Plant covers are a simple solution to so many of the problems that plague the garden. They keep insect pests from damaging plant foliage, prevent deer and rabbits from nibbling on leaves, and shield plants from sun and frost. Have you discovered the ease and convenience of these protective structures? They make gardening so much simpler! In this article, I’ll introduce you to a handful of the plant covers I use in my own garden.
This information is featured on Savvy Gardening thanks to the sponsorship of Gardener’s Supply Company, an employee-owned company that designs and builds plant covers and many other innovative products created for home gardeners.
Reasons to cover your plants
Outdoor plants are vulnerable to all kinds of potential troubles and covering them with a protective structure is a clever way to keep these troubles away. There are many reasons to employ plant covers in the garden. Here are 10 of the most common ones:
- Protect newly planted seeds and young seedlings from the mice, voles, and chipmunks who like to dig them up
- Speed germination of crops that have been direct seeded into the garden
- Shield transplants and tender annuals from late spring frosts and other weather extremes
- Shelter tomatoes, peppers, and other warm-weather crops from early fall frosts to extend their harvest
- Keep birds from eating your berry crop
- Prevent pests like cabbageworms, Mexican bean beetles, and tomato hornworms from laying eggs on your plants
- Reduce the amount of damage from a huge number of leaf-eating insects, including squash bugs, cucumber beetles, and Colorado potato beetles
- Shade cool-weather-loving crops from the summer sun to keep them producing longer
- Form a barrier to deer who like to browse on plant foliage or rub their antlers on young trees
- Safeguard veggie plants from marauding groundhogs, rabbits, and squirrels
There are many types of plant covers, with each one protecting plants in a different way. They are made from a range of materials, and many come in different sizes. Some plant covers protect individual plants while others protect multiple plants at the same time. Before I introduce some of my favorite plant covers and tell you how and when to use them, I’d like to quickly share a few surprise bonus benefits of these structures.
Extra benefits of plant covers
- The permanent coverage that high-quality plant covers provide throughout the entire gardening season is far superior to most pesticides and animal repellents that need to be reapplied every few weeks. With a plant cover, for the most part, you set it and forget it!
- Though the cost of some plant covers may seem a bit pricey, almost all of them can be used for many years, not just for a single season. If you do the math, you’ll see that purchasing bottle after bottle of organic pesticide or animal repellent year after year is even more costly. Not to mention the emotional and monetary cost of having to replace destroyed plants.
- Plant covers save you time and the headache of having to remember to go out to the garden and handpick pests or spray something. You can even go on vacation without worrying that you’ll come home to a ravaged garden.
- There’s also potential to save a lot of money at the grocery store. Plant covers that provide frost protection, like floating row cover or a mini greenhouse, can keep you harvesting for weeks beyond your regular growing season. And when used in the spring, they give you a jumpstart on the season, enabling you to harvest more food for a longer period of time.
When to use plant covers
While you might think there’s a special time you should be using these protective structures, there isn’t. Depending on their purpose and your climate, plant covers can be utilized year-round. Use them in early spring, late fall, and winter as a frost covering to shrug off cold snaps. Employ them during the growing season to thwart insect pests. And use them year-round for deer protection.
The only additional piece of advice I want to offer regarding when to use plant covers is to do so before the problems start. Use plant covers as preventative measure; don’t wait until after the pests find your crops or the first frost strikes to take action and start using them.
How to use plant covers
If you condense all the benefits of these structures and the ways in which they are used, you’ll discover there are four primary ways to utilize plant covers.
- To deter animals and birds
- To limit damage from insect pests
- To protect plants from frosts
- To provide shade during hot weather
The following four sections of this article discuss each of these reasons in turn. You’ll be introduced to some terrific plant covers that accomplish the goal of protecting plants for each specific reason.
Plant covers to deter animals and birds
Whether the culprits are deer, rabbits, or birds, protecting shrubs, perennials, small trees, vegetables, and other plants from these critters is made easy by using sturdy metal covers that can’t be chewed through. For this mission, in the vegetable garden and flower bed I rely on the Chicken Wire Crop Coop.
The Chicken Wire Crop Coop is a house-shaped frame covered in heavy-gauge chicken wire. It covers multiple plants at once, and the carrying handles on top make it easy to pick up and move to harvest. It’s 22 inches wide, 45 inches long, and 28 inches at its peak – the perfect fit for 6 to 8 lettuce or kale plants (which the bunnies would otherwise devour at my house).
The wire lets sunlight, rain, and pollinators through. I also use one on my elevated raised bed where I grow my strawberries to protect them from the birds. Fits like a glove and is easy to lift to harvest the berries (see photo above).
