How to build your own floating row covers, cheaply and easily

I just started transplanting to the garden the cold weather tolerant seedlings (broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage), and wouldn’t you know it? I made some unknown critter very happy.  It loved the tender leaves, and I’m sure it would have thanked me if only I’d been around to witness it.

I wouldn’t have responded by saying, “you’re welcome, eat all you like!” Nope, instead I’m taking action. I’m putting up floating row covers, and blogging about how to do it.

I had planned to put the covers up a few days after planting, but the critter (maybe a rabbit?) decided it was dinner time now.  It took about 2 hours to build the structures and put the covers over them — efforts that are well worth it if you want to keep your plants alive and out of the mouths of hungry creatures. It also helps to keep away all sorts of bugs that will savage your plants.

Let’s walk through the basics of how to do it.

Materials

Row Cover: Floating row cover is a very willowy material, kind of like a very light cloth. It allows water to pass through and is a little bit tougher than paper, but not by much tougher. It can tear easily.

Years ago when I first starting using it, it was expensive and generally available only in narrow widths. Now it’s pretty cheap and comes in all kinds of widths. The best width for gardening purposes is 5 feet. The length is up to you — generally they sell it in 25-foot, 50-foot and 100-foot lengths. It’s about $12 per 25 feet length. For my project, I needed about 50 feet.

Wood: You need to build a structure to keep the row cover from sitting on top of your plants and essentially crushing them. Because floating row covers are so lightweight, you don’t need to go nuts buying heavy-duty wood. I get the cheap 1×3 strapping material, which runs about $1.25 or so per 8-foot piece. You need about 3 pieces of strapping for each 8-foot-long section.

You’ll also need a 2×6 piece of wood. An 8-foor long section will probably be enough.  That will cost you about $4.

Screws: You’ll need a bunch of screws, about 8-10 per 8-foot section. I prefer to use the 1.25-inch drywall screws, because they screw into wood nicely. This will run you about $5 for a box of way more screws than you need.

Tools: The basic tools are a hammer, a power screwdriver, and a saw of some type. I use an electric circular saw, but any saw will do the trick. And a sledgehammer is better than a hammer, at least for this project.

Design

The design is very basic. First you build a handful of simple supports that look something like the legs of a sawhorse. Let’s start by building the piece that is the central building block of their form.

Take the 2×6 piece of wood and cut it into triangle-like shape that has 45-degree sides and is about 5 inches wide at the top, wide enough so the 1×3 pieces of wood can sit comfortably on the top. If you’re a math major, you’re saying, “aha, he means a trapezoidal shape.” I’m not a math major so I had to look itIMG_1414.JPG up. But yeah, it’s a trapezoid.

Then, cut one of the pieces of strapping into 2-foot-long sections. These are the legs.  Next, screw them into the trapezoids.

You need to make a handful of these things (I’m going to call them sawhorse pieces), depending on how long the floating row cover tent is that you intend to build. You need one for every 8 feet of length — so if it’s 8 feet long you need 2, if it’s 16 feet long you need 3, if 24 feet long you need 4, etc….

Now it’s time to bring all this stuff out to the garden and start building the tent structure.

Building

Did I mention it should be a windless day? Unless you want to provide your family and neighbors with some cheap entertainment — i.e., you getting wrapped up in billowing sails of rowcover and chasing it all over the yard — do this on a nice calm day.

Start off by planting your seedlings. I plant them about 3 feet apart in a zigzag fashion. Keep in mind that whatever you plant, it has to fit under the tent structure and you have to allow for some headroom.

Next. put up your first “leg.”  Push it a little ways down into the ground, like an inch or so. Then put an 8-foot piece of strapping next to it. Put up another leg at the end of the 8-foot strapping. Now you have something that looks kind of like a saggy sawhorse. You want to eliminate that sag by driving a short post into the ground halfway between the 2 sawhorse pieces. The post will support the strapping at its midpoint and will prevent the sag. Next, use your power screwdriver to secure the strapping to the sawhorse pieces. Keep repeating this pattern for however long you need the structure to be in order to cover over your tender plants.

Applying the row cover

Once youIMG_1415 have the structure built, you can put the row cover over it. If you’ve followed my clever design closely, you’ll discover that the row cover material covers it perfectly, and has about 8 inches to spare all the way along the length. This excess material you’ll either bury a ways into the ground, or you’ll put something heavy on top of it to hold the material down.  I’ve been using old metal stakes; just laying them on top of the material.

And that’s it. Well, unless you decide to put down mulch before you put the row cover down.  putting the mulch down is a good idea, but the ground was too soggy when I built my structure.

