How to Use Floating Row Covers

Gardening Tools
Floating Row Covers

Floating row covers are excellent for any garden and there are many different uses for them. Make sure to understand how to use floating covers, and also what the potential pitfalls are, so you know how to avoid issues while getting all the benefits that floating row covers can provide.

What are floating row covers? These are white, light pieces of thin material used for sheltering crops. Also known as "garden fabric", these can be used for many different reasons. However, the main reason you might wish to use floating row covers is to protect your plants from the frost.

These covers are typically made from polyester or polypropylene so they don't absorb moisture. However, they generally allow sunlight and even rainfall to pass through. A great thing about floating row covers is that they are reusable, so you can use them on your plants for many years. They will generally last multiple season, although this depends on how much and how often you use them per season.

Why Use Floating Row Covers?

Here are the main reasons to use floating row covers:

  • Protect plants from the frost. The number one reason to use floating row covers is to protect your plants and crops against frost. They are great for adding some warm days to your garden, which is something that all gardeners need, regardless of the climate area where they live. For frost protection, make sure to use floating row covers that are heavier and specifically created to trap heat. With these covers, your plants will have about 4 to 10 degrees F warmer temperatures during the freezing conditions. Just lay the material loosely over the plants for short-term frost protection. It will allow the plants to grow under the cover for prolonged periods of time. However, for a longer-term solution, it is best to build a support structure that will support the airflow. Also, keep in mind that these covers will provide more heat to your plants whenever they need it, even if frost is not a danger.
  • Protect plants from heat. You can also use floating row covers to protect your cold-loving plants from too much heat. Plants such as kale, lettuce, spinach or other leafy greens, need protection from strong sun, which these cover can provide. In this situation, a lightweight cover is the best way to go. These will provide the air circulation but block enough of the sunlight to protect your plants.
  • Protect plants from pests. Another reason to use floating row covers is to protect your plants from pests. You need to use covers specifically made for this purpose. In general, these covers will stay up throughout the season. Because of this, you need to make sure that they are not too heavy or that they trap too much heat.
  • Protect plants from transplant shock. When you start your seedlings indoors, you can't always move them to the outdoor weather straight away. They need to be acclimatized and hardened off. Generally speaking, this is done by leaving the seedlings out for extended periods of time over the course of several days, so it is a time-consuming process. This is where floating row covers come in handy, because you can simply plant your seedlings under the cover. It will make the weather less intense and will allow a young plant to become established without issues. Such a cover should be lightweight, so make sure to use light covers only.

Types of Floating Row Covers

Floating row covers come in several common types, so you need to know which one to use depending on the situations. These covers come in different weights and thicknesses. Covers that are lightweight are the least expensive options and they can be used for many different types of plants. They are light so they generally don't require supports. They can protect your plants from wind and sun, but they will generally not add much in terms of temperature.

If you wish to increase the temperature around your plants, you will need something thicker. Covers that are medium weight are ideal for plant and crop maturation, and also to increase your yield. They can help you extend your growing season both in the spring and in the fall by increasing and retaining some of the heat. They are ideal to use over peas, carrots, lettuce, potatoes, radishes, sweet corn, cucurbits and blueberries.

However, for maximum heat protection, you will need heavy weight covers. They are the only ones that can provide proper frost and cold protection. They will increase the temperature around your plants for 4 to 8 degrees F, and they are ideal for early and late extension of the growing season for the crops that grow during the colder periods of the year. Such covers can help you enhance the growth of your plants. However, make sure that the transmission of light and rain is reduced in these heavy covers. Also, chances are that they will require supporting structures so their weight doesn't damage the plants.

How to Use Floating Row Covers

If you wish to use floating row covers for extended periods of time, make sure to observe and check your plants often. Look out for pests: they might be trapped under coverings, where they can eat your plants without a problem.

Another thing to keep in mind is that you will need to open the covers or pollination, or you will need to hand pollinate, if you decide to keep the covers on during the entire growing season.

Make sure to check your plants regularly and confirm that the levels of moisture, temperature and other growing conditions are exactly how they need to be. If you feel it is getting too hot or moist, you can open up tunnels temporarily to let the fresh air get to your plants.

While you can place fabric directly over the plants, particularly if the covers are light, it is always best to build some sort of a supporting structure. This is particularly useful if you wish to use covers for longer periods of time, and from season to season. A supporting structure will allow you to use covers in many different ways, and it will make the installation easier. Also, it will protect your covers so you will be able to reuse them from year to year.

When installing covers, make sure to secure them to the ground in some way, so rodents and other animals can't get under the material and to the plants. When not in use, make sure to remove the covers from the garden and store them securely. This will preserve them to be used in the following seasons.

Photo credit: Scot Nelson

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