Hoops and floating row covers are an invaluable tool in our organic garden! We use hoops and row covers to protect young sprouts and seedlings from the beaks of wild birds, to hang shade cloth over tender greens on abnormally warm days, to block out the dreaded white cabbage butterfly, and more! Truth be told, I was hesitant to use hoops and row covers in the past. I was worried they’d look unsightly… yet I have come to cherish them more than I ever thought I could!
Read along to learn all about using hoops and row covers in the garden. Hoops and row covers come in many shapes, materials, and styles. They can protect your garden in more ways than you likely imagine! While we primarily use ours as a means of organic pest control, many other gardeners rely on hoops and row covers to extend the growing season by protecting crops from frost or heat. Let’s talk about various row cover options and hoop styles, including DIY hoops! Last but not least, we need to address a potential drawback of using row covers – inhibiting pollinators.
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The Basics: What Are Hoops & Row Covers?
Individual garden plots, raised beds, or sections thereof can be shrouded with row covers. Also called “floating row covers”, their purpose is to block out or otherwise protect plants from undesirable elements. Meaning, some row covers are designed to stop insects. Others may have the purpose of shielding plants from excess sun or cold when needed. On an even larger scale, hoop houses (similar to greenhouses) can accomplish the same results.
Traditionally, hoops are used to support the cloth-like “blanket” material – at the gardeners desired height over the plants. Some covers are held even higher on other supporting structures, allowing space for tall plants (or even people!) underneath. Other gardeners skip the hoops and lay light row covers directly on top of the plants themselves. That is, as long as the plants are mature enough to not get toppled.
Options for Hoops & Row Cover Materials
Garden hoops can be made of metal, plastic, or other materials. You can purchase pre-made hoops, or make your own! We’ll talk more about various row cover material in the pest, shade, and frost sections to follow.
PVC Pipe Garden Hoops
One common method is to create DIY hoops from PVC pipe. Slender ½-inch PVC pipe can be bent in an arch over a garden plot or raised bed and then secured in place on each side. To add PVC hoops to a wood raised garden bed, you could attach the pipe directly to the bed with pipe straps (a more permanent installation). Or, create a sleeve for the hoop pipes to slide in and out of. That makes it easier to remove the hoops when not in use. For example, by attaching larger 1-inch wide pipe sections to the inside or outside corners of the raised bed, and then sliding each end of the smaller ½” hoop pipe into them. A similar design can be done with metal pipes, but you will definitely need a pipe bender tool for that!
We have not used PVC hoops so I don’t have personal detailed photos of the process. Yet is a common method and easy to find examples of online! Here is one article about PVC hoops from the folks at Peaceful Valley. They also happens to be on our list of Top 12 Places to buy organic garden seeds.
Pre-Made Garden Hoops
In our garden, we opted to outfit our raised beds with sleek metal wire pre-made hoops. I personally loved the no-fuss installation, lightweight material, and ease of taking them in and out of the beds as needed. They stack nicely in a neat pile when they’re not in use. Since the hoops have two rows of wire/stakes, the hoops can’t tip side to side. I also love the way they look in the garden!
The hoops we use from Gardener’s Supply Company come in two different sizes. We have the smaller hoop option. They fit perfectly over shorter plants in our 2, 3, and 3.5-foot wide raised beds. We need to use the base extenders for them to fit over our old 4.5 foot wide beds and still provide decent room below. In our newest 4×8′ raised beds, the standard super hoops fit okay on their own, but do stay more secure with the base extenders (plus, gain some nice additional height).
There is also a “high rise” super hoop option, perfect to cover even larger beds or taller plants like tomatoes. Hint: the high-rise option is simply two of the smaller versions that connect in the middle. Therefore, you can use them at either height/length! Again, we mostly use row covers over small seedlings and greens, so we don’t need a huge amount of space under them. Therefore we haven’t tried the high-rise option.
There are plenty of other pre-made hoops out there as well. Depending on the length of your garden bed and weight of the row cover material, you’ll want two or three hoops per bed. In a modest square bed (about 3-foot by 3-foot), we’ve found two hoops work perfectly. In beds longer than 5 feet, we prefer to use three hoops: two on the ends, and one in the middle to prevent the row cover from drooping.
