Re-usable row covers keep plants warm, repel destructive insects
• By Janine Pineo •
Why is there always a breeze when one is trying to maneuver giant, lightweight pieces of cloth?
So it was when the first big frost threatened in mid-September when I decided to haul out the row covers to protect the vegetables and flowers.
We have a history, the wind and I.
If you want a stiff breeze in the spring, just ask me to lay down the black plastic mulch over the newly plowed vegetable plot. It can be deadly calm as I prepare to pull the mulch from one end of the garden to the other. As soon as I start unrolling it, the leaves begin to rustle.
By the time I have walked the length of the plot, the mulch has caught some air and is either floating high into the sky or pulling to the east — the far, far east — while I try to jerk it straight down. Then I start throwing rocks and bricks on top in an attempt to keep it flush with the soil.
Inevitably during this tug of war, the dust that has collected along the bottom side of the mulch gets blown into my face until I am teary-eyed.
And that’s just the first piece.
I usually need about 12 strips to fill out the garden, leaving room for the two rows of potatoes somewhere in between.
There was the year the wind was so bad and the plastic drifted so far to the east that by the time I came to what I thought was the last length, it was so off-kilter at the back I had to lay another piece part-way down the row trying to square things to make it all look straight.
Then there was the year I got the whole thing down so it was ready to start planting the next day only to awaken in the morning to see that the wind had kicked up during the night and blown most of the mulch from under its rocks and bricks, leaving it to billow in the breeze.
I think that might have been the lone year there was no air movement when I was doing the actual work. I should have expected a sneak attack.
Since that year, however, I have taken to dropping across the plastic mulch the really big bean poles that I bought a few years back and don’t usually employ as bean poles (until this year’s battle royale with the beans that I covered in the August column). It usually works to keep the mulch down.
I don’t seem to have this problem when I am setting up the row covers for the cucumbers, squash and melons after I get them planted in the spring. The covers keep the nasty cucumber beetles from spreading their filthy diseases to my tender plants, and it means I don’t have to keep spraying the plants for weeks on end. The plants also get to stay toasty warm on any of those cooler nights; between the plastic mulch and the row cover, I have very happy little cucurbits.
Fast-forward to last week and it’s a totally different scenario.
First, the row covers I use in the fall are what one might call large. I bought this big roll of Agribon fabric from Johnny’s Selected Seeds a few years back and have used part of it every year since.
To start with, the fabric is 30 feet wide.
Yes, you read that right.
Then I cut it to the length of the garden, which is about 40 feet long, with enough added length on the ends so it can drape down over taller plants.
I believe we have entered “size of a sail” territory.
So there I was, with gracious help from my sister, trying to wrassle this giant piece of cloth over the plants. Before we even started, there was some air movement. But it seemed to pick up, shall we say, as we tried to pull the fabric across the west side of the garden, which is where the majority of the short plants are growing.
By the time I had cut a new piece from the roll to cover up the other half of the garden — where the tall plants are growing — we were in a stiff wind. We started to pull the row cover across the taller plants, but the wind kept plastering the cloth against the poles and the pole beans, making it close to impossible to lift the cover up and over.
Impossible, at least, until we got it up and over and then the whole thing turned into a parachute, surging into the air as we tried to tie it down or anchor it with very large rocks.
Oh, but the fun didn’t stop there.
I kept the row covers on until the weekend, when the forecast had the temperatures going up, seemingly for the next few days. As I was putting away the last big cover by squashing it back into its plastic bin, the container started to slide across the tiny slope of lawn at garden’s edge until I lost my balance and went headfirst into the bin and then onto the ground, tumbling over the bin and catching my feet in the loose row cover.
I stayed down for a while, contemplating life and wondering if I’d broken something or if I might be bleeding. Other than a cramp in my foot and a wrench of my hip, I was unscathed.
That was that, I thought, putting away the row cover and thinking that at the next mention of frost I would just let it all freeze.
My resolve lasted until the next Monday when a frost threatened again.
There I was, wrestling the giant row cover across the squash and peppers and up over the pole beans again.
But I wasn’t alone.
There should be another definition for “shoot the breeze.”
First published in the Bangor Daily News in October 2008.