There are few tools available to organic vegetable farmers that are quite as useful as the floating row cover, and nothing works as a better form of pest control. Row covers form a protective barrier that can prevent virtually any pest from reaching our crops. They are particularly useful in excluding flea beetles from brassicas and cucumber beetles from cucurbits. Since pests are major disease vectors on a vegetable farm, keeping them off vulnerable young crops is an effective method of disease prevention.
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 like mulch over moist soil, preventing evaporation loss from the sun and wind. 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 that 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 as they escape from the fields; if you are unlucky, they may end up in the tops of your neighbor’s trees. The wind will often tear row covers away from where they have been fastened to the ground, and heavy rains can bury them under several inches of mud. Efficiently laying, removing, and storing row covers can be challenging on our wind-swept farm to say the least. As a result, we’ve developed some effective techniques over the years for taming our row covers, thus making the whole process less frustrating and much more efficient.
Choosing a cover
There are many different types of row covers available from 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 only last for a season or two. For this reason, we have slowly transitioned to DuPont Typar covers. They are much more expensive than lighter weight covers, but their durability is unrivaled, and they can easily last up to 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 we only use 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 whichever kind we need. This saves us the time of digging through a tangled pile of dusty white sheets to find the right covers. In a matter of minutes, we can pull them out of the pile, throw them on the truck, and head to the field.
Laying them down
The best part about storing row covers on pipes is how easy it is for two people to lay them down in the field. We fasten the cover to the ground at the end of the bed, and each person grabs an end of the pipe. The cover unrolls easily and neatly as we walk down the row. In high winds, 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 effective. 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 into 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 pipe straps attached to two portable saw horses and a PVC crank that we crafted 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 sets this up, two others walk along the length of the row cover with buckets and remove all the pegs. If it is a 15-foot-wide row cover, we fold it in half.
We then roll the cover on the pipe for a few turns to get it started. One person 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 planted against the front of the saw horses to keep the horses from flipping 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 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 some aspects of our system will work on your farm or inspire you to develop your own row cover innovations to suit your needs.