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.