As we move into the coldest months of the year, our gardens can suffer injury or death as the likelihood of freezing weather increases. It is impossible to predict how cold it will be this winter.
Some years, we barely get above freezing, while other years we are locked in frigid weather for weeks at a time. Precipitation can also add to damage that can occur to our landscape.
There are a number of precautions that we can take to keep our plants safe from freezes, or at least to mitigate the effects of cold weather. If you have not taken steps to protect your landscape, do so immediately.
Floating row cover is a great way to keep your plants from freeze damage, especially if the temperatures do not drop much below freezing. Floating row cover is a non-woven fabric through which light and water can pass, but which moderates the temperature around your plants.
This can be especially good to use on such crops as broccoli and kale, which attract insects like magnets, because the row cover will also prevent them from laying eggs on these vegetables. This time of the year, there is less variety for insects to choose from for hosts and food for their young.
You can bet that your green vegetables will stand out against the golds and grays of other winter plants. While it is true that many of our winter vegetables can stand a light freeze, using row cover to keep the temperatures a few degrees warmer can help the plants grow larger and healthier.
If you have never bought floating row cover before, do an Internet search for that term. If you put parentheses around the phrase, such as “floating row cover,” it will increase the number of positive search results you receive.
Also, if you receive seed catalogs in the mail, look to see if they carry these products. I have found that in recent years, the number of catalogs carrying these products have increased, and what is even more helpful is that the variety of these products has also almost doubled, leaving you with some choices to make.
There are row covers that are made for increasing the temperature around your plants and providing protection in a range of thicknesses. For Texas, usually a medium-weight fabric is just right. Read the descriptions to see what is available. Some manufacturers now make row cover that is summer weight. This fabric is to give your plants some shade protection from the hot sun in the middle of summer — a great idea for Texas.
Non-woven is Best
The best row cover is made from non-woven fabric. You will see some row covers that are made of clear plastic. I do not recommend these for two reasons. First, in our unpredictable winters, it can get too hot under plastic. Unless you are going to periodically check on this all day, I would not want to take a chance on overheating.
People who use plastic successfully need a cold frame with a plastic cover that automatically retracts when the temperature gets warm enough. You are talking about some serious money with that.
The second reason plastic is not good is that air and water cannot penetrate through the plastic to reach your plants. This can cause diseases to form on the leaves if it gets too warm and steamy. Your plants also need water, which you would have to provide yourself by moving the covering aside — once again, more trouble than it is worth.
Floating row cover is called by this name because it floats over your plants. You can just unroll it and drape it over the row of vegetables you wish to protect. To make a more attractive cover that also allows for more air circulation, make some hoops out of PVC pipe and lay the row cover over this structure.
If you have done this correctly, it will look somewhat like tiny covered wagons ready to head to California when you are finished.
One thing you should understand: plants have no internal heat of their own. When you cover a plant, the warmth is coming from the ground under the plants. You are merely capturing this heat so it does not escape into the atmosphere. To do this, you need to make sure that the edges of the row cover are pinned down to the ground or covered with soil all around them.
This brings us to another point. You can capture more heat that can be released to your plants in the cold of night. To do this, place milk or water cartons around the plants, filled with water. This can be under the row cover to be even more effective in holding in heat.
You may have heard of a product made for fitting around tomato plants called a Wall-O-Water. This is a plastic contraption that fits around the tomato cage. It contains tubes of water all the way around. These heat during the day and release heat at night to keep the plants from freezing.
I have seen these at work in the garden and they work very well. Of course, you cannot grow tomato plants in the winter, but they are really good to provide an early start on tomatoes next spring.
Take some time and do some research, and you will find a number of good products that can help protect your plants and extend the season for your garden. You won’t be sorry that you did.