Wednesday, April 20, 2011

Protecting your early garden plantings (or, how I beat Mother Nature)

In the Northwest, there are about 4-5 gorgeous days in February where the temps get up to around 50 degrees, the sun shines, and all gardeners get the itch to plant something - seduced by the promise of spring.  I succumb to this temptation every year, knowing that after the initial sunshine and warm temperatures, we will sink back into the 35 - 45 degree/ raining constantly for three months mode.

How to beat Mother Nature
Last year I decided to beat Mother Nature by covering my plants until the middle/end of June.  It was the first year I put in strawberries and I knew I needed to protect them.  It ended up being a horrid year for tomatoes, with cold, windy weather until the end of June that killed many tomato plants, but mine were all snug and warm in their covered raised bed.

Results of Online Research
I did a lot of research into materials and ways to cover your plants, and found for me the least expensive, most durable materials for the job. I started out by buying garden clips from Nichols Garden Nursery in Albany, Oregon (see link to left of posting).  Nichols is on of those dream suppliers - even though they are not far away, I order by mail because going there is too much temptation!.  They sell garden clips in two sizes; I purchased the one for using 1/2" plastic poly pipe.  Instructions are in the package.  I initially bought two packages of 30 clips - not cheap, but I expected to use them for years and years to come.  I also bought two different weights of row cover material.  But after doing additional research this year, the best buy for row cover I could find is from Gardener's Supply Co ( see links).  This spring I ordered from them a pkg of medium weight row cover, 6' by 50', for $18.95.  this is the best deal from any online store I could find.  I found less expensive at a wholesale place for greenhouse supplies, but the shipping was too expensive, making Gardeners the best deal.

Strawberries in Raised Beds ready for row cover

The cost of installing row cover
For covering raised beds, I started with some 36" rebar from the lumber yard - about $1.80 each.  That turned out to be 8 for each 6' bed.  I bought a 50' roll of black plastic poly pipe - 1/2".  I don't remember exactly how much it was, but it wasn't that much - probably around $9 -$11.  This is the same pipe that you use for drip irrigation, so it stands up to the UV rays better than PVC pipe ( and less expensive). I pounded in the rebar, cut the poly pipe to the size I wanted to make a nice arch, and pushed the ends down over the rebar.  You can't see it in the pic above, but in the front where I get so much wind, I also used plumbing clips to anchor the pipe to the box.  a pkg that did most of my boxes in front cost me a few dollars.

Last fall I cut off a lot of the runners from the plants above and planted them in a new box, and then covered them with a foot of loose straw for the winter.  when I took the straw off in February, I put the row cover back on.  You can see the advantage - after almost 9 straight weeks of cold, rainy, windy weather, the berries are covered with blossoms and are really healthy!

Strawberry babies from fall 2010 - blooming in early April 2011

A Promise Kept - Early Peas
I promised myself this year that I would plant peas in February.  But I was smart and covered them up!  Two days after I planted peas, chard and spinach, the forecast was for 18 degrees!  Ack!  And then it started to rain - we broke records this year with rain - out of 31 days in March, it rained for 29 or 30, lost count.  And it rained in February and April, so we have had almost two months straight of rain.  Fellow gardeners at work have watched the peas they planted at the same time flood, and never germinate.  Here are my peas:

Tall Telephone Peas and Oregon Sugar Pod II
still under cover of course.  the rows of spinach and chard I planted didn't really make it - I had two spinach plants that made it through the cold weather in March.  That's ok, I decided to start some seeds inside this spring, and just planted the broccoli, spinach and chard outside under cover last night.

Sewing Room turned Plant Nursery

First Year for Asparagus
I am happiest about my new asparagus bed.  We love asparagus!  Even my granddaughter loves the tender shoots.  I prepared a bed for them in late winter, but made sure after I planted them that they were covered:
I kept peeking to see if anything was coming up, and was almost despairing after all the cold weather we had, when a few days ago I saw the first spears coming up!
Of course these won't get picked - these will turn into those lovely fronds, and then I will let them go for about two years before we pick any - but that is what gardening is all about - planting for the future.

Advantages of Row Cover
The great thing about row cover is that it lets through 70 - 85% of the light, and some of the water, so I don't have to worry about watering, and the tender plants are protected during the torrential spring downpours -  I don't have to worry about hailstorms, thunder showers, etc smashing new tender plants, or the cold wet soil rotting my seeds.  When there is a little sun, it warms the soil in the raised bed quickly.  Temps under the row cover are 10-15 degrees above outside air temps.  That means that on a really warm day (60 degrees?), I open the ends in the morning so the plants don't get overheated and close them at night.  If you have problems with bugs, or birds, you can use the summer weight row cover to protect your crops. (Check out the links for both summer weight and regular weight row cover)

Tomatoes from late spring 2010 - ready for row cover
Tomatoes in August 2010 - huge, prolific, thanks to the row cover
I made taller hoops and put row cover on in the fall, and we had tomatoes almost until thanksgiving - plenty for us, and plenty to give away to neighbors.

Final thoughts - Protect your investment
I know that having a garden is partly about saving money on food. And that there is a cost involved in purchasing garden supplies like this.  But this is all about the infrastructure of your garden.  why invest in seedlings if you can't protect them?  I used all the row cover I bought last year, and the row clips, and bought more this year to cover the rest of my boxes.  It withstood 60 mph gusts, without tearing.  I plan on using this row cover and clips and poly pipe for years before having to replace them - they will extend my growing season and protect my investment in seeds and plants.  And, you don't have to have raised beds to cover your plants - instructions with the clips show you how to cover your beds with just the rebar and poly pipe.

Good luck beating Mother Nature!


  1. If you are buying row cover now, get the lighter stuff - I am switching over to that now on my boxes. Keeps bugs out, gives me an extra 10 degrees on my tomatoes, keeps delicate plants from being smashed by the spring rains. Just an FYI.

    Another source for clips:
    Thanks to Margaret for this FYI. these are from Australia - a bit more expensive and will take longer to arrive, but if you have arthritis or getting clips off and on are an issue, these might be the ticket. They are kind of like a hair clip, so you squeeze it open; the ones Margaret got have a locking mechanism. So now you have two choices. (If you live in the Willamette Valley and were going to run down to Nichols to pick up clips and row cover, call first - they are running low)

  2. It was supposed to be over 60 degrees today, so I took off most of my row covers. If you don't want to go to all that trouble, at least open the ends, so it doesn't get too hot. tomorrow it is supposed to be in the seventies, so they will come off tomorrow also. But since it is still in the forties at night, row covers go back on at dusk. It is a bit more work, but worth the effort.