Using fabric row cover as a pest protection is an effective and organic method for keeping many common garden pests off your crops.
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Gardens have bugs, that’s just part of life in a garden! But when bugs get out of control that’s when the problems start. Everyone will have different pest problems depending on the time of year and where you live. In our garden, we have two major pest problems that can be quite effectively prevented by Using fabric row cover as a pest protection. Those two bugs are aphids and leaf miners. Oh, how I hate these two bugs! We will see an occasional squash bug or maybe a tomato hornworm, but aphids and leaf miners are the trouble makers for us. Fortunately fabric row cover is very effective for both!
Using fabric row cover as a pest protection
The concept behind this is simple. You use lightweight fabric row covers over the tops of your crops. You can either place the row covers directly on top of your beds or you could also use a frame or hoop system to suspend the row cover slightly above the plants, as you see in this picture below. The lighter grades of fabric row covers let 90 to 95% of the light and rain through, but keeps ALL the bugs out!
Using fabric row cover as a pest protection is an organic method
It is important to us, that we don’t use chemical pesticides in our garden. There are two reasons for that, first, we don’t want the chemical residue on our produce. Second . . . Bees! Most pesticides just kill everything in sight! We don’t want that. Our garden is full of beneficial insects like bees, mantis and ladybugs. Indiscriminately spraying kills everything, and we need to be protecting beatifically insects (especially the bees)! So using fabric row cover as pest protection is the perfect choice for us!
What bugs will row covers keep out?
I guess the first thing I should say here is like any other method, using fabric row cover as pest protection isn’t perfect. It won’t keep every bug out! But using row covers will cause a significant decline in the pest population in your garden. I have found it particularly helpful to keep out the smaller, less mobile bugs like leaf miners and most aphids. The row cover creates a barrier that keeps the mature egg-laying bugs out. I have also found it keeps cabbage loopers from laying eggs on your Cole crops.
Row covers do okay keeping out larger bugs like squash bugs and grasshoppers. But it seems like those larger, more determined bugs can some times find their way inside the cover. Keep in mind that row covers will also keep out beneficial bugs. This is especially important to keep in mind with plants that need bees and butterflies to pollinate flowers. So you may only be able to use a row cover on plants like squashes and melons until the plants start blooming. Once you start seeing flowers you need to get those covers off so the bees can find them!
When should you put the covers out
I try to get my covers out as quickly as possible. If I am setting out seedlings in the spring I will put the row covers on as soon as I plant. If I am planting by seed then I will wait until the seedlings emerge and get the covers on as soon as the new seedlings have their first set of true leaves.
The key here is the sooner the better! Set up the barrier to keep the bugs out, before the bugs are even around!
How to set things up
My system is pretty simple, for most crops I stick a few stakes in the ground around the bed to help support the fabric. I then put some bottles upside down on those stakes (learn more about why I put bottles on the stakes here). Then I just hold the edges down with a few PVC pipes or old fence posts. Pretty simple and it works well for shorter crops.
I have also been known to do makeshift tepee’s over new seedlings by running some bailing twine (A gardeners best friend) between some taller stakes and then again holding the fabric down with pipes or fence posts. This structure isn’t meant for long term use, but just for short term until the plants underneath can take the weight of the fabric (and any snow if it is early in the spring).
But I’m kind of a red neck when it comes to these things, I just cobble things together. You can also get fancy and attach your fabric to a hoop house or wire structure underneath. Since this isn’t something I normally do, I don’t have pictures. (Que the HBN blogging community) so I put out a request for photos and got these great examples from blogging friends.
This first example is from the folks over at Homestead honey. They have used PVC to create hoops and they are holding the fabric down with logs.
Sharon over at Simply Canning actually used the old legs from a trampoline to support the fabric. This is a pretty clever idea!
She did warn that you need to watch out for sharp edges!
What weight (or grade) of fabric should you use
Fabric row covers were originally designed to provide frost protection in the garden. So you have to be careful what weight you purchase. When using fabric row cover as pest protection you want to use the lightest weight possible. Many of the lightweight fabrics will allow 90 – 95% of the sunlight through and most of the rain, while still keeping bugs out. This is the weight you should use.
Lighter weight fabrics have very little frost protection value (maybe only a degree or 2). But they are super for keeping bugs out, while still allowing the plants underneath to grow.
Do not use the heavier frost blankets for pest protection. The heavy fabrics block 50% of the sunlight. This will pretty much shut down the growth of any plants underneath and also overheat your plants.
One disadvantage of the lighter fabrics is that they don’t stand up to the elements very well. Because they are so thin they tend to break down or get torn up a lot quicker than the heavy fabrics. Plan on having to replace the light fabrics every couple of seasons. One trick that might help is to buy it bulk! Row fabric is sold online in big rolls and it is much cheaper per foot that way.
This really does help
Since I have started using fabric row cover as pest protection we have seen a dramatic drop in the amount of damage we have from bugs. I don’t use them on every crop. In a healthy garden, most plants can fight off pest infestations on their own. But we do have a few pest problems that the fabric row cover has really helped. They are awesome for keeping both aphids and cabbage moths out of our spring and fall Cole crops.
When I get them out early and leave them on for most of the season we never see damage from these pests. They also are about the only solution for keeping leaf miners out of your leafy greens (like spinach, chard, and beets). There is no spray solution that is effective against leaf miners (because they are inside the leaf and protected from pesticides). So the only solution you really have it to keep them out using row fabrics!
I hope this post has helped you! I’ve tried to include as many links as I could to relevant articles. Also, you will find some affiliate links to Amazon and other sites where you can buy fabric row cover.
As part of my new weekly video series I’ve added a 5-minute video tip on using fabric row cover for pest protection: