Shade Cloth vs Row Cover ~ A Garden Update for Fall


To set the stage: it’s mid-October 2021. The weather has been all over the place. In the last few weeks it was 100 degrees, followed by sudden rainstorms (and hail!), and has recently settled into “ideal” Fall gardening temperatures with chilly mornings and day temps between 70-82 degrees F. Today I’m sharing the progress of how the 2021 cool season garden is going with an update on what I’ve experienced using both shade cloth and row cover fabric in my garden. 
Related article: Fall & Winter Gardening Guide for Southern California

The Garden Transition Into Fall & Winter

On Monday, October 4th—specifically planned for after a heatwave, with a week of mild temperatures and rain predicted—the heading brassicas were transplanted out in the garden! Various cauliflowers, broccolis, and romanesco were given homes in freshly amended garden beds. There’s nothing quite like raised beds topped generously with inches of compost and adorned with sweet little seedlings. It’s important to take advantage of the warmth and as much light as possible during this time of year to get the Fall and Winter garden going.

Amongst the brassicas that I knew needed to go in the ground, I also had started some more “heat sensitive” crops to push the limits a bit. Joi choi, napa cabbage, spinach, daikon, and lettuce mixes are wonderful crops for a cool season garden. These are crops that can be started later in the season too (and in early Spring) in zone 10b, but again, I like to take advantage of the light and warmth during this time to really spur growth, or else these crops can take what feels like “forever” to grow.

There’s nothing like transplanting your new seed babies into the garden! So fresh!

It turns out that the weather is more beautiful than I could have imagined for October—-albeit some winds and dry weather. Every few days I’d take a moment to sow something. One day it was various daikon/radishes, the next it was carrots, and then some salad mixes or cilantro.  I sow little amounts at a time, as succession sowing of these crops is key to have a good flow of harvests through to Spring.

Edible peas, such as sugar snap and snow pea varieties, have been sowed as well. This year I opted for direct sowing, although I typically transplant due to pests…..I’m risking it because I got too tired to break out more seed trays and seed start mix.

The Downside of Fabric Row Cover

Last Winter season I experienced the incredible power of covering your crops, which spurred my DIY Fabric Row Cover article. After one of my raised beds had been completely demolished by birds, I purchased a lightweight, agribon-15 row cover  and had great success. What is fabric row cover? Also known as floating row cover, fabric row cover is a lightweight cloth material that is made to let in the sun’s rays but insulate and protect crops.

Well, when Spring quickly fell upon us (as it does in Southern CA, zone 10b), I learned how much heat the fabric row cover can trap even though I chose the lightest weight fabric. It was significantly hotter under the covers (at least 5 or more degrees!) with no airflow and the baby seedlings/transplants were wilting badly. That’s when I clipped up the edges with clothespins and had amazing success with my beets! You can see in the photo below how I was using the fabric row cover as more of a shade, and not as a pest or critter deterrent.

Either way, I was coming to realize that this was a dance—a too hot tango—with the fabric row covers. I didn’t like having to check the forecast or worry about my transplants, and I also didn’t like that the cabbage white butterflies and birds could potentially access my seedlings if the edges were clipped up!


Update 2022: I’ve found something new to cover my raised beds that you can read about here—>Winter Garden Planting in Southern California

I’ve used my DIY fabric row cover and hoops as a temporary shade. Using clothespins to hold up the sides and allow adequate airflow on the hottest days.

Utilizing Shade Cloth in the Garden

Shade cloth is not new to my garden. In fact, I had written in the early days about how I would string shade cloth or shade mesh tarps up in my garden to protect from heatwaves. What is shade cloth? Shade cloth is a more loosely woven mesh that is used to block out the harsh sun and cool the area underneath. It can protect plants from sunscald or burning. Typically, I would only utilize the shade cloth on the hottest of days (triple digit temps) because most of my plants during the Summer season are heat-loving crops and are not in need of coddling.

Related Article: How to Protect Your Garden in a Heatwave

Because I was using shade cloth as a means of protection solely on the HOTTEST days in Summer, I was using a product that blocked out 70% of the sun’s rays. I really would want to avoid blocking out that much sun if I was going to use the shade cloth long term—as I didn’t want the seedlings to be deprived of sun and grow leggy—so a 40% or 50% shade cloth would be more ideal. Especially during the Fall season when the days are shorter, there is less time for these new transplants to have the light they need to grow.

This is why it is important to check your shade cloth for ratings. It’s easy to find one that only shades 40% of the light like this one from San Diego Seed Company. Here’s the kicker: agribon-15 row cover lets in 90% of the light! That’s much better if your goal is to get these veggies a head start on growth. And therein lies the problem: use fabric row cover, use shade cloth, or combine both?

I use many types of shade covers in Summer, but this black shade cloth is one of my go-to favorites. A great addition to a garden shed toolkit.

Using Both Shade Cloth & Row Cover at the Same Time

It is possible to use the shade cloth strung up above your garden to shield your crops from the hottest afternoon sun, while using row cover over your actual garden beds/crops. This combo seems very useful because temperatures below shade cloth are impressively cooler (especially with airflow all around), except for the fact that I don’t really have the structures in place to do this on a semi-permanent basis. Hanging shade cloth can also be cumbersome in high winds which we do get here in Fall (hello santa ana winds!).

Switching Between Row Fabric and Shade Cloth

Lately I’ve been switching between both. On days in the 70s I use my fabric row cover to get maximum light, and on hotter days I use the shade cloth to keep things cooler. What helps is that my DIY hoops are already installed, so it’s simply a matter of changing out the material.

One day, when it was 75 degrees, I had one bed covered in shade cloth and the other covered with row fabric. Both beds did fine all day, but when I lifted the one covered in row fabric it was noticeably more hot and muggy underneath. The raised bed covered with the shade cloth was nice and cool underneath….so I guess the question would be: would the crops grow differently if one gets 90% of the sun’s rays and the other 60%???

It’s been interesting experimenting with fabric row cover and shade cloth in the garden. I’ll probably have even more feedback once another season has passed.

Is this the easiest or most convenient system? No. But this is what has worked for me so far. I’m still not entirely sure how I feel about it all. This temperature dance still keeps me on my toes, but that’s what I got (and I have to say that the newly transplanted plants are thriving). Maybe one day I’ll feel like this part of the season is less precarious but, at the end of the day, I am BEYOND grateful to be able to grow through Winter and the inconvenience seems like a fair trade to have baskets of greens, bunches of radishes, and luscious heads of cauliflower in a few months. I’ll take it!

What are you finding works in your garden to protect your crops? Drop your strategies in the comments below!

UPDATE: I’ve now found an insect mesh/netting that I really like that does not have a heat issue. You can read about my new findings and my setup HERE!

Meet Randi

Urban gardening is my jam. I’m Randi, California girl who obsessively gardens to grow food and flowers around my urban home. Seasonal, simple living is what inspires me~ I hope it will inspire you too. Join me in crafting a life and home connected to the garden Read More>>>>

For Growers & Gardeners from High Mowing Organic Seeds