Is Clear Plastic Necessary? Success with Fabric Row Covers

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The groundhog saw his shadow today, but my garden and I don’t mind.

What about you? Or is there something keeping you out of the garden in winter?

Certainly it can’t be all the “extra work” that a winter garden entails — freezing temperatures discourage bugs, plant diseases, and weed growth, after all. And an expensive greenhouse surely can’t be keeping you away, since we’ve already established that most of the United States is mild enough for winter growing under a cold frame or low tunnel. With just a little protection, the garden essentially becomes a “living refrigerator” that you need only visit once in a while for harvests.

Perhaps it’s the misconception that you must grow under clear plastic or glass that’s holding you back. Cold frames and low tunnels certainly can’t be erected in the garden and ignored, since all it takes is a clear, sunny day for temperatures to rise high enough to cook your plants. Since the weather forecast isn’t always correct, and because many of us work far away from home, that’s a justifiable reason. But I’m here to let you know that you can be a successful winter gardener without clear plastic or glass. 

Fabric row covers might be your answer.

I’ve shared the pros and cons of growing under clear plastic versus fabric row covers before, leaving it up to you to make a decision about what works best in your situation. After 5 years of winter growing under my belt, using a mix of tunnels covered with either clear plastic or fabric row covers, I’ve made a choice myself; I’m a fabric gal. I’m not at home all day, and even though I work close to home, I can easily get tied up with teaching and meetings. What really sold me, however, was last year’s crazy ride through the Polar Vortex — if my veggies could survive under fabric through -8 °F (-22 °C), then why bother with plastic?

I believe in the utility of fabric row covers so much that I’ve switched to them completely. I don’t even have any clear plastic on a back-up tunnel. Fabric row covers are essentially woven polypropylene after all — tough enough to offer plants protection, but yet still permeable to light and air (so there’s no need for venting). Through many years of winter growing and experimentation, I’ve simply learned which varieties of winter vegetables can survive under the relatively less-protected environs of a fabric-covered tunnel (and yes, I’m still experimenting!). Call me crazy, but I even started up a CSA this January! A big gamble, perhaps, but just look at how the garden is doing.

What gardening "under cover' looks like.

What gardening “under cover’ looks like.

Looking down on the garden on January 4th, 2015.

The covers removed on a mild day, revealing the bounty within.  January 4th, 2015.

One of those CSA boxes I delivered on January 12th. Baby greens salad mix, kohlrabi, root crops, and Red Russian kale.

One of those CSA boxes I delivered on January 12th. Baby greens salad mix, kohlrabi, root crops, and Red Russian kale.

Almost all of the cabbages in this central bed have been harvested, revealing another benefit of the fabric-covered low tunnels: Check out how soggy the walkways are, but the beds were dry enough on Feb. 1 for me to plant spinach, beets, and radishes.

Almost all of the cabbages in this central bed have been harvested, revealing another benefit of the fabric-covered low tunnels: Check out how soggy the walkways are, but the beds were dry enough on February 1st for me to plant spinach, beets, and radishes.

CSA member, Carolina, was so happy to get this Marabel overwintered cabbage from me, she posted it on her Facebook page.

CSA member, Carolina, was so happy to get this Marabel overwintered cabbage from me, she posted it on her Facebook page!

Two beds of baby salad greens last us and 5 CSA families through the winter. Photo Feb. 1.

Two beds of baby salad greens last us and 5 CSA families through the winter. Photo Feb. 1.

It won't be too much longer for purple sprouting broccoli! This overwintering type of broccoli usually produces for me in early April, but I'm predicting a mid-March harvest by what I'm seeing here.

It won’t be too much longer for purple sprouting broccoli! This overwintering type of broccoli usually produces for me in early April, but I’m predicting a mid-March harvest by what I’m seeing here. The difference? I usually leave it unprotected, but have it under medium-weight row cover this year.

All 3 varieties of leeks that are being trailed in this bed are looking great... so good, in fact, that I frequently leave them uncovered.

