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Does this sound like a familiar fall scene? You scrambling around your garden in the dark with a flashlight on a chilly night, trying to harvest all the vegetables you want to save before the first hard frost descends on your garden. You’re ready for it to be over, but you do want to savor those last few tomatoes.
Or maybe this? Waking up one fall morning and feeling surprised by a frosty garden filled with dead plants. You’re disappointed you had no idea it was going to get so cold the previous night. You wish you had known so you could have harvested the last of those delicious sweet peppers and basil.
For some gardeners, the first fall frosts are a relief, and for others, it feels like a disappointment when the season finally comes to a close.
If you’re one of the gardeners from the second category and would love to continue harvesting from your garden well beyond your first frost (that’s me!), I’m excited to share a magic solution with you – frost cloth!
Just because the weather starts to turn cold doesn’t mean you can’t continue to harvest from your garden every day. In fact, I think the fall and early winter months in the garden are some of the nicest and most productive of the year.
With some simple frost protection over your plants you can save some of the crops that succumb to light frosts and keep them alive for some more harvests.
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What is Frost Cloth?
Frost cloth, also know as reemay or row cover, is a light white fabric, usually made of polypropylene or polyester, that can be placed over cold sensitive plants to protect them from low temperatures.
You can keep it over your plants day and night because light and water can both get through. There are different weights, lengths and widths, which we’ll get into later in the article.
It can be used in both spring and fall, but in this article we’re going to concentrate on using it in the fall to beat the first frosts.
When to Use Frost Protection
Using row cover in your garden is a great way to extend your harvest. You can use row cover in the fall to protect your plants from the progressive frosts that start to occur in cold climates in order to keep them alive so you can continue to harvesting food.
Frost cloth traps some heat, so as the temperatures start to dip in the fall in cold climates you can keep the plants under the row cover slightly warmer (throughout the day and night) than they would be if left uncovered in the garden.
Which Vegetables are Best for Covering in Frost Cloth
Depending on which vegetables you want to protect, you’ll start using frost cloth right around your first frost.
Warm Weather Vegetables
If you want to protect some of the hot weather vegetables like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant or basil, you’ll want to put the row cover over these vegetables right before your first frost.
This means you’ll need to be watching the forecast around your average first frost date to anticipate when to dig out your row cover.
One thing to keep in mind with warm weather vegetables is that by the time frost hits in cold weather gardens usually those plants aren’t as productive as they once were and are often starting to die back or get taken down by diseases.
I don’t make the extra effort to cover these vegetables with row cover because I’m ready to say goodbye to them.
If you do want to try to cover them, it may be a little tricky if they’re really tall. You also need to make sure the row cover isn’t touching the plant or the fruits or it will transfer through the fabric. More about that below.
Cold Weather Vegetables
Instead, I recommend you focus your energy on the vegetables that get damaged once the temperatures start to dip below 30 degrees F, like bok choy, lettuce, and parsley.
These crops thrive in the cool temperatures of fall. And they can survive the first few light touches of frost, but once the temperature drops into the mid-20’s F they start to get frost damage and eventually die.
But, if you cover some of your garden beds with row cover, you can get these vegetables to stay alive into the late fall or early winter for many more delicious harvests.
This is my front yard garden a few weeks before my first frost in fall. I’ve started to cover my fall crops with frost cloth.
When to Cover Vegetables with Row Cover
Before first frost
These vegetables will die at 32 degrees F without the protection of frost cloth. But, by the end of the season they may not be that productive anyway, so you might want to let them die with the first frosts instead of covering them with reemay.
Basil – can get frost damage at 38 degrees F
Below 28 degrees F
These vegetables don’t necessarily need to be covered right away if you’re only getting light frosts. But, they should be covered once the temperatures dip to 28 degrees F or below.
Lettuce – depends of variety
Some plants are more cold hardy than others. Spinach is one of the hardiest!
Below 25 degrees F
These vegetables can survive the beginning frosts, but they should be covered once temperatures start to fall to the mid-20’s F.
These vegetables can survive the winter in many cold climates without protection. Often I cover them in row cover (and eventually greenhouse plastic) anyway to keep them a bit warmer.
Perennial Herbs: Mint, Onion Chives, Oregano, Sage, Thyme – I don’t cover these at all.
Where and What Kind to Buy
You may be able to find frost cloth at your local garden center or nursery. You can check there first.
If you need to order it online, here’s where I’ve gotten it from:
Hudson Valley Seed Company – will cut it to length for you!
Understanding the Different Types of Row Cover
There are different weights of row cover. The heavier they get the more temperature protection they provide, but the less light gets through. This isn’t a big deal in the winter when plant growth has stopped due to short days, but is more important in the spring when we want as much light as possible to get to the plants since they’re just starting to grow.
Keep this in mind when ordering. Think about when you’re going to use it. In the spring and fall? Then you might want more than one weight or to choose something in the middle.
Agribon-15 – used more for insect barrier for heat sensitive crops.
Agribon-19 – protection down to 28 degrees F, light transmission 85%
Agribon-30 – protection down to 26 degrees F, light transmission 70%
Agribon-50 – protection down to 24 degrees F, light transmission 50%
Agribon-70 – protection below 24 degrees F, light transmission 30%
Length and Width
There are generally two different widths of frost cloth – 83 inches and 10 feet. You’ll need to measure your garden beds and make sure you’re ordering the correct width for your situation.
Another thing to consider is which vegetables you’re going to be covering. If it’s something that’s tall like kale, you’ll likely need the 10′ width. If it’s a shorter vegetable like spinach, 83″ is might be sufficient.
