Vegetable Garden Shade Ideas

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Even gardeners in the Northeast will need shade cloth once in a while, especially for late-season transplants or extended snaps of sunny weather. Commercial shade cloth is expensive, but there are a few low-cost ways to protect vegetable plants from the blazing sun with materials you may already have on hand.

What is shade cloth?

Regular commercial shade cloth used for vegetable gardens is like a tarp with perforations throughout the fabric. It's a lightweight woven or knitted polypropylene or polyethylene fabric that comes in different sizes and degrees of shade protection, usually between 30% to 60%, which means it excludes 30-60% of the light. Shade cloth for the garden works best when it's attached to a frame such as PVC or metal piping. It's usually used with low tunnels, high tunnels, or greenhouses.

Row cover as shade cloth:

Lightweight row cover like Agribon AG-15 can be used as a sort of shade cloth but it can't be zip-tied so it needs to be long enough to be anchored on each end with bricks, dirt, or sandbags. Certain heat-loving crops such as tomatoes and peppers can handle more heat than brussel sprouts and lettuce, so if we have to use both row cover and shade cloth, the row cover is used to shade the tomatoes and the shade cloth is used on the other crops.

Alternative shade cloth ideas:

Commercial shade cloth is expensive and you may be able to use a few less expensive shade cloth alternatives. You can buy most of these DIY shade cloths at Lowes, Home Depot, or Tractor Supply. If you don't have any of those stores nearby, several online stores carry a wide variety of burlaps and nettings. Here are a few vegetable garden shade cloth ideas:

  • Burlap: Burlap is inexpensive, widely available, and easy to use. The downside is that it will start to unravel after a few years (depending how often it's used). The burlap rolls come in a wide variety of sizes and the weave is wide so it's easy to attach it to the PVC frame. The small rolls (3' x 24')of burlap are around $10 at Lowes or Home Depot, and a small roll is enough to cover the tops of three 8' beds.
  • Screens: Keep your eyes peeled for old screens that people are throwing away. It doesn't matter if they have a few small tears in the screening because you're using them for shade, not for keeping insects out. If you can't find any old screens, consider inexpensive replacement screening. The downside to screening is that the rolls are usually only 84" long so they won't cover an 8' raised bed. The other downside to screening is the size of the mesh. The screening mesh is very small and will only work with small 4" zip ties.
  • Netting: Netting is similar to screening but it usually comes in a wider variety of widths and lengths. As with the screening, the mesh on the netting is very small and needs a small zip tie, or leave it long and weight the ends.
Vegetable garden shade cloth ideas

Attaching the shade cloth:

Although these shade cloths are perforated and won't catch the wind like row cover they still need to be attached to the supports to keep it in place, especially if you're using slippery PVC pipe for a framework. The easiest way to attach the shade cloth to the PVC support is with zip ties. The screening and netting mesh is much smaller than the burlap so it's not as easy to get the zip ties through the mesh but it still works well. Zip ties are not the most efficient method due to having to replace the ties each time the shade cloth is used, but it allows for shorter lengths of shade cloth. If you cut the shade fabric long enough you could simply weigh the ends down with bricks or sandbags, but that adds to the cost.

Anchoring shade cloth with zip ties

Where to buy shade cloth:

For the commercial garden shade cloth, there are several online garden suppliers to choose from including Johnnys. For the alternative shade cloth ideas, Lowes, Walmart, and Home Depot have a decent selection of burlaps and fabrics. Amazon has a large selection of fabrics in many sizes and prices and to get you started, this 50% shade cloth is 6.5' x 20', is reasonably priced and has good reviews. It's not the same brand name, but this camo netting looks similar to our netting, and finally, this insect screening is the same as the material purchased at Lowes. Oh, and don't forget the zip ties. They're widely available and so far Walmart has the best price, but if you don't have any local stores nearby Amazon offers a 100 pack of zip ties at a competitive price.

Shade cloth video:

Here's a short overview of some of the shade cloth used with our raised beds. The beginning of the video shows tomatoes, corn, then hot peppers, but I forgot to mention the bed in the background is a buckwheat cover crop that was planted after the garlic was harvested a few weeeks ago and it doesn't need any shade.