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A Guide to Using Floating Row Covers in Your Organic Vegetable Garden

Installing Floating Row CoverInstalling Floating Row Cover
Looking for an economical, effective way to help protect your plants from frost? How about an easy-to-use tool that will keep flying insect pests away from your vegetable crops? If the answer to either of these questions is yes (or maybe!), then you will be very glad to hear that an economical, reusable, convenient, effective product that does both of those things does exist. It's called floating row cover, also known as "frost blanket". Floating Row Cover is often called by the manufacturer's name: "Reemay", "Agronet", or "Argyl."

Among its many uses is its ability to be used as a barrier to frost, insects, wind and varmints. Floating row cover can be used on almost any crop, from strawberries to sweet corn to cabbage. Many commercial vegetable growers rely heavily on it. It's such great stuff that home gardeners are likely to fall in love with it too!

Floating row cover is a very lightweight, translucent material (usually spun polypropylene) that is placed directly over crops in order to protect them from various unfavorable conditions. Floating row cover is so named because it doesn't have to be supported with hoops: it can just be set right on top of the growing crops, where it will "float" above them.

When Should Floating Row Cover Sit Instead of Floating?

There are a couple cases in which you should consider using hoops to help support your floating row cover. If you're using the row cover primarily for frost protection, it's a good idea to support it with wire hoops because if an icy, frosted, row cover is in direct contact with a frost susceptible plant leaf, the leaf will become damaged from the cold. The hoops will keep the row cover from touching your plant's leaves and freezing to them.

You should also consider using hoops if you are growing summer squash, tomato or pepper plants under the cover: while the majority of plants are completely undamaged by contact with the row cover, these plants might be. In windy conditions, the row cover can damage these plant's tender growing points and/or break some of their leaves.

How to Choose the Right Floating Row Cover For Your Organic Garden

When you are deciding which floating row cover to buy, consider the following criteria:

  1. The weight of the row cover. The row covers on the market today can be as light as 0.3 ounces/sq. yd. or as heavy as 2.0 ounces/sq. yd. Heavier row covers provide maximum frost protection but only allow a little light to shine through them. They will have to be removed during the daytime in order to for you plants to get some sunlight. Lighter floating row covers provide minimal frost protection but can be left on your crops the whole growing season if you so choose (you should at least peek under the cover on a regular basis in order to make sure that weeds or insects haven't taken over your garden beds while they were under cover). A medium weight row cover (1.0-1.25 oz/sq. yd.) will give you the best of both worlds: about 4-6 degrees of frost protection in the spring and even more in the fall when stored soil warmth keeps things toasty under the cover, and the option of leaving the cover on for extended periods of time.

  2. The width of the row cover- Row cover is sold in widths of 6 to 50 feet. 6, 8 or 10 foot widths are ideal for most home garden beds. If your row cover is much wider than that, it becomes very hard to handle, especially on a windy day.

  3. The size of the roll (length of row cover on the spool).--The cover comes on a roll, just like a giant paper towel. It is sold in lengths from 25 or 50 feet up to about 800 feet. Keep in mind that larger rolls are cheaper but also much heavier than shorter ones.

  4. The price--Heavier row cover is more expensive than lighter row cover. The wider and longer your cover is, the cheaper it will probably be per square foot. The fabrics of the row covers themselves are generally of uniformly good quality, no matter where you buy your cover. Make sure that you do some comparison shopping in order to get the best price!

Once you discover the joys of using floating row cover in your organic garden, you'll be hooked!

For More Information:

PennState Center for Plasticulture
Colorado State Cooperative Extension bulletin about floating row cover.
Season Extension Strategies Your Fall Organic Garden
Using Silver Plastic Mulch in your organic garden - Silver Plastic Mulch for Pest Prevention
Learn about Growing Lettuce