Gimme Shelter

As I write this with the sun blazing in through an open window, it’s hard to imagine that autumn is just around the corner. After the sweltering dog days of August, I’m looking forward to some cooler temperatures - that said, I’m not ready to let go of summer entirely. In the garden, my chard is going strong and the rows of kale that I seeded in August are still sizing up. I have hopes for some late season salad harvests and I would prefer that they not be dashed by the first hard frost. 

Fortunately, a bit of shelter can easily extend the growing season by a month or two. The most versatile garden cover (in this writer’s humble opinion) is a hoop tunnel: it’s affordable, scalable, easy to install and move, and can be used in all seasons as protection from cold, pests, or sun.

Step 1: Install a Hoop Tunnel
Working as a farmer, I used to make very durable hoops out of ½” metal electrical conduit and a purpose-built bending jig from Johnny’s Seeds. As a casual gardener, I tend to use flexible ½” PVC pipe. To attach the hoops to my raised beds, I use ½” conduit straps, screwed to the outer edges of the raised bed: slide one end of the PVC into a strap, bend it over the bed, and secure the other end in place with another conduit strap. For a well-secured hoop that won’t wobble in the wind, use two straps per side. You can also secure your hoops by pushing 12” long pieces of rebar into the ground along the edge of the bed and sliding the PVC over top. For a sturdy, wind-and-snow-proof tunnel, install hoops every three to four feet and connect the hoops with a central support: a straight piece of wood, PVC, conduit, or even rope will work.

Step 2: Add a Cover
Once the hoops are in place, drape a piece of row cover over top and either secure it with clamps or weigh it down with rocks or shovelfuls of soil. A row cover needs to let in enough sunlight for plants to photosynthesize – this leaves us with two options: polyester fabric, usually marketed as floating row cover, or clear plastic. Fabric is more versatile; it’s breathable and doesn’t hold in as much moisture or heat as plastic, so you can use it for more of the year without creating an accidental tropical greenhouse or frying your plants on a sunny day. That said, the heat-retaining ability of plastic makes it a better winter cover in cold climates. If you choose a fabric covering, look for a heavier weight for more frost protection. Lightweight fabrics are less durable and won’t do much to protect from the cold.

Step 3: Give Your Garden Some Shelter Year-Round
Get a head start next spring and plant cold tolerant crops well before the last frost; protect heat-loving crops like tomatoes and peppers from unstable spring weather; provide some shade in the summer by clamping a thick layer of floating row cover (or even an old sheet) to the top of your hoop tunnel. You can even use a lightweight piece of fabric to protect your garden from pests such as insects or rabbits. Rain or shine, hot or cold, a hoop tunnel makes it easy to give your plants some protection.