How to Attach Row Covers to Hoops
Secure the row cover with any type of sturdy clip that fits around your chosen hoops, such as clothespins or binder clips. We love these durable metal clamps; they’re made to attach to larger PVC-type hoops, but clip snugly right on to the side of our raised beds! (Shown below). These mini clips are ideal for attaching the row covers right to our wire hoops. (We usually use a combination of both types.) For PVC hoops, you could also try these specialized clips. Tuck in the sides of the row cover down inside the bed. Or if needed, use bricks or other heavy objects to pin the row covers tightly to the ground. Especially if you’re trying to keep out small sneaky critters!
Other Ways to Support Row Covers
Classic hoops aside, there are many other ways to support row covers! For example, you could build a wood frame around your garden bed to hang row cover material from. I have also seen some gardeners put traditional stakes in the corners and center of their garden bed, add a tennis ball on top of each stake (to prevent the stakes from puncturing the row cover) and then drape the row cover over them. As I mentioned earlier, you can also gently lay row cover directly on top of plants, particularly if you’re in a hurry to protect them and don’t have hoop material available. Really, the options are endless if you think outside the box!
Using Hoops and Row Covers for Organic Pest Control
Hoops and row covers are an excellent choice for organic pest control. Acting as a physical barrier, they can protect plants from a wide array of pests – without the need for pesticides or other products.
If the right material is used (e.g. fine enough to keep out small insects), and the covers are kept closed and tucked in around the sides, hoops and row covers can effectively keep out cucumber beetles, squash bugs, leaf miners, and even smaller flying insects like whitefly or leafhoppers. Row covers also prevent cabbage white butterflies, squash vine borer moths, and tobacco or tomato hornworm moths from accessing the covered plants. If the adult moths and butterflies can’t get to the plants, they can’t lay eggs – which later would turn into pest caterpillars! Here is one example of a popular fine-mesh row cover material used as an insect barrier. We bought a large roll/sheet of it, and then cut it to fit our various beds as needed.
Hoops and row covers can protect your crops from far more than pest insects! Covering a garden area or raised bed is a great way to prevent larger critters from bothering your plants if they become a problem. For example, to keep out squirrels, rabbits, birds, skunks, opossums, rodents, deer, free-ranging chickens, or even neighborhood cats.
Groups of little migrating birds visit our garden each spring and fall. Though I think they’re adorable, their arrival always seems perfectly timed with our biannual crop switchover – when all the plants are tiny and fragile. Without row covers, the birds would pick off our seedlings in a matter of hours! We prefer to use insect netting for bird protection. Birds get tangled too easily in classic black bird netting. Plus, why not keep both insects and birds out at the same time?
Rather than draping hoops with fine netting material for insects, specialized shade or frost cloth can also be used.
Using Hoops and Row Covers to Shade Plants in Hot Weather
Shade cloth has the ability to keep the soil and plants below it significantly cooler than without. Shade cloth also reduces evaporation, keeping your soil moist and thus reducing the need to water as frequently.
We often use hoops and shade cloth to cover tender leafy greens like lettuce and bok choy when unseasonably warm weather hits, hoping to extend their life in our garden. Without it, they are more prone to bolting (going to flower and seed) and becoming bitter when exposed to high heat. The same applies to broccoli, cauliflower, radishes, spinach, and other cool season crops. Therefore, shade cloth allows spring-planted cool season crops to survive longer into the summer months. Gardeners in hotter climates like Arizona, Hawaii, Texas, or Florida may rely on protecting their garden with shade cloth all summer long! There, even heat-loving summer crops like tomatoes and squash appreciate some relief from the otherwise blistering sun.
Shade cloth comes in a variety of ratings, most often expressed by the percentage of UV rays it will block. Clearly, plants still need some sun to photosynthesize and grow! Shade cloth around 30 to 60% is usually ideal to both cool plants as well as allow adequate light through. 30% shade cloth is great for hardy heat-loving crops like tomatoes and bell peppers, while leafy greens may fare best with a higher rating. In addition to laying shade cloth over hoops, you can also support it high above your garden space on stakes or arbors, between trees, or even from your house roof. We also use it to shade a portion of our greenhouse when needed.
