Thursday, December 2, 2010

Making Inexpensive Floating Row Covers

We're pretty new to this whole gardening thing, but I knew I wanted to make some sort of cold frames or floating row covers in order to try to protect some of our vegetables this winter. It's a learning experience to say the least. About a week ago, on the night our first freeze (and thus a pretty strong cold front) was creeping towards us, Jason and I realized we wouldn't be able to put it off any longer. So at 10pm that night, we headed out to the garden to try to turn it into a greenhouse of sorts. Of course it was dark and very windy. Not good conditions to try and stretch plastic over the structure we made out of 1" PVC irrigation pipe. It quickly became apparent that our plans were just too grand in scale to execute on such short notice. We were never able to completely cover the structure, and within 2 days the cover had blown off of the frame. On to plan B.

You can see in this picture part of our original "greenhouse" -
made out of 1 inch PVC pipe

I recently checked out from the library two great books by Eliot Coleman - The Winter Harvest Handbook and Four-Season Harvest. I highly recommend them both. He discusses how to inexpensively make floating row covers out of 1/2" metal electrical conduit. I had to return something to Home Depot and decided to take a peak. Turned out Mr. Coleman was right, metal conduit was inexpensive (under $2 per 10' x 1/2" section). But you pretty much need a special bending device in order to make the straight poles the appropriate shape. They seem to cost anywhere from about $35 to $70 (Johnny's Select Seeds sells their version for $69). I didn't want to spend that right now. However, sitting right beside the metal conduit was 1/2" PVC conduit at only $0.88 for a 10 foot section. I purchased three for a whopping total of under $3 - figured I could spare that in the name of attempting to protect the fruits (or veggies as it were) of my labor.

So our three beds are each 4'x8'. Ideally I would place 4 PVC conduits in each bed. But since I only purchased 3 I didn't quite cover an entire 4'x8' bed. It was so easy. All I did was push the 1/2" pipe into the ground. Our beds are 12" high, so down the pipe went 12". I simply bent it over and pushed the other end into the opposite side of the bed. I didn't secure them in any way to the wood part of the bed itself. They fit in perfectly and seem sturdy enough. If you have a 6" high bed you may want to do some additional securing, but it fortunately wasn't necessary in our situation. The plastic is an old painter's tarp we had on hand. It's not too thick and probably won't quite do the trick in an extended deep freeze, but for our weather here in Dallas it seems near perfect.

Inside view of the floating row cover.
Not too impressive, but it does nicely protect what meager vegetables we do have!

I wasn't quite sure how I was going to attach the cover to the PVC. But while working on it and looking around our property, I realized I could use the wooden clothes pins from the laundry line. Turns out they fit over the conduit like a glove! However, as a warning, they don't ALL fit! We have two varieties for our laundry, and while the one works great, the other doesn't even come close to being able to open 1/2". So keep that in mind if you are going to try and reproduce our results! You can also purchase "Snap Clamps" from Johnny's if you want something more formal and perhaps slightly less ghetto!

It will be interesting to see how this lasts in our climate through the winter months. I don't think it could handle much snow, but unless we have a once in a generation Dallas snow storm like last year, I think we'll be OK. -Carrie

Note: For those of you interested in what is exactly planted in the bed in the last picture, it is as follows, from the back of the bed to the front:
  • Rainbow Swiss Chard - purchased & transplanted because the Rhubarb Swiss Chard I planted from seed didn't take.
  • Green Oakleaf Salad Bowl Lettuce - planted from seed but didn't take hardly at all. Pretty much only grew on the right side of the bed, and even then not very well.
  • Red Sails Lettuce - planted from seed, by far the best producer this year.
  • Red Oakleaf Malawi Lettuce - planted from seed, sort of the same results as the salad bowl except it mainly grew on the left side of the bed.
  • 4 Green Salad Bowl Mix - got for free as transplants. They've only been in the ground for about two weeks. They are in the middle & left of the very front of the bed.
  • Kale, 1 single plant - also got for free as a transplant. On the very right in the front, almost out of the picture.
All of the lettuces & chard I planted with the intention of using them as cut & come again. Since it's the first time I've planted lettuce it will be interesting to see just how many times I can come back. The Red Sails has already been cut twice but is coming back strong yet again.


  1. How do you find the time, what with studying, raising 3 kids and being a wife? You amaze me!

  2. Shouldn't you be studying and at least trying to get a few good grades? Instead of being out at all hours of the day and night? Signed: Proud PaPa

  3. What Pigs Don't KnowDecember 2, 2010 at 6:52 PM

    TSF - That's the beauty! Everyone should be making these row covers - it literally only took about 5 minutes! Of course writing the post took 30+ minutes, but that's another story!

    Proud PaPa - Haha!

  4. I'll have you know that she made a perfect grade on her test today. "Only one in recent history," says the prof! Go Carrie!!! -Jason

  5. What Pigs Don't KnowDecember 2, 2010 at 8:16 PM

    Aw, shucks! I can't believe you're mentioning this here! Plus, Proud PaPa already knows - I told him about it this afternoon! Thanks for the love though, hon! -C

  6. I found this post when I searched for "row covers home depot" Thanks for the interesting post and information about cheap row covers. I am looking for row covers because our spinach is not liking this hot spring we are having in georgia. I want to shade it some. Do you think your suggestion regarding the pvc or metal conduit fabric would work?

  7. Wish the photos were still up :(

  8. I don't get it. you put pipes (conduit, or Pvc) in the ground and that keeps out birds? That is your cheap "Floating" row cover? There are no pictures, and you do not say what you put over it. I assume nothing. Just air. No plastic, your "inexpensive floating row cover" is just air? simply pvc pipes in the ground that you put clothespins on?