What is a Floating Row Cover in Gardening?

Pests are the bane of organic gardeners, and it can feel like a failure to reach for even organic-approved chemicals to deal with that massive infestation. With organic gardening, prevention is your friend, and one way you can prevent pest infestations before they even happen is with a row cover.

A floating row cover is a fabric made of spun-bonded or woven plastic, polyester, or polypropylene material that light, water, and air can get through. Primarily used for vegetable gardening, a row cover is placed over plants (often over hoops or a frame) to keep out pests or protect against frost.

What Does a Floating Row Cover Do?

A floating row cover can:

  • Protect against pests. A row cover is a physical barrier between your tasty crop and the pests (insect and birds alike) that would like to munch on them. When it’s too hot to use row covers, switch out the row cover for insect netting, which will keep bugs out without holding the heat in.
  • Provide frost protection to extend the growing season. You can start growing cold-tolerant plants earlier in the spring and keep them growing even after the last frost date. Depending on the weight of the cover, you could gain 2 – 8 degrees F of frost protection, or harvest certain crops a week or two early.
  • Transplant plants earlier. Warm-weather plants like tomatoes and peppers can’t be planted out when night-time temperatures still dip below 50F (10C). But with a row cover to make up the difference, you can get your tomatoes planted earlier for a head start.
  • Keep germinating beds moist. Starting seeds outdoors can be dicey, as you need to keep the seed beds moist for days or even weeks at a time. Row cover can also provide a bit of moisture retention when you lay it flat on a garden bed. You could also do this by covering it with a spare piece of lumber or cardboard, but the benefit to a row cover is that the seedlings can lift the row cover after germinating, whereas you need to lift spare wood or cardboard as soon as they germinate or the seedlings will grow weak.
  • Some protection against the elements. Floating row covers can protect delicate leaves from heavy rain by catching and slowing the force of raindrops. You can also use it as wind protection, although you need heavy-duty hoops to withstand the force and the wind can rip holes in the row cover.

Should I Use a Floating Row Cover?

Row covers come with a lot of advantages, including entirely organic, chemical-free pest control. Unfortunately, that’s not the end of the story. Row covers also come with a lot of drawbacks. Consider both when deciding whether to use row covers for your situation.

The disadvantages of floating row covers include:

  • Rips easily. Because of its lightweight design, it’s easy to rip it even when applying it. And the row cover doesn’t provide much protection from anything if there’s a big hole in it.
  • Needs two people to apply. Any amount of wind will buffet around the row cover. Long row covers are especially unmanageable, but even applying a short piece over a 2×4-foot bed can be difficult with the wind kicking it around.
  • The only row covers available now are made from petroleum and plastic. Because they rip easily, you may need to replace them every growing season.
  • Hides what’s growing underneath. Floating row cover is pretty opaque, and if you don’t check under the cover regularly, you may pull it back only to discover weeds choking out your plants or that some insects made it under and now, with no natural predators, have proliferated disastrously.
  • Also keeps out pollinators. This won’t matter for non-flowering vegetables like lettuces and basil, but it will matter for anything you want to bear fruit, including tomatoes, melons, peppers, zucchini, and squash. Keep checking under the row cover for signs of flowering, then remove the row cover. Once they’re at the flowering stage, plants are more resilient to pest pressure.

How To Install Floating Row Covers?

To install row covers (with hoops):

