How to protect your seedlings from frost and birds with simple, effective row covers
Last time I visited my SPIN farming block, I was very concerned to meet a family of wood-ducks who liked the look of my beds. I knew I had to get some row covers up over my onion seedlings as soon as possible! Had they been lettuce they would have been gone already.
I took some pictures while we worked to show you how you can also set up row covers to protect your plants from frosts and birds. I am using a lightweight fleece material to cover each row as it protects the plants while letting water through and they can also breathe.
The fleece is so light that more established seedlings will lift it up as they grow taller, eliminating the need for hoops. Personally, I prefer to use the hoops because the fleece will crush small seedlings. Also, birds are less likely to walk along the top of it (also crushing the seedlings) since many animals are deterred by wobbly structures (and perching on the hoops is not so much of a problem).
What I used:
- bright orange builder’s string to mark out the rows (I had already marked them out when I planted them)
- tape measure
- thin stakes (approx 60 for this large bed) made from various recycled materials including tent poles
- 20mm blue stripe irrigation pipe (cut into 1.7 m sections for hoops)
- 25mm blue stripe irrigation pipe for clips (cut into 8-10 cm sections for clips)
- Sanding block to smooth the clip edges (so they didn’t tear the cover fleece)
- light fleece material for the covers (available from farming suppliers or contact me if you are interested in buying some)
- a helpful wife (it’s much easier and faster to do this job with another set of hands)
How to do it
Here is a picture of 4 beds planted out with onion seedlings. They are marked out with high visibility builder’s string so I don’t step on any young seedlings. I adopted this technique after crushing too many young plants and it works exceptionally well. Once the plants are relatively mature (15-20cm) I will remove the string and undersow the entire area with a living mulch of white and red clover. If you want to learn more about living mulches and undersowing, read my previous article on the subject here.
Each bed is 75cm wide and there is a 30cm path between each row. This size makes the beds easy to straddle and move between when watering, feeding, and harvesting.
I placed stakes (made from various materials including recycled tent poles and 12mm metal bars) at even intervals (every 1.7 metres here) down each side of the row.
I used 20mm blue stripe irrigation pipe to make the hoops. I think this is the best pipe to use as it is the strongest and does not kink very easily. It costs approximately $50 for 50 metres. We cut 1.7 m sections of pipe so we had some good height on the rows. To make the hoops, you just fit each end of the pipe onto the stakes you’ve placed along the rows.
Measure out enough fleece cover so that you have a 1-2 m at each end to make sure it is easily closed off and tight.
Clever home-made clips
I wanted to clip the row cover neatly on to hoops using something that would be quick and easy to remove. Some people use rocks to hold down the covers but I didn’t want to have to carry rocks in and out from between 30cm wide paths. I also did not want to trip on the rocks on such a narrow pathway and risk falling on the hoops.
I saw somebody selling clips exactly for this purpose for $1.80 each but we needed 54 of them and I really wanted to avoid spending $100 just on clips!
I decided that I could make them myself. I had some leftover 25 mm irrigation pipe from another job. I cut 8-10 cm sections of pipe and cut a groove in the side so it was opened up. It could then clip snugly over the 20mm pipe hoops .
I cut out a 30mm groove from the 25mm pipe and it clipped the row cover perfectly however it tore the material. I decided to lightly sand the clip edges and this worked perfectly which saved me $100 on pre-made clips.
Once the clips are smoothed off and ready to use, start clipping the material working from one end of the row to the other. Gather the material at the hoop so there isn’t any slack along the ground between hoops. It’s virtually impossible to get the top of the rows taut without compromising the structure so don’t worry about trying. The important thing is that the fleece is taut along the ground so that it is hard for birds to get underneath.
The clips will fit nicely over the 20mm hoops and material, leaving neatly covered, adjustable row covers. Gather up the material at each end of the row and weigh it down with something heavy so it doesn’t blow off (or tie it and stake it if you prefer).
This cover will keep most birds out and will also trap some heat, making the seedlings grow much faster. When the warmer weather arrives the cover can be removed and replaced with a green 30% shadecloth. This will make growing leafy greens much easier in hot weather.
I have the fleece for sale for $2/metre, so if you are interested please contact me.