Row Cover Vegetable Production Techniques
Revised by Stephanie Walker
College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences, New Mexico State University
Author: Extension Vegetable Specialist, Department of Extension Plant Sciences, New Mexico State University. (Print Friendly PDF)
Protected agriculture is any technique used to modify a plant’s natural environment in order to optimize plant growth (Jensen and Malter, 1995). Such techniques are often used to protect plants from frost in order to extend the growing season of a crop. Through earlier crop production, growers are able to capitalize on early markets and higher prices.
One of the more popular techniques used by commercial growers to extend the growing season of a crop is the use of row covers. Row covers are generally made of flexible transparent to semitransparent materials. They are used to enclose one or more rows of plants in order to enhance crop growth and production by increasing both air and soil temperatures and reducing wind damage (Hochmuth et al., 2000).
Frost protection. Depending on the material, row covers can deliver a frost protection factor of 2–7°F. Generally, the heavier materials (spunbonded polypropylene) give greater frost protection but tend to exclude more light. Row covers can also be used with some crops in the fall for late frost protection.
Early yields. The greenhouse effect of most row covers will not only warm air surrounding the plant but will also result in warmer soil temperatures, enhancing seed germination, root growth, shoot growth, and maturity. Early crop production generally results in higher crop prices at local markets. When combined with black plastic mulch, many crops may mature one to three weeks earlier than under normal cropping practices. However, increased costs generally limit use to high-value horticultural crops.
Increased yields. Many cucurbits (squash, cucumbers, melons) respond well under row covers, with increased yields of as much as 25% (Helbacka, 2002). Earlier production of cool-season crops like spinach and leaf lettuce will also increase total yields. Earlier cane growth of everbearing red raspberries in the spring will result in earlier production in late summer to early fall and increased total yields for areas of New Mexico with a short growing season. Other crops that have responded well to row covers include tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, cauliflower, strawberries, sweet corn, cole crops, and peas.
Wind protection. Row covers supported with wire hoops will protect crops from wind and blowing sand. This will result in less plant stress and reduced desiccation of delicate early growth. Row covers will also protect crops from hail and pounding rain. However, unsupported floating row covers can rub on plants and damage the leaves, stems, or flowers.
Pest control. Lightweight floating row covers are often used to cover some crops in the spring to protect them from insects. Edges of the cover must be covered with soil to ensure exclusion of insects. This will result in less use of insecticides and less frequency of insect-borne diseases. Floating and supported row covers can also be used to protect plants from birds.
Water conservation. Less irrigation may be required under row covers since water collects as condensation on the inside of the cover and returns to the soil. Less crusting occurs since wind movement and water evaporation are reduced. However, overall water use may increase since crop growth is earlier and greater and occurs over a longer period of time.
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Cost. Costs associated with growing crops under row covers depend on the type of crop, row spacing, and type of row cover. Crops requiring a supported row cover will incur greater costs associated with wire hoops required for support versus using a floating row cover. Rows with closer spacing will require more material for supported tunnels. There is also a big difference in the cost of materials. Heavier materials tend to be more expensive. Additional labor costs can also be quite significant. Costs can be reduced by using row cover materials with protective coatings and ultraviolet light inhibitors so that such materials can be reused.
Pests. Although row covers are often used to exclude insects, any insects that do enter the covered area can multiply very quickly in such a favorable environment. Weeds can also flourish, especially if the area has not been treated with an herbicide or covered with a plastic mulch. The row cover may have to be pulled back to allow for hand weeding. The row cover may also have to be pulled back during bloom (e.g., cucurbits, strawberries) to allow bees to pollinate the plants.
Labor. Using row covers, especially the supported tunnels, requires considerably more labor input earlier in the season than traditional production techniques. This is particularly true if the row cover has to be occasionally removed to weed, apply insecticides, or allow for pollination. Machines are available for establishing hoop-supported row covers.
Row Cover Types
The three most popular row cover techniques are plastic-covered trenches, floating row covers, and hoop-supported row covers or low tunnels. Row covers are generally made of polyethylene (poly), polyester, or polypropylene. Polyethylene may be clear or pigmented and either stretched across a trench or supported by wire hoops. It may also be vented or unvented. Fabric-like polyester or polypropylene materials are generally spunbonded or nonwoven. Both may be left to float on the surface of the soil or can be supported by wire hoops.
Plastic-covered trenches allow for early seeding and plant growth, and provide some frost protection (Jensen and Malter, 1995). Polyethylene is generally stretched across a trench about 7 inches deep. A mechanical mulch layer can be used to apply the plastic, mounding soil along the edges of the bed to keep the plastic taut. The application of a pre-emergence herbicide is important to control weeds.
Periodic holes can be made in the plastic as temperatures rise in the trench. The plastic should be removed when plants first come in contact with the bottom of the row cover.
