The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

Weight and longevity of row-cover fabric

Melina's quick hoops
"what weight row cover are you guys using out there? we don't have near the harsh winters you've got but i do have several beds under low tunnels with agribon-19 on them just to keep things a bit warmer. i'm into my second season with this batch of fabric but it does tend to tear pretty easily---nothing a little duct tape won't take care of though. haven't figured out if it's less expensive to use the ag-19 or go with something heavier that might last longer."
--- melina w staal

I hope you don't mind me sharing the photo above from your blog, Melina. I get this question a lot, so I thought the answer deserved its own post.

Eliot Coleman did some research with different fabric weights and found that, counterintuitively, lighter-weight fabrics are actually better at protecting the plants underneath. The heavier fabrics block more sun, and it's really the sun-concentration effect that protects your plants, not the night-time quilting effect. So, go for the thinnest fabric, which in our experience (like yours) has been agribon-19. Yes, it might not last quite as long, but it will do a much better job in the interim.

Cutting row-cover fabric

I haven't done as much experimentation as Coleman has, but I did originally begin with thicker fabric, which I used on cold frames instead of quick hoops. I've since retired that cloth, though, because even though it doesn't tear as easily, it blocks way too much light to leave on plants 24-7. If you feel you need an extra layer of protection (which Melina shouldn't, but which northerners might), then a layer of greenhouse plastic on top of the quick hoops during the coldest part of winter will help. But you'll have to remove plastic during hot days since, unlike row-cover fabric, plastic won't breathe!

Finally, I should briefly address Nayan's comment, since she complained that her row cover fabric "didn't even last from spring into summer. They literally crumbled into dust." Row-cover fabric is fragile, but if you take care not to tear it and always put it away dry, I've found that the fabric easily lasts two years with no mending and three-plus years if you're willing to sew a little. We definitely have not experienced any crumbling into dust!

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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Thanks for the update on row covers. I had gotten brand new out of the plastic bag row covers and those were the ones that literally crumbled after about 3 months. A friend (who is now deceased) who was a professional chemist once told me that they now include corn starch in the plastic being produced because this causes the plastic to not last forever.

I now suspect that I had simply gotten a bad batch from the original supplier.

My main purpose for the row cover is to keep the blasted cabbage butterflies off the brassicas but I found that using old light-weight see-through curtains that I get from the thrift store works just as well and lasts a lot longer than a few years, and it's cheaper too!

Love your blog. :)

Comment by Nayan Wed Dec 3 10:15:38 2014
I use agribon-19 here in middle Tennessee, and have had good luck growing spinach, chard and lettuce all winter, although I do double the row cover. Last winter I also went out and threw some old quilts over the beds on the nights it dropped into the mid-teens. I don't weigh down or bury the edges of the row cover since the wind almost never blows here, so on warm sunny days I unclip and fold back the row cover to open the beds up to the sun.
Comment by Night*sky Wed Dec 3 12:35:37 2014

i really appreciate this kind of information, anna. thank you for sharing your knowledge and experience. i had wondered what role light transmission played---i think out here since i'm mainly using the fabric for a little extra push in growth during the colder part of the year anyway the more light getting in the better---very interesting that the lighter weight fabric works well at keeping things warm and protected in harsh climates. i think i'd benefit from reading a little more of coleman's stuff.
p.s. kind of neat seeing my photo on a well-known blog---especially a blog i enjoy so much.

Comment by melina w staal Wed Dec 3 14:55:41 2014

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