  1. Prepare the garden beds, including giving a firm soaking, planting transplants, or seeding.
  2. If transplanting, deeply mulch the beds to suppress weeds and keep moisture. If you’re sowing seeds directly, then wait until the seeds germinate and grow into seedlings before deeply mulching.
  3. Install drip irrigation (if using). Drip irrigation saves you from the effort of having to peel back the row cover to water, and it also cuts down on the amount of water needed, as it only releases water next to the plant rows. This also cuts down on weeds.
  4. Install the hoops every 6 to 10 feet, depending on the type and size of hoop. Depending on wind conditions, this could be as simple as pushing the hoops you bought from a gardening or farming store into the ground, or pushing rebar into the ground to give the hoops extra support. Once installed, the hoops should be 16 to 20 inches high to allow the plants to grow.
  5. Unroll the row cover. Depending on how the row cover was folded, it may be easier to do it indoors or on the lawn first, then fold it accordion style in 6-foot sections along the length and the width is the same. For example, if the beginning dimensions are 26-foot wide by 250-foot long, the final dimensions are 26-foot by 6-foot.
  6. Cover the hoops. If you folded it like an accordion, then place the row cover at the end of the hoops and weigh the bottom edge down. With a partner, you each take a corner and walk the length of the row, unravelling the row cover as you go.
  7. Secure the ends and then length. Use rocks, soil, or pieces of wood to weigh the ends of the row cover down. Make sure there are no gaps for insects to get through, or loose edges that the wind pick up and tear the whole cover off the hoops.
  8. Check on the row cover and under the row cover periodically. Ensure that there are no new gaps that have emerged and that it’s still in place. Check under the row cover to check for weeds and problems with irrigation.

The best time to install row cover is when there’s low or no wind!

Agfabric Floating Row Covers

See on Amazon

If you are interested in buying a floating row cover the Agfabric Floating Row Covers is available in 14 different sizes. Take a look at them on Amazon and decide which size is works for you.

Are There Better Alternatives To A Row Cover For Gardening?

Row covers can be really handy, but they can also be a pain. There are a few alternatives that are better for certain situations.

If you’re using row cover to extend the season, look into hoop houses and cold frames as well. Hoop houses and cold frames will last a lot longer and can be easier to handle. Row covers are designed for farm-length rows. If all you want to do is keep a raised garden bed covered, then building a mini-hoop house or cold frame is the way to go.

In the summer heat, insect netting is better than row covering for protecting against pests. As row cover keeps the garden bed several degrees warmer, it’s not ideal when temperatures jump up. Insect netting is a finely woven mesh that doesn’t hold on to heat and that air can move easily through. It won’t provide frost protection, though.

If you’re protecting your garden from birds and not insects (like on your berry bushes) opt for bird netting. Pollinators can fly in and out, but not birds. To support your local birds, who eat a lot of pest insects, leave a bush uncovered for them.

Floating Row Covers FAQs

Do Floating Row Covers Protect Plants from Frost?

Yes, floating row covers can protect plants from frost. They can keep the temperature between 2 to 8 degrees F above outside temperatures. If you’re using row cover for frost protection, opt for the heaviest as it’ll provide the most protection. The downside is that the heaviest row covers let in only 60% of sunlight when daylight hours are low. It’ll keep plants alive, but they’ll grow slower.

Can Floating Row Covers Touch the Plants?

Floating row covers can touch the plants when you’re using them to keep seed beds moist for germination, but use hoops if you’re using row covers for pest prevention (insects can lay eggs through netting and row cover if the leaf is right there) or frost protection (any leaf touching the netting is at risk of frost).

Do Floating Row Covers Prevent and Protect from Pests?

Yes, floating row covers prevent and protect from insect and bird pests. They are a physical barrier preventing insects from landing on the plant. However, some pests, like flea beetles, hatch out of the soil so row cover is useless in this case. The row cover also needs to be raised above the plant, so no part of the plant is touching the row cover. Insects can lay eggs through the mesh.

Can You Water Through a Row Cover?

It’s best to remove and reapply row cover for watering, as too much water pressure from a hose could end up ripping the fabric. If you use drip irrigation, you won’t have to pull it on and off to water, only to check on the plants.

Do Floating Row Cover Provide Shade?

Because of the thickness of the material, floating row cover can block out between 20 – 40% of light. However, it makes a poor shade cover as row cover does the opposite of a shade cover: it keeps the garden bed a few degrees warmer than the ambient temperature, rather than trying to give the plants some respite from the heat. Instead, use shade covers with the sides vented (raised up).

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