This is a helpful note from Hudson Valley Seed Company’s website: You should order enough to cover the length of your row plus two times the height of your hoops (if using) plus about 3 feet extra for securing the ends.
The shortest length I’ve seen row cover sold is 25′. The most common lengths are 25′, 50′, 100′, 250′ and 500′. It’s easy to cut with scissors, so you could save some money by ordering a longer piece and then cutting it into the lengths you need.
Not all of my garden beds are the same size, so I always end up with various sized pieces of row cover.
Hudson Valley Seed Company will cut pieces to length for you, which is a great service. Find out more here.
Other Supplies You Need
If you’re using frost cloth to protect your plants from the cold, you need to make sure the fabric doesn’t touch the plants or the frost will be transferred right to the leaves.
This means you need some type of support to hold the row cover up over the plants.
Just like when choosing the width of your row cover, knowing what vegetables you’re planning to use it with will help you decide what kind of supports you need.
Here are some options.
Wire hoops: These are great for low-growing vegetables like cilantro, greens, beets, and turnips. You can buy ready made hoops from seed companies and they also come in various lengths.
These wire hoops from Hudson Valley Seed Company go well with 3-4 ft. wide beds and the 83″ wide frost cloth.
Johnny’s Selected seeds has more options for widths here.
I’ve seen photos of these hoops in other peoples’ gardens and they look intriguing.
In the below video, I also show you how to create hoops using PVC, which is a great option for taller vegetables.
These are the red pins I talk about below.
Once you get the supports in place and the frost cloth situated on top, you’ll need a way to secure it to the ground so it doesn’t blow around in the wind. This will also help keep critters out since they like to chow down on the vegetables tucked underneath.
Here are some options.
Metal Staples: These are a great inexpensive option for securing row cover. The only thing I don’t like is that they’re incredibly easy to lose in the garden because of their color. They tend to blend in to the beds and paths and I’ve lost MANY of them.
Red Pins: This is what I use in my garden. Because of the color it’s virtually impossible to lose them in your garden. My only complaint is that the red circular part on the top has a tendency to snap off after a lot of use (or when I step on it…). But, even without that piece the pins are still perfectly usable.
You can also use various pieces of wood, bricks, rocks, etc. I do that, too!
How to Use Frost Cloth in Your Garden
Now that we’ve gone over the different types, when to install it, and which vegetables to use it with, let’s talk about how to use it!
Step 1: Buy your row cover.
Use the sections above to decide upon which weight, width and length is best for your garden situation. If you need to order it online, see my sources above.
Step 2: Decide upon and purchase supports.
You need to make sure the frost cloth is not touching the plants. When frost settles on the row cover it will burn the parts of the plant that are touching the material.
Read the section above about support options and/or watch the video at the end of the post to choose which supports you’d like to purchase or make.
Step 3: Decide upon and purchase pins.
The options are discussed in the section above and also in the video at the end of this post.
Step 4: Pick out which garden beds you’d like to cover.
Take a walk around your garden and assess what you still have growing. Which vegetables will be the easiest and most worth it to cover in frost cloth?
In the fall, the crops I cover in my own garden include: all salad greens and lettuces, cilantro, arugula, beets, and turnips. I don’t worry about covering spinach, perennial herbs, carrots, brussels sprouts, kale or any of my warm weather vegetables or herbs.
Step 5: Install supports, frost cloth, and pins.
Gather your supplies and start constructing your frost protection in the areas you’ve decided need some frost protection. This is the fun part! It will be a great experiment in season extension and you’ll learn a lot from the first time you do it.
Eventually, you’ll figure out your own techniques and system which will make it a no-brainer in the coming years.
Building a frame to protect plants with row cover.
Tips for Using Frost Cloth
Watering: You can water right through the frost cloth when needed. If you live in an area that gets some nice fall rains you shouldn’t have to water much.
Harvesting: When it’s time to harvest the vegetables under the frost cloth simply remove a few of the pins and pull aside an area of the row cover for easy access.
Storage: To ensure a longer life, I don’t leave my frost cloth in the garden all winter. Usually I replace it with greenhouse plastic when it really starts to get frigid. I highly recommend storing it in a tub or box in your garage or garden shed when not in use. This helps it last for many years. I haven’t bought new row cover in over six years.
Take it a step further: If you live in a cold climate like me (Wisconsin, zone 5), even with row cover the plants will eventually get killed as the temperatures slowly drop into the low 20’s F, teens, and below. After using row cover for a few weeks I remove it and replace it with greenhouse plastic to extend my harvest even further into the winter.
With these simple season extension techniques most seasons I harvest from my garden for 10 months of the year!
Learn how to use row covers, low tunnels, and cold frames to extend your harvest season in my how-to video series, Harvesting Fresh Veggies in the Snow. Find out more!
This season, don’t give up on your vegetables when the first frosts arrive! You can extend your harvest for more weeks by covering your cold-sensitive plants with row cover and you’ll have fresh vegetables to use in your favorite recipes well into the fall and early winter.
And don’t forget to watch how to easily build your own DIY low tunnel below.
Additional Resources for Fall and Winter Gardening
FREE MINI COURSE: My how-to video series, Harvesting Fresh Veggies in the Snow, will teach you how to keep your garden harvests going all the way into the holiday season with the use of row covers, low tunnels and cold frames. I harvest from my garden 10 months of the year every season in zone 5. You can, too! Watch the FREE mini course here.
GARDEN SUPPLIES: You can find my favorite garden tools, supplies, books, and more in my Amazon storefront.