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.

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