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A complete guide to gardening in winter with row covers

There’s a wide array of tools that gardeners can benefit from. You might already have garden shears, gloves, or even a Hori knife in your tool kit, but there’s another useful thing you may have missed. Row covers seem pretty simple at first glance; aren’t they just something that covers a row of plants? There’s more than meets the eye to this handy garden resource, though. If you’re curious about row covers’ uses, types, and maintenance, then you’re in the right place. We’ll tell you everything you need to know so you can get started using row covers in your garden today!

What are row covers?

Row covers are thin layers of fabric or occasionally plastic that are placed over rows of plants. They help protect the plants from a range of things, but particularly harsh weather and pests. By providing a physical barrier, pests have a harder time getting to the plants, which results in healthier plants. They keep plants warm during fall and winter by providing a windbreak and keeping most snow or ice off the plants. Row covers even offer some shade to plants that are sensitive to bright sunlight. Different types of row covers, as well as different materials, are better suited to other plants and offer different protections.

Plants growing under a plastic row cover

How to use row covers

The first step is to measure your garden rows to determine how large of a row cover you’ll need. Measure both the length and width, but remember to add a few extra inches so the covers will have some slack. You don’t want the cover to fit too tightly over the plants, which could hinder their growth. Row covers tend to work better with shorter plants than taller ones, but you can use them with taller plants as long as you give the row cover slack so that it can move as the plants grow.

Row covers are secured to the ground on the edges. Depending on the type of row cover you’re using, they can be secured on just the long sides or all four sides. Securing it on all sides means there’s less give in the fabric, but it does offer more protection. Since they’re secured at the edges but not in the middle, they’re sometimes referred to as floating row covers. Some row covers are also laid over metal or plastic arches to turn the row cover into a tunnel. You may need to remove the row covers from time to time to water and weed your garden. While some row covers can help reduce weeds, they aren’t typically able to get rid of them entirely.

A field of strawberry plants, half covered with a row cover and half uncovered

Maintaining row covers

Aside from tightening or loosening the cover as needed, the only maintenance row covers require is if a storm or animal damages them. Row covers are typically hardy enough to withstand light storms, but heavier storms, debris, and animals can sometimes tear the material.

Small tears can be repaired with a needle and thread or staples. Medium tears can be fixed with patches, but be sure to use material that’s a comparable thickness to the rest of the row cover. A patch that’s significantly thicker or thinner than the surrounding material could cause uneven heating or lighting, which can impact plant growth. However, tears that are too large to be patched mean that the row cover needs to be replaced entirely.

A few rows of plants covered in a light fabric row cover

Choosing the best row cover for you

The best row cover for your garden depends on what your plants need. Thicker material keeps out more of the sun and offers better protection from the cold, making it a good choice for keeping plants warm in winter or for plants that are very sensitive to the sun. However, it isn’t a good fit for sun-loving plants or tall plants that are still growing, as its weight can make it hard for plants to move. If you have a taller plant that’s sensitive to the sun or needs protection from the cold, you might want to consider using a frame to turn the cover into a tunnel.

Lighter material lets in more sun and makes it easier for plants to move as they grow but offers less protection from the cold. This is a good option for spring or summer gardens, as it can keep out pests without blocking too much sunlight.

If your garden is having trouble with pests or the cold, then row covers might be able to help. They’re easy to set up and maintain and can be folded up and stored in any closet or basement when they’re not in use. If you’re feeling extra motivated, you can even make one yourself out of a length of any garden fabric you choose.

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