Few tools available to organic vegetable farmers are as useful as the floating row cover, and nothing is a better pest control tool. Row covers form a protective barrier that can prevent virtually all pests from reaching our crops. They are particularly useful in excluding flea beetles from brassicas and cucumber beetles from cucurbits. And since pests are major disease vectors on a vegetable farm, keeping them off vulnerable young crops is an effective method of disease prevention as well.
We use row covers for season extension on our farm, too. They provide a few degrees of frost protection on cold nights, particularly when laid over a tunnel constructed of wire hoops. During dry spells, row covers are also extremely effective at preserving soil moisture. They act as mulch over moist soil, preventing evaporation loss from the sun and wind. And they can be really helpful when trying to germinate crops during midsummer heat waves. If the ground is wet when a row cover is laid, it won’t dry out again until the cover is removed. Row covers are so versatile the long, billowy white sheets sometimes fill the fields on our farm.
While row covers are an indispensable aid in organic vegetable production, they can be notoriously difficult to handle. On our farm we use 250 foot long row covers that are either seven or fifteen feet wide. The long sheets act like sails in the wind, escaping from the fields, and, if you are unlucky, ending up in the tops of your neighbor’s trees. The wind will often tear row covers where they are fastened to the ground, and heavy rains can bury them in inches of mud. Efficiently laying, removing and storing row covers can be challenging on our wind-swept farm to say the least. So, over the years, we’ve developed some effective techniques for taming our row covers, making the whole process less frustrating and more efficient.
Choosing a cover
There are many different types of row covers available from the agricultural supply companies. The quality of the material is generally reflected in the price. While lighter weight covers are much cheaper, they are also much more fragile and often last only a season or two. We have slowly transitioned to DuPont Typar covers. They are much more expensive than lighter weight covers but their durability is unrivaled, easily lasting four years or more. In high winds these covers will pull the pegs out of the ground before ripping. We have bought one or two sheets a year, as we could afford them, and now use only these covers on our farm.
We store our row covers rolled up on 10-foot by 1-1/2-inch PVC pipes. A 10-foot pipe easily holds a 7-foot-wide row cover, and we fold 15-foot-wide covers in half before rolling them onto the pipe. We can then stack the covers or stand them on end in a corner of the barn to keep them out of the way and the weather. We use a sharpie to mark the length, width and type of row cover on each end of the pipe so we can easily access whatever kind we need. This saves us the time of digging through a tangled pile of dusty white sheets to find the right cover. We pull them off the pile, throw them on the truck, and are ready to head to the field in minutes.
Laying them down
The best part about storing row covers on pipes is how easy it is to lay them down in the field for just two people. We fasten the cover to the ground at the end of the bed, each person grabs an end of the pipe and we walk. The cover unrolls easily and neatly as we move down the row. In high wind we keep the pipe low to the ground and stop occasionally to tack the cover to the ground.
We use plastic three-pronged row cover pegs to fasten the covers to the ground. Other methods for fastening row covers include sand bags, re-bar and shovelfuls of dirt. We prefer the pegs because they are quick, lightweight, portable and work well. We fold the edges of the row cover over and hammer the pegs through the fold using rubber mallets. The key is to peg them in the tire tracks where the ground is tight enough to hold the pegs in high winds, but not so hard as to break the pegs as you hammer them in.
Reeling them in
The row cover reel is our favorite part of our system, and it is super low-tech. It is comprised of two portable saw horses with pipe straps attached and a PVC crank we made to fit on the end of the row cover pipe. We set up the saw horses at the end of the bed about eight feet apart. We then push the PVC pipe through the pipe straps on each saw horse and hammer our crank onto the end of the pipe with a rubber mallet.
While one person is setting this up, two others walk the length of the row cover with buckets and remove all the pegs. If it is a 15-foot-wide row cover, we will fold it in half.
We then roll the cover on the pipe a few turns to get it started. One person then begins to turn the crank while the other two guide the cover onto the pipe as it rolls in. The “guiders” keep their hips firmly against the front of the saw horses to keep them from flipping up until there is a significant amount of the cover’s weight on the pipe.
When the cover is completely rolled up, we tie the roll with some baling twine, label the pipe and throw it in the truck. Using the row cover reel has turned a tedious and difficult job into one that is fast and, as we like to say, almost fun!
Row covers are an essential tool for organic vegetable production, but their challenges can sometimes make them feel like a necessary evil. Like any task that requires a lot of time and labor, it is important to develop systems that make working with row covers as fast and efficient as possible. Our method of using pipes for storage, pegs for fastening and a reel for rolling up covers is our attempt to efficiently deal with row covers on our farm. Hopefully aspects of our system will work on your farm, or inspire you to develop row cover innovations that suit your needs.
John and Aimee Good run Quiet Creek Farm, a mixed vegetable operation, at the Rodale Institute in Kutztown, PA. They can be found online at www.quietcreekfarmcsa.com.