Floating row covers
Floating row covers are often used to protect both cool-season and warm-season crops. Made of spunbonded polyester or polypropylene, covers may range in width from 5–50 feet and up to 800 feet long. In the manufacturing process, the polyester or polypropylene is extruded or spun in a web onto a collection belt. The small-diameter filaments are then heat and pressure treated to form a thin, whitish sheet of porous fabric (Vaughn, 1992). Covers may range in weight from 0.3–2.0 oz/square yard. Row covers from 0.5–1.25 oz/square yard will give 2–6°F frost protection in the spring. More frost protection may be realized during the fall due to warmer soils. Row covers weighing 1.25 oz/square yard will generally transmit enough light (70%) for optimal plant growth with good frost protection. Lighter-weight materials that provide minimal frost protection are generally used to protect crops from insects and birds.
Floating row covers are generally applied loosely over the top of the crop and secured along the edges with fabric pins and/or soil. Insect control is more effective when the sides are completely sealed with soil. Covers should be applied when there is minimal wind. Allow the cover to drape over the crop, leaving room for crop expansion. Floating row covers should not be applied over one-stemmed crops like peppers, tomatoes, eggplant, or even squash since stems can be broken on windy days.
Spunbonded polyester and polypropylene have the advantage over polyethylene in that they don’t usually have to be vented. Air and water will pass relatively freely through spunbonded covers.
Hoop-supported row covers
Unlike floating row covers, hoop-supported row covers or low tunnels are supported by wire hoops, eliminating abrasive damage to the crop associated with floating row covers. Hoops are generally made from 9- to 10-gauge galvanized wire 48–60 inches long, spaced 4–5 feet apart in the row. Wires are generally shaped to form an arch. Wider tunnels will generally result in greater warming but are more vulnerable to wind damage (Jensen and Malter, 1995). Crops are often irrigated with drip irrigation to help conserve moisture and reduce weed populations.
California System. The California System of hoop-supported row covers involves two sheets of 36-inch-wide, 1.5-mil clear polyethylene supported by wire hoops spaced 5–7 feet apart. Edges of the plastic are secured with soil. Wooden stakes approximately 30 inches long and 1 inch in diameter are spaced at 10- to 25-foot intervals in the bed. A 16-gauge wire is stapled to the top of the stakes, and edges of the plastic are clipped together at the wire with clothespins. Covers are closed and opened manually (Hochmuth et al., 2000). Hoops are generally attached to the wooden stakes and wire for greater stability under windy conditions. A second set of wire hoops may be placed over the top of the tunnel, allowing the plastic to slide down between the hoops when venting (Jensen and Malter, 1995).
Perforated plastic tunnels. Solid plastic tunnels must be vented in some way to prevent heat damage to plants. Venting can be very time-consuming and a major problem in windy weather. Perforated plastic allows for ventilation without removing the plastic and reduces damage from wind. Perforations are generally 3/8 inch in diameter (74 holes/square foot), but may vary with manufacturer. Slit row covers have the same effect. Very little water condensation occurs under perforated plastic covers. There is generally less frost protection under perforated and slitted row covers than under a solid cover.
Spunbonded fabric tunnels. Spunbonded polyester and spunbonded polypropylene fabric tunnels are two of the more popular row cover tunnels since they don’t have to be vented and don’t tear as easily as polyethylene. Edges are secured with fabric pins and/or soil.
Row Cover Removal
Row covers are often applied three to four weeks before crops are normally planted to encourage growth enhancement or for frost prevention. Row covers must be removed at bloom for fruiting crops to encourage bee or wind pollination. Higher temperatures later in the season may reduce quality for cool-season crops, necessitating the removal of the row covers. Extremely high temperatures that develop later in the season under row covers can also reduce production of crops like tomatoes and peppers.
Helbacka, J. 2002. Row covers for vegetable gardens [Fact Sheet No. 19]. Renton: Washington State University, King County Cooperative Extension Service.
Hochmuth, G.J., S. Kostewicz, and W. Stall. 2000. Row covers for commercial vegetable culture in Florida [Circular 728]. Gainseville: University of Florida Cooperative Extension Service.
Jensen, M.H., and A.J. Malter. 1995. Protected agriculture: A global review [World Bank Technical Paper, No. 253]. Washington, D.C.: The International Bank for Reconstruction and Development, The World Bank.
Vaughn, E.A. 1992. Nonwoven fabric primer and reference sampler. Carey, NC: INDA Association of Nonwoven Fabrics Ind.
For Further Reading
H-149: Marketing Alternatives for Small- to Medium-sized Family Farms and Ranches
H-252: Hoop House Vegetable Production
CR-606: High Tunnel Hoop House Construction for New Mexico
Original author: George W. Dickerson, Extension Horticulture Specialist.
Stephanie Walker is Extension Vegetable Specialist, and has extensive experience in the food processing industry. Her primary research interests include genetics and breeding of chile peppers, vegetable mechanization, enhancing pigment content, post-harvest quality, and irrigation efficiency. She works to help commercial vegetable growers enhance the sustainability and profitability of their operations through collaboration, experimentation, and information sharing.
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Revised October 2019 Las Cruces, NM