Should I use black or white shade cloth?
You’ll notice that shade cloth comes in black, white, green, and other colors too. White and light-colored shade cloth reflects the sun’s heat away. On the other hand, black and dark-colored shade cloth absorbs it. Both options effectively prevent some heat and sunlight from passing through to the plants below. However, I have read that black shade cloth behaves like a filter and deprives plants of more sunlight (and also provides less full-spectrum UV) than white shade cloth does. Therefore, black shade cloth may slow plant growth and flowering slightly in comparison to white shade cloth.
Despite this difference, black shade cloth appears to be far more common and readily available. Also note that flowering is more or less desirable with different plants! Slowing flowering is actually a good thing when it comes to leafy greens and brassicas. Yet with plants like tomatoes, peppers, and squash, better flower production means better fruit set. I honestly feel you can’t go wrong with either one, as long as you stick to a medium-low UV rating. See the white shade cloth we love and use here. It comes in a variety of sizes.
Extending the Season: Hoops & Row Covers for Frost Protection
Similar to shade cloth, frost cloth material can create a desirable microclimate for the plants below. In fact, frost cloth (aka garden fleece or frost blankets) can protect plants from frost damage even in outdoor temperatures as low as 20 degrees – depending on the type of material used! Frost blankets or garden fleece is available in various sizes, ratings, and thickness (see the chart below).
We use a fairly lightweight frost cloth (.55 oz) though cold climate gardeners would want to choose something thicker, such as this 1.2 oz cloth or this heavy-duty 1.5 oz frost cloth. Some even come in a dome-shape, ready to cover shrubs or small trees.
Using frost cloth row covers enables northern gardeners to start seeds outdoors earlier in the springtime, warming the soil for a more quick and successful germination. Frost blankets can also protect tender just-transplanted seedlings from cool spring nights or a sudden frost warning. At the end of the season, row covers can help mature plants continue to grow long after the first fall or winter frost.
When all else fails, you can also grab old bed sheets to protect plants if frost is in the forecast! Bed sheets aren’t quite as strong or guaranteed as specialized frost row covers, but on a chilly night, they’re better than nothing! If you secure sheets or row covers well enough on their hoops, they can also shield plants against hail, wind, or other inclement weather.
Related: 7 Ways to Protect Plants from Frost Damage. Please see this article for even more tips on using frost cloth (e.g. opening it during the day or not).
A Potential Drawback to Using Hoops and Row Covers: Pollinators
Maybe you’ve already considered it… but how will the pollinators get in if the plants are covered? Plants that rely on pollinators to set fruit, such as squash or cucumbers, are a bit trickier to protect than other crops. Therefore, hoops and row covers are most popular to prevent pests on young seedlings, leafy greens, brassicas (cabbage family), and root vegetables – all of which don’t need pollination.
However, it is still possible to use row covers for plants that do need pollination! You’ll just need to get creative and use a little personal trial-and-error. Keep those plants covered while they’re young. Then, once they begin to flower, you could either hand-pollinate, or open your row covers during key times of day when pollinators are active in your garden. Plants like tomatoes and bell peppers are usually self-fruitful and will do okay when covered.
Are you growing squash? Be sure to check out this article all about hand-pollinating zucchini and squash plants. Row covers or no row covers, we always hand-pollinate our squash to prevent end rot – even with plenty of bees buzzing around our garden.
And those are some of the ways to use hoops and row covers.
What do you think? Do you already use hoops and row covers in your garden? Or will this be a new and exciting addition for you? In all, I hope you found this article to be useful and interesting. As you can see, hoops and row covers can be incredibly useful AND attractive-looking! Please feel free to ask questions or leave feedback in the comments below. See you next time!
Check out these related articles:
- 25 Organic Ways to Stop Pests from Destroying Your Garden
- How to Properly Emulsify & Mix Neem Oil to Make a Safe Garden Pest Spray
- How to Design and Build a Raised Garden Bed
- A Beginner’s Guide to Using a Hobby Greenhouse
- How to Build a Trellis: Easy and Inexpensive DIY Trellis Designs