digits. Consider a lighter material if you need to protect vegetables from extreme heat.
Increase Humidity in Dry Climates
As gardeners, we are often warned of the dangers of too much humidity. However, in arid climates, plants are often craving moisture. If your greens seem a little tough and brittle, or your tropical houseplants look dry, they may enjoy more humid air.
Clearly, you aren’t going to mist them or put a humidifier in the garden! Agricultural fabric boosts the localized humidity directly where the plant needs it. It creates a mini-greenhouse effect that holds in moist air. Lightly water a plant, then drape the fabric over it during exceptionally dry periods.
You can use garden fabric to improve humidity over:
- Freshly sown seeds (in the ground or in trays)
- Newly germinated seedlings
- Salad greens that appear dry from wind or heat
- Cuttings that are forming roots
- Succulent propagation trays
- Newly transplanted shrubs
- Tropical houseplant pots
Remember, a concentration of humidity without airflow is a recipe for a disease disaster. You don’t want to encourage rot, mold, or mildew. Avoid prolonged moisture on the leaves of your crops. Ensure you have properly spaced and pruned your crops to keep oxygen flowing through their leaves.
If using overhead irrigation, only turn on sprinklers in the morning so the leaves can dry out during the day. When growing beneath row covers, drip irrigation is ideal for most crops.
Establish Perennials More Quickly
Row fabric isn’t only for vegetable gardens! Most perennial plants come with the caveat, “drought tolerant once established” or “little maintenance required after establishment.” But in the beginning phases, many herbaceous plants, shrubs, and trees can be quite needy. How do you speed up establishment so your perennial gardens can function without your constant attention?
Give them a little protection in the first week or two after planting! This is particularly helpful when establishing spring or fall perennials.
Imagine spending your whole childhood in Texas and then waking up in an Alaskan blizzard with no jacket. While most plant transitions aren’t that extreme, it’s normal to feel a bit stressed when you are suddenly moved to a new location.
Row cover is the cozy blanket that coddles baby perennials and shrubs as they transition from their nursery (a pot or greenhouse) to the harsh elements of the outdoor world.
This transitional assistance helps the plant quickly channel its energy to the roots. It also prevents transplant shock. The result is more resilient perennial plants that can thrive independently while you focus your efforts on tender annuals.
Extend Your Growing Season
When late autumn rolls around, you likely still have gorgeous chard plants, abundant kale crops, and even some peppers that are still ripening. This versatile tool lets you keep those veggies cranking for as long as possible into early winter!
As nighttime temperatures cool, tossing a piece of row fabric over your crops to extend their lifespan is ridiculously easy. This method offers the same benefits as spring protection, except your plants are already established. In short-season regions like Montana, farmers have trouble ripening their peppers until fall. They use row fabric to provide extra warmth and attract extra sunlight to the crops so they turn color before frosts arrive.
But the fabric doesn’t only extend summer crops into the fall; it extends your harvest window of cold-tolerant crops. Snow can usually sit on top of row covers without any issue. The fabrics tend to freeze into a more rigid shape when exposed to temperatures below 32°F.
If the fabric is already sitting on the leaves, they can freeze in place together. I’ve seen northern Maine gardeners with dazzling blue kale leaves peeking out from beneath several inches of snow. But remember that the fabric won’t be as resilient as greenhouse plastic and can still rip under the pressure of ice or hail.
Be careful when removing row cover during frosty weather, especially on larger plants. It can damage or tear leaves. If possible, wait until midday when the frost has melted to harvest crops beneath the cover.
Are you running to the garden store to buy row covers yet? This miracle fabric is truly a game-changer for any serious organic gardener. It takes so little effort yet provides so many benefits.
Don’t forget to secure it properly so it doesn’t blow away! Sandbags or smooth rocks are ideal for holding down the edges. Avoid landscape staples or sharp rocks that might rip the fabric and reduce its lifespan.