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Floating row cover protects plants from bugs, too much sun

Jessica Walliser
| Thursday, May 17, 2012, 2:48 p.m.

Mid-May is an exciting time for gardeners. We can begin to plant warm-season vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, beans and cucumbers, and brighten our yards with a sprinkling of annual flowers. Most likely, the nighttime frosts are past us and, once mid-May's consistently warm temperatures set in, we can really get growing. I plan to spend the coming week planting, and I'm looking forward to many trips to my local garden centers to stock up on whatever catches my eye.

While I'm at one of those nurseries picking out my favorite plants, I'll also be picking up more of my favorite garden helper: floating row cover. If you are a gardener and aren't familiar with this terrific tool, let me introduce you to your new best friend.

Also known as reemay, garden row cover, or agribon, this lightweight, translucent fabric is a must-have in my yard and garden. Made of polypropylene, it's most commonly called floating row cover because the fabric rests, or floats, on top of plants. It forms a physical barrier to damaging insects and protects tender plants from frosts. It reduces the intensity of the sun but also can hold soil heat to keep plants warm and cozy on chilly nights. Row cover also can stave off wind damage and extend the growing season into early winter.

Floating row cover is sold in several different weights (or thicknesses), each with it's own purpose.

Row covers in the summer-weight category are most often used as insect protection, but they don't trap a lot of heat so they are a poor choice for frost protection. Summer-weight row cover transmits up to 85 percent of sunlight and allows water to easily pass through its fibers. It can be used all summer long to protect plants from insect damage.

In my garden, summer-weight row cover protects my potatoes from Colorado potato beetles, my cabbage and broccoli from imported cabbageworms, my carrots from carrot-root maggots, my berries from the Japanese beetles, and my chard and spinach from leafminers. I also use it to keep the birds out of my strawberries and blueberries -- I find it is far easier to install and remove than bird netting.

If you plan to use summer-weight row cover on a crop that requires pollination, like beans or cucumbers, use it only until the plants come into flower then remove it so pollinators can access the blooms. I simply lay the cover over the top of my newly planted seedlings or seed rows and pin down the edges, leaving plenty of slack so the plants can grow unimpeded beneath. You can create or purchase wire hoops to hold the fabric up off the plants and make a sort of tunnel over them. I never have to spray pesticides (even organic ones) in my veggie patch, and floating row cover is the primary reason why.

All-purpose, mid-weight row cover is used for insect and moderate frost protection. It allows about 70 percent of sunlight to reach the plants beneath and affords frost protection a few degrees below freezing while still allowing rainwater to pass through. I use mid-weight row cover to shelter my early-spring plantings from late frosts, and to keep my vegetable garden productive well into the autumn by covering my fall lettuce, greens and root crops.

Heavy- or winter-weight row cover creates a blanket over plants. It is thicker and protects plants down to 20 degrees. I use it only when I want to overwinter veggies like carrots, turnips, kale and spinach in the garden. Heavy-weight row cover lets only about 60 percent of sunlight through and keeps most of the rain and snow from passing through. It's a great insulator and also can be used to protect semi-hardy perennials and shrubs during the winter.

Floating row cover can be purchased at most local garden centers and from many online sources, either folded in a package or on a large roll. It can easily be cut-to-fit and lasts for many, many years -- I have had some of my row cover for more than 10 years. At the end of the growing season, I wash it by hand in a tub of water, lay it out to dry, then store it in an enclosed bin in our shed.

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