Saturday, November 5, 2011

Row covers as season extenders

Start of the hoops, at the end of the sweet potato bed, and beside some tall asparagus ferns

Every year I think I will put some hoops in the garden and cover them with row covers for season extenders... aka frost protection, but I usually run out of steam first. This year I decided to MAKE it happen, even if it is just one very small bed with a handful of fall plants. I'm mainly doing this as a trial to see what will survive if left in the ground (and for how long), and how much it generally extends my Fall season.

I am moving towards something akin to what Eliot Coleman puts forth in his book, Winter Harvest but not as quickly as I'd like.

What you see above is only the first few hoops in place. They are just some old PVC tubing that I used once on a temporary structure 2 or 3 houses ago. (I'm a packrat and keep everything that might be useful at another time for another project!) The ends are slipped over 18" pieces of rebar driven into the ground. I did have to buy the rebar, and 50 lineal feet of the strongest frost protection fabric, good to down to around 25ºF if I remember correctly. I won't need anywhere near 50 feet this year, though.

I laid out the bed and cut the plastic pipe for the hoops based on the width the supplier said the row cover fabric was, without double-checking the actual width. Turns out he was short (wrong) by 18" but by then the bed was already planted. Re-cutting the pipe to accommodate the fabric width would have left me with pipe that wouldn't bend enough for a hoop shape, so unfortunately I am having to run 2-3 sections of the fabric from side to side rather than one piece end to end.

I haven't figured out the best way to fasten the pieces together without ruining the fabric, so for now I'm using clothespins. I'll have to remedy that before any snowfall!

Hoops tied together at the top; rope is anchored on each end, pulling against the other end

The bed is 6 feet wide, and is planted with Brussels sprouts, purple cauliflower, beets, carrots, kale and spinach. I lost the majority of my seedlings with all the rain from TS Lee in early September, and by then it was too cool to start more. Also, something has eaten the beet stalks and carrot tops down to the ground, so there won't be any beets nor carrots.

I plan to keep the cover on all winter and leave a few things in the ground, just to see how they fare. I'll leave a few carrots (there aren't many to start with), one or two stalks of Brussels sprouts with a few sprouts left on them, and then I will wait until we start getting deep freezing to see what else I want to leave. Since I am not counting on much food production from this quite-late impetus, I'll be okay with what doesn't do well.  

The main thing is that I'm learning.

Update: The best thing to use for attaching overlapping fabric sections are known as garden clips, spring clips, or sometimes called snap clamps. They are cheap (around 50¢ each but shop for the best price) and I have some on order. I could make my own using black poly water pipe, but the big box stores here only carry that pipe in 100 foot rolls. I did buy 10 feet of rigid PVC in a slightly larger size but it's difficult to cut a lengthwise slot without someone holding it down. IfI cut it in 4" sections first, I wouldn't want to get my hands near a whirling blade to cut them!

Update 2: I've already learned there are some shortcomings (for me, anyway) in this system. For example: it would be lovely if there were plastic zippers from one side to the other (or maybe just from the ground to the center top along one side) every few feet to make the plants inside more accessible for harvesting.


  1. "it would be lovely if there were plastic zippers from one side to the other (or maybe just from the ground to the center top along one side) every few feet to make the plants inside more accessible for harvesting."

    That's a fantastic idea! It might be worth doing with those really heavy-duty row covers or if you were to use sturdy plastic sheets instead. I wonder if there's something like that already out there ...

    I use ground staples to fasten the row fabric to the ground rather than to the pipes. That way all you have to do is pull up one or two staples to peek under, rather than undo a bunch of clamps. It seems sturdier to me, because there's less chance of your fabric + pipe becoming a giant sail ...

    But it's pretty windy here, and YMMV :)

  2. Thanks Patty. Yes, the idea is interesting, isn't it?

    My fabric is only anchored to the poles where 2 pieces join/overlap, and anchored to the ground around the perimeter with rocks. We'll see how well that works over the winter, and depending on what this winter is like.

  3. I use lengths of PVC filled w/rebar & capped for my weights along the side. Then when I want to get under, just roll the pipe back & push the whole fabric up. You can use a spring clamp on a hoop to hold the fabric up whilst you're messing about underneath. Much simpler than fussing w/the rocks (which I also tried at first, bleh) & when the winds kick up, I can use more of those snap clamps on the ground pipe to hold it. Less tearing than using ground staples.

    You can also sew this fabric, so it can be patched & custom sizes can be made.

  4. We live in the southern edge of Virginia and these hoops have really paid off for us in extending the season.

    I tried making clips out of PVC pipe as well and ended up using long pieces of rebar to weigh each side down to the ground. The extra parts of the cloth can wrap around the rebar and is easy to lift up for a peeking or picking.

  5. Lifting, peeking and/or picking might be a tad easier if I wasn't 71!


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