Final notes

It’s best to uncover your row cover about every week or so to see what’s going on under it. Chances are there’s a lot of weeds sprouting. and maybe some pests got in underneath it. You’ll want to stay on top of that.IMG_1418

I discovered that my cat Big Mack thinks that the row cover is the perfect thing to sit on after he’s imbibed a large share of his favorite catnip snack, which is located on a big plant about 5 feet away. He managed to rip a nice big hole in the row cover and staggered around inside the tent, in his stoned state of mind. Occupational hazard I guess. Oh and by the way, we’ll be selling this highly effective catnip on the stand this summer, called Big Mack’s Stash. If you have a cat, he or she will love you for getting it (if he/she can remember afterwards).

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood organic food stand in Amesbury, Mass. Like his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods to keep up with what’s for sale on the stand.

 

 

 

Update: Taking steps to control winter moths

A few weeks ago I blogged about how to prevent winter moths from damaging — or destroying — your flowering trees, fruit trees and blueberries. And while that advice fit the strategy for a typical spring, we’ve not had a typical spring. So here’s an update on what to do, given the unusual weather conditions we’ve had.

What’s been unusual? It’s been far colder than normal, and we’ve had a lot of precipitation. This has made it hard to employ the first major step in an anti-winter-moth campaign: applying insecticidal soap or dormant spray oil. Both of these compounds need to be applied when its cold but the weather is also dry for a period of days, and that combo hasn’t happened.

So now it’s too late to apply them. We’re approaching mid April and buds are starting to swell. Both of those sprays will damage your fledgling buds.

Time to move to phase 2 — applying Bacillus thuringiensis, or bt for short. It’s an organic compound that can be sprayed directly onto your bushes and trees. It won’t hurt the buds at all; instead it will help to kill any winter moth larva that try to eat your buds.

This is a perfect time to apply it. The next few days will be unseasonably warm and dry, which will cause buds to accelerate their growth. It will also be a wake-up call for winter moth eggs to hatch. Best to get them while they are young. For details on what to buy and how to spray, check out my previous blog on the matter.

You may be able to get a couple of sprayings in before the rains return near the end of next week. That  will put a nice dent in the winter moth infestation. After that, try to spray every 3-4 days. It will be worth it!

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farm stand in Amesbury. To keep on top of what the farm is offering, like the Facebook page https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods

A fiery and fun end to all those branches in your yard

Brush fire

Just before this latest unwelcome round of slushy snow piled in, I started the annual spring yard cleanup. Like a lot of people, I discovered that this year I’m facing a much bigger mess than usual.

There are hundreds, or maybe thousands, of tree branches scattered all over the place. They range from 20-foor-long branches to just a few inches. Dead branches, live branches, branches that traveled over 100 feet from their tree — this was a brutally windy winter that did a real number on trees. I’ve never seen it so bad.

So cleanup begins. To get rid of branches you usually have 4 options — hire someone to do it, gather it up yourself and take it to your town’s yard waste dump, dump it yourself in a remote corner of your yard, or — my favorite — pile it up and burn it.

Brush burning is maybe the last caveman/cavewoman activity that is legally permitted in our modern life. Think about it — for thousands of years humans built big fires, and they got to be pretty good at it. Nowadays, most people don’t really know anything about how to get a rip roaring fire going. There’s some tricks to it that take practice to master.

Why burn a brush fire?

Here’s a few reasons why you should burn your brush:

  • You’ll get rid of it fast, and if you are a good fire builder/tender, there will be almost nothing left.
  • What’s left is a little pile of ash that makes for excellent fertilizer.
  • You’ll provide your neighborhood with instant and cheap entertainment, except for the guy/gal/guys/gals whose house(s) gets filled with smoke. Be sure to invite them over and let them throw their branches on your fire.
  • You will get the caveman satisfaction of building a tiny, wobbly fire into an awesome conflagration. You’ll be there for hours, fully entertained. You’ll love it and you’ll want to do it again tomorrow.

The law

Most towns allow you to have open burning fires. The restrictions are set by the state, though some towns throw in additional laws. In general, the season runs from Jan. 15 to April 30, and you need to get a permit from your local fire department. You can burn brush that fell or was cut from trees, as well as garden/orchard clippings. You can’t burn leaves, garbage, demo debris, tree trunks, and stuff like that. You can start burning at 10 a.m., and the fire has to be out by 4 p.m. Your fire must be at least 75 feet from a structure, and you need a nearby source of water, like a garden hose, just in case things get out of hand.

The setback from structures makes it legally impossible for a lot of people to have a brush fire, although a lot of people do it anyway. I think most fire departments will let you wiggle on that one as long as you have a safe fire, and you don’t create a nuisance.