For shrubs and other larger plants, I recommend the Chicken Wire Super Dome to protect them from winter deer browsing. The Super Dome is made from galvanized chicken wire and each one has two doors for easy access (see video). The Super Dome measures 51 inches high from cap to base and 53 inches wide at the bottom.
It comes in three parts that are very easy to put together with a few screws and locking pins. It took me about 5 minutes. I recommend putting it together where you plan to use it because it’s pretty awkward to carry long distances. With its size and a weight of 31 pounds, it takes two people to comfortably move it.
If you grow blueberry bushes, you’ll definitely want the Super Dome. It covers an entire blueberry bush, and the door opens to make harvesting the berries far easier than using flimsy bird netting.
For added protection and to secure both the Super Dome and the Crop Coop to the ground, use wire landscape staples around the base of each structure.
Plant covers to protect against insect pests
When the mission is to deter insect pests, there are a few plant covers worth discussing. My favorite (and long-time “righthand man” in the garden) are row covers. This lightweight fabric rests on hoops or directly on plant tops to shield foliage from insects. It comes in various thicknesses, the thinnest of which has great light transmission and the heaviest of which offers the greatest level of protection from cold weather (which we’ll discuss in the next section).
Until recently, I’ve always used hoops made from PVC pipe to hold up my row cover, but I now use Adjustable Super Hoops and am pleased as punch with them. These unique support hoops offer an adjustable height. How cool is that? You simply loosen two small knobs on each hoop, and it “grows” to accommodate taller plants. Just raise them up as your plants grow. Watch the video embedded in this article to see how it works.
If your planting bed is 4 feet wide, the Super Hoops create a 44-inch-tall arch at their shortest and a 62-inch-tall arch when they are fully extended. The tunnel it creates is very roomy. Just be sure to purchase row cover that is 12 feet wide because (as I discovered) narrower widths won’t be wide enough to stretch across the full arch from one side of the tunnel to the other.
Watch how the Adjustable Super Hoops work in this video and see more about these structures.
Insect mesh is another terrific plant cover for defending plants against insect pests. This flexible, fine-mesh screening is much tougher than tulle fabric and is less likely to tear than row cover if you live in a very windy location. It’s a good bit heavier than row cover so you’ll definitely need hoops or stakes to hold it up. I’ve had mine for three years now and simply hose it off and store it at the end of the growing season. It’s perfect for use on cole crops to keep caterpillars away and on carrots to deter the carrot maggot fly, among many other pests.
Protecting plants from frosts
The third purpose of plant covers is to protect plants from frosts. While you could install a small greenhouse or a cold frame (both offer frost protection), the most budget-friendly winter plant covers are made from heavier weights of row cover. Also known as Agfabric, frost blankets, garden fleece, or Reemay, row cover is a spun-bound polypropylene fabric. For frost protection, you’ll want the fabric to rest on hoops or stakes and not on plant tops. Adding straw or another mulch beneath the fabric can further insulate plants, particularly root crops.
Plastic hoop tunnels are yet another plant cover for frost protection. I know many cold-climate gardeners who grow cold-hardy crops such as spinach, mache, and kale under these tunnels through most of the winter. You won’t be able to grow peppers and basil under them, but cold-season crops should do quite nicely nestled beneath.
Shielding sensitive plants from strong sun
The final group of plant covers have the very important mission of protecting our plant friends from the hot summer sun. While many plants thrive in warm weather, a few vegetable crops much prefer cooler weather.
Lettuces and many other leafy greens in particular are notorious for bolting (or going to flower) and turning bitter when the weather gets hot. Extend your harvest of these delicious greens by shading the plants when summer arrives. Shade cloth is the plant cover for this job. When placed over the plants on hoops or by using some other support structure, it lowers the temperature of the plants and soil beneath and can delay bolting by several weeks.
Shade cloth is a terrific plant cover for any plant during unseasonable spells of hot, sunny weather in the early spring, too. It’s particularly useful if you’ve just set out transplants and the weather turns too hot too fast. The transplants can acclimate beneath the shade cloth for a few days before exposing them to full sun.
If you’re looking to learn even more about how to protect your plants and all of the products available for the job, you’ll find tons of great options on the Gardener’s Supply Company website. A big thank you to them for sponsoring this post and for creating some truly unique and useful products for home gardeners.
For further reading about plant protection on this website, please visit the following articles:
- Our online course about mini hoop tunnels
- Low tunnel hoops and how to use them
- Growing winter kale
- Growing lettuce in winter
- How to get rid of squash bugs