All 3 varieties of leeks that are being trialed in this bed are looking great… so good, in fact, that I frequently leave them uncovered… thus the frost.

I frequently leave the covers off after harvesting if only a mild freeze is predicted that night... I just love to watch frosted plants spring back to life later in the morning.

I frequently leave the covers off after harvesting if only a mild freeze is predicted that night… I just love to watch frosted plants spring back to life later in the morning.

A frost-kissed kohlrabi. Every frost is different, but each is magical to me.

A frost-kissed kohlrabi. Every frost is different, but each is magical to me.

These Austrian Winter Peas were direct-sown into the former Spigariello bed in late November -- not bad growth for the depth of winter.

These Austrian Winter Peas were direct-sown into the former Spigariello bed in late November — not bad growth for the depth of winter. 

Fabric row covers are ideal for schools. This winter gardener at Pikeville Elementary School harvests kale in late January that is destined for the cafeteria.

Fabric row covers are ideal for schools, too! This winter gardener at Pikeville Elementary School harvests kale on a warm day in late January.

 

A fair word of warning, however. Not all cold-tolerant plants fair so well under fabric. I love Hakurei turnips, but they can’t take dips into single digits (so I grow hardy Ice-Bred White Egg and Aprovecho Hardy Select, instead). Want spinach? The savoy types like Tyee are hardier. And watch out for carrots, Asian greens, radishes, cabbage, etc… some varieties turn to mush, while others thrive. Which varieties? That’s simply too much for a blog post, but I’ll have all the details soon (sign up here to be notified when my book is released).  

Additional Winter Gardening Resources:

These books are in my personal library, and I highly recommend them (these affiliate links cost nothing extra to you, but generate advertising fees that help me support this blog):

 

And more from me:

For more information about vegetables that you could be growing this winter, check out my Winter Vegetable Planting Guide, and guide to 10 Vegetables More Cold-Hardy Than Kale. And for more winter gardening resources from me, including how to build an inexpensive low tunnel, click the winter gardening tab above.

20 Comments

  1. Isis Loran

    February 3, 2015 at 1:02 am

    I agree frost is so beautiful and magical!
    I’m working fiercely on my planting dates for this upcoming season. I didn’t give many of the vegetables enough time to grow but our hot summers make it quite difficult too. Learning curve! I’m excited about this years winter garden! I seem to manage food until mid-December but it’s after then that we don’t have enough. Our struggle is definitely the heavy snow falls. It looks like maybe your snow comes and goes enough to not worry about long term collapsing. I think we might build have to build a sturdy wooden or metal greenhouse this year for year round instead of just the low tunnels. I need to upgrade our row covers too 😀
    Looking forward to your book!

    • Cathy

      February 3, 2015 at 10:30 am

      I think you’re wise to go with a sturdier structure with the amount of snow that you get. Good luck as you ramp up your winter production in the coming year!

      • Annette

        February 12, 2015 at 7:58 pm

        My husband and I built several raised garden boxes last Spring and had pretty good success with them. We have become inspired by all of the rich information you have given here! I was born in Floyd County, Ky and my husband was raised in Hazard, Ky. We live in Louisville, Ky. and love to garden. Where can we buy the fabric for our boxes?

        • Cathy

          February 18, 2015 at 6:28 am

          Glad to “meet” other folks from this area… wonderful! I use Gro-Guard 34, which I purchased from Deerfield Supplies in Elkton, Kentucky. I have also used Agribon-30, which you can order online from Johnny’s Selected Seeds. Good luck!

  2. April from Ohio

    February 3, 2015 at 5:47 am

    You’re writing a book! Yay! I signed up to be notified when it’s released. I agree that it would be far easier to not have to vent. It’s amazing how fast the temp goes up under plastic when the sun comes out. And maybe then I wouldn’t have the trouble with water pooling in the plastic and freezing.

    • Cathy

      February 3, 2015 at 10:28 am

      You are so right! Last year we got a big snow, and then an incredibly sunny day right after… I was frantically digging 8 inches of snow off the edges of the plastic so that I could vent the tunnels. It reached 80 F by 11 am, even though the ambient temperature was only 35 F!

      And thanks for signing up! 🙂

  3. Linda B.

    February 3, 2015 at 10:14 am

    Wow, Cathy, your winter garden looks just amazing. I love that you have had success with the fabric row covers vs. plastic! I have a planter on my deck with row cover on top, and still have been picking a few young collard, pea and broccoli leaves with our mild winter so far here in St. Louis (Zone 6). I might try that next year on a garden bed or two where the plants will benefit from being in the ground! It is so nice to avoid the overheating with the plastic, and in our area, it is hard to keep the plastic from blowing away. And your observation that it is less muddy in the bed is interesting for spring planting too. Thanks for the great post!

    • Cathy

      February 3, 2015 at 10:25 am

      Thank you for the feedback, Linda! Sounds like you are having a delicious winter. 🙂

  4. newbiegardengirl

    February 3, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    I did some winter gardening this year with plastic. It was too much to think about — when to uncover & cover back. I pulled my cabbages early b/c they were molding and my broccoli died one night when i forgot to cover the hoops. I ordered some row fabric to protect my brassicas this spring and I hope to be able to have winter gardening success next year. i LOVE your blog. It is so inspiring and the how-tos are great too! 🙂

  5. jim schmer

    February 3, 2015 at 7:51 pm

    love the article…what brand & weight fabric do you use for winter gardening?

    • Cathy

      February 3, 2015 at 8:18 pm

      Gro-Guard 34 from Atmore Industries (comparable to Agribon-30). I buy mine from Deerfield Supplies.

  6. jim schmer

    February 4, 2015 at 2:27 pm

    thanks again!!

  7. Texan

    February 4, 2015 at 9:03 pm

    I think the cloth would be good for me as well. I don’t think I would need the plastic. If I go with low tunnels I will go with the cloth. I have the big metal hoop frames over my garden rows and had planned to cover one with plastic to create a winter area. Life, work, etc .. it didn’t get done this year. I hope to have it done in time for next winter. Either cover one of the hoop frame with plastic with a door on each end for venting or do low tunnels in my raised beds and cover with fabric. Love seeing what your doing and all the info you share!

  8. Janet

    February 5, 2015 at 8:15 am

    Hi Cathy
    After reading about your winter gardening successes, I decided to try covering one raised bed. I planted kale, lettuce, beets, carrots, turnips, spinach, parsley and chives (probably too late last summer) and covered it with a cheap plastic drop cloth. I have had one night below zero so far in zone 6a and I am very pleased with the results. If I had started everything sooner last summer, I think I would have bigger plants. I haven’t had a problem using plastic because I am a stay-at-home wife and can cover and uncover as needed. I have a remote sensor under the cover and have not had any temps lower than 27 degrees. I am looking forward to spring growth to see what the little guys will do then. You can count me as a true winter gardening convert!
    Janet

    • Cathy

      February 6, 2015 at 6:41 am

      That is fantastic, Janet! Thank you for sharing your success story. Happy gardening!

  9. Pingback: Think Christmas in July: A Winter Gardening Giveaway

  10. sharon

    August 7, 2015 at 12:47 pm

    Maybe I missed it, but knowing your garden location would help me tremendously. I’m in Western CO.
    Thanks!

    • Cathy

      October 29, 2015 at 9:24 am

      Eastern Kentucky Mountains, zone 6b.

  11. Victoria

    August 31, 2015 at 8:49 pm

    Hi there, I just read that you used an AG-30 equivalent fabric to forego clear plastic about an hour after I ordered AG-19 to use on my own. I’m in zone 7a, with long commutes that have me returning home well after dark, so I’m thinking that running out into the darkness to recover my beds with the plastic might start to get old. Do you think I could cheat and double up on the AG-19? It doesn’t look like Johnny’s Seeds carries the AG-30 in 50 foot lengths. Love your blog!

    • Cathy

      October 29, 2015 at 9:16 am

      Hi Victoria. It depends on what you’re growing. Can you provide some more information?