Even if you have a permit, you can’t necessarily have a brush fire. The local FD decides whether to allow burning on a given day based on the weather conditions. You have to call the FD on the day you plan to burn in order to get permission for that day. In general, they don’t allow burning on really windy or cloudy/stormy days. Burning usually isn’t allowed on cloudy days because in theory, the smoke hovers close to the ground and annoys the neighborhood.

Setting your fire

So how do you go about getting a good fire going? It starts with stacking your wood just right. I try to create a tent-shaped structure that has lots of gaps for air to get in. You want to be sure to give the fire lots of room to breathe and suck in oxygen. A tightly-packed pile is a non-starter. Green branches won’t burn terribly well (at first anyway), so you want to be sure to have plenty of dead and dry wood in there. If you have a dry Christmas tree or evergreen branches, you’ve hit the pyro jackpot. That stuff will go up in a big blaze of glory.

Be sure to locate your pile in a good spot — as far as possible from neighbors, and in a relatively clear spot. It’s ok to have trees overhead as long as the fire isn’t going to reach the branches. If you build your fire near a pine tree, you’ll have an epic disaster on your hands.  Whatever is growing under the pile won’t be alive once it’s done. That grass or whatever will be completely fried and gone, and will need to be replanted.

I think an adequately-sized pile is about 4-5 feet tall and about 8 feet in diameter. If you have more brush than that, set it to the side and add it once the fire gets to the furnace stage.

I start my fire with some newspaper, cardboard, and some scrap lumber. I build that little fire on the edge of the big pile, close enough so some of the big pile is directly in its burn area. If you were in the boy scouts or girl scouts, try to retrieve that long-buried knowledge of how to start a fire — start with the small stuff and gradually add more material. Once you light your fire, you need to stay right on top of it — add material to it, but not too much.  This can be tricky, because usually a fire is pretty lazy.

A nice hot furnace

Often a fire doesn’t really want to get going, it prefers to sputter along for awhile. So you need to make it get going.  Sometimes it fools you into thinking it’s going well, like when you see a nice flare-up. Chances are that flare-up will quickly become a flare-down, unless you nurse it along.

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Here’s 2 brush piles before I lit them up. They are about 5 feet tall and 8-10 feet in diameter.

 

 

IMG_1392
Here’s what’s left after the fires are pretty much out. I also added the equivalent of 1 more pile when the fires were in full “furnace” mode.

Your fire is not really going good until you detect 3 things — the flame is a clear orange flume that shoots up about 3-6 feet in the air (not to brag, but…some of my proudest fires had 10-foot flumes), it’s throwing off enough heat so it feels hot when you get within 5-10 feet of it, and the branches are crackling loudly and nicely.  That transition can happen suddenly. Once it does, you’ll be very happy. You just created an awesome fire, way bigger and more entertaining than a fireplace fire.

 

At this point, that fire will burn just about everything you throw on it — wet branches, green branches, wet logs — it’s basically an open furnace. You’ll want to have a good shovel on hand to push in the remnants of branches and half-burned sticks that are on the outskirts of the hot mound of coals at the fire’s base. Keep feeding it.

Don’t take any dumb shortcuts, like throwing gasoline on the fire. That’s illegal. Even a caveman wouldn’t do it. First of all, it doesn’t do what you think it will do. It creates an enormous flare-up that usually flares down just as quickly. Secondly, fire will travel up that stream of gasoline, right to you. You can guess what happens next.

Invite the neighbors

You can be guaranteed that your fire will send billows of smoke all over the place. That’s why you’ve got to build it away from houses, and invite the neighbors over. We usually draw a small crowd to our fires, and the neighbors (whose houses are probably engulfed in smoke) bring branches and beer, and sometimes hot dogs. And everyone is happy. The caveman deep inside all of us gets a nice wake-up call.

fire
Here’s a fire with a nice “furnace” glow. This one is pretty hot, and it will burn anything you throw on it.

 

Your fire will probably burn for hours, and the embers will keep glowing for a day or more. If you want to thoroughly extinguish the fire, you need to spread the embers out and dose them with water.

I usually let the embers keep burning, in order to get rid of nuisance trunks and logs. Those embers will also gradually burn through any big logs you throw onto them. It’s amazing how efficiently they burn through huge chunks of wood.

Once the fire is completely out, you’ll have a fairly small pile of ash. Really small, compared to the amount of stuff you burned. The ash is ideal for your garden or yard.

That’s a brush fire, in a nutshell. So if you’re tired of watching your TV shows and regular “programs,” and you want to revisit the best part of being a caveman (or cavewoman), light a brush fire.

John Macone operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood farmstand in Amesbury, Mass. To keep up on what’s for sale at the farm like his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/