By Kerstin Tengeler
I am an organic vegetable farmer in St. Lawrence County in upstate New York. My partners and I use row covers on our 4-acre farm to extend our growing season and to protect our crops from insects and deer. Because minimizing the use of plastics that end up in landfills is important to us, we have been looking for an alternative to polyspun and plastic row covers. Therefore, when I read about 100% cotton gauze row covers in a German organic farming magazine, I was excited to tell my partners about them, and we decided to try the covers the following season. Elmer-plantex c cotton row covers have been used successfully in Germany and Austria for several years on vegetable and strawberry farms. On our farm they give us the environmentally responsible alternative we had been seeking for a long time.
The cotton cover looks and feels very much like cheesecloth. It is made from 100% unbleached, fully biodegradable cotton. Because it is made from hand picked cotton, it does not have the deleafing herbicide residues present in machine-harvested cotton. It is also fully compostable. The cotton cover comes in rolls, 5 to 27 feet wide. The weight is comparable to other row covers, but much lighter surrounding than common bird or deer netting. About 85% of the surrounding light permeates the cloth.
The cover keeps insects and other pests off the crops by providing a physical barrier and a visual disguise. On our farm, we spread the woven fabric as an insect barrier to protect squash, pumpkins and cucumbers from squash and cucumber beetles. We also use it on broccoli, cauliflower and cabbage to protect them from root maggot flies and cabbage worm moths. In addition, we use it in the spring on tomatoes and lettuce to protect them from deer and frost.
Elmer-plantex c gives about 2-1/2 degrees of frost protection. Dew settles on the fabric and keeps frost away from the plants. The row cover does not, however, protect from frost in windy conditions or over prolonged low temperatures. At our farm, we use the cover on tomatoes and lettuce in the early spring to protect them from frost. While providing insulation, Elmer-plantex c does not overheat. Because it has the same heat regulation abilities as cotton clothing, it can be used all summer long. I like not having to worry about rushing to remove the covers on a hot summer day; in the busy planting season the time that would have been used for covering and uncovering can be used for other important tasks.
We find that the cotton cover has growth-promoting, but not rot-promoting features. It keeps more moisture in the ground than without cover, however air circulation through the fabric prevents fungal problems. The openings in the mesh also allow for irrigation without removal of row cover. I also prefer the feeling of the woven fabric in my hands, as opposed to the sticky feeling I get from the plastic row covers.
Elmer-plantex c does not tear after just one season, as other thin insect barriers have in the past. The row covers can be used three to four times (for four weeks at a time) if handled carefully.
The row cover can be spread directly over the plants or on hoops. The edges of the cover have been soaked in sunflower oil to prevent degradation. The un-oiled middle part of the cover must be kept off the ground with plants or hoops. To minimize contact with wet ground, we use home-made staples to pin the edges down. Using dirt or rods would shorten the life of the cloth. To make the staples we use gauge #10 galvanized wire, and bend it twice around a 2-inch block.
The German company that makes them has been family-owned and operated for over 150 years, and also produces medicinal gauze, linens and cotton diapers. The hand-picked cotton for all their products comes from the Americas, Africa and India. It is spun in a German factory and woven in the Czech Republic. The company is also developing other farming products, such as cotton trellises and onion bags.
About the author: Kerstin is the U.S. distributor for Elmer-plantex c row covers. For more information, contact her at 1263 CR 25, Canton, NY 13617. Tel. 1-800-313-9935.