Summer gardens are one of the most stunning sights to see. They can be filled with gorgeous heirloom tomatoes and peppers, sweet watermelons and as many cucumbers as you can eat. We get to enjoy that plentiful harvest all summer long, but what happens when summer comes to an end? Most of our gardens here in Texas are just kicking back into gear after the blazing summer temperatures. They are gearing up to produce more food in September and October. With cold snaps and frost on the horizon. wouldn’t it be nice to keep getting fresh produce even after the first frost? You can! Read on to learn how to use row covers to extend your season.
What are row covers?
Row covers are coverings that you put over your garden to protect your plants from severe weather, cooler temperatures and even wind.
They can be made up of different materials based on what you have on hand. The most common materials used are PVC piping bent into hoops over the bed then covered with frost cloth or plastic to shield the plants.
How to use row covers to extend your season.
Simply get some 1/2″-3/4″ diameter PVC piping and whatever material you want to use to cover your plants (frost cloth, plastic or insect mesh).
You can use short lengths of rebar metal to hammer into the ground for your piping to slip over. This will form a structure for you to bend the lengths of pipe you need to make hoops over your garden.
Once you have the hoops in place, it is time to place your material over the hoop structure. You can use short lengths of pipe and cut a slit lengthwise in order to use as clamps to hold your material onto the pipe hoops.
What row covers can do.
Reduces wind exposure
If you are in an area that receives high winds regularly during your gardening season, your plants may be lucky to survive rather than developing strong root systems and putting on healthy growth.
To protect your garden from wind, you can use row covers to cut down on the amount of wind that hits your plants. This will provide a shelter from the brutal force of the wind and likely save your plants from snapping under the pressure
Warm up the soil
Installing a plastic row cover over a raised bed a few weeks away from Spring will help to warm up the soil for planting. The plastic covering will create a micro-climate underneath which will cause the soil to warm up quicker thus allowing you to plant spring plants earlier.
Tip: Growing plants under a plastic row cover will generally add a “growing zone” to your current zone. For example, growing plants under one layer of plastic will cause a zone 7 garden to perform more like a zone 8 garden under that covering.
Provide protection from sun and heat
Hot weather can be just as challenging as cold weather. Young plants can be stressed and stunted by excessive heat; salad greens turn bitter and go to seed, and getting seeds to germinate can be very difficult. Shade netting keeps plants and soil cool and helps retain moisture. It can be laid right over wire hoops or a movable wooden frame. A piece of wood lathe attached to a frame can serve the same purpose.
Block spring and fall frosts
For most gardeners, frost is a challenge in both spring and fall. One night of 32 degrees F. will usually put an end to all but the hardiest of garden crops. Sheets, blankets and cardboard boxes are good emergency solutions, but garden fabric (or row covers) is easier to handle and much more effective. These fabrics are available in a variety of thicknesses which have different temperature ranges.
Cold frames and portable greenhouse structures can offer even greater cold protection, often allowing you to extend your harvest season of cold-weather crops right through the winter.
Techniques for Stretching the Harvest
Start by considering your local climate. How much do you want to stretch the season, and how much time you are willing to invest? If you live in a cold climate and want to extend your harvest season year-round, you will probably need to invest in a greenhouse and be prepared to provide daily attention.
Related: How to choose your greenhouse
On the other hand, if you just want a few extra weeks of ripe tomatoes in the fall, and salads a couple of weeks earlier in the spring, the solution is easy and inexpensive. Row covers are the thing for the job!
The Transplant Period
If you can provide a sheltered growing environment that protects your plants from hot sun, cold wind, frost and insects, your seedlings will get off to a much faster start. When transplanting, try to keep seedlings covered with a shade cloth for the first couple of weeks.
Garden fabrics made of spun polyester or polypropylene are sun-, air-, and water-permeable, which means excess heat can escape and rainwater can pass through. Checking your plants weekly, for water and weeds, is all the attention that’s required.
Individual plants can also be covered with plastic milk jugs, coffee cans with both ends cut out, or tomato cages encircled with clear plastic. Just be sure that the cover is vented, and that you stay on the lookout for signs of overheating.
Add two months
Using garden fabrics in both spring and fall can add two months to your harvest season. Use them in the spring as described above, but plan to use a heavier fabric in the fall to retain soil heat and prevent frost from damaging the foliage.
Other factors in season extension
Choosing the right plant varieties can make a significant difference too, because some varieties are more suited to early- or late-season production. There are some varieties of broccoli, for instance, that thrive in cold spring soils, but go to seed quickly once warm weather arrives. There are other varieties that will tolerate heat, and still others that thrive in the low-light conditions and cold temperatures of late fall.
Keep it simple & manageable
The key to success is to concentrate your energies. Focus on a few crops or a particular section of your garden. Salad greens and root crops are easiest. You’ll find that a 3 ft. x 4 ft. bed of greens can provide many months’ worth of salads. Choosing the right varieties and following a continuous planting schedule is essential.
Growing under cover opens up an exciting new world with big rewards. Imagine having a salad bar with fresh, organic produce right outside your door, eight or ten months a year!
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