When it comes to protecting your plants from the elements, consider this humble, all organic fabric

If you live in one of the warmer climate zones here in the south and western United States, fall presents a different set of garden challenges than it does for our neighbors in cooler places. While they’re taking precautions against frost, we’re dealing with hot, sunny days that can reach into the upper 80s or low 90s and nights that will drop into the low 40s. Add in the frequent gusty desert winds and single digit humidity and you’ve got is a hot/cold whipsaw that takes its toll on even well-established plants.

Fortunately, keeping older plants healthy and help new ones get established before the cold and wet of winter shows in a few months is simple. All you need do is provide a little shade from the sun, shelter from the wind and mulch to keep moisture in the soil. Even better, you only need one thing to do all three — a roll of burlap fabric.

Like a lot of people, I used to use a variety of stuff — floating row cover, mulch, screen, shadehouses, etc. — with varying degrees of success. Then, a landscaper friend of mine introduced me to the magic of burlap.

The author and his beloved roll of burlap

What is Burlap?

Burlap is a coarse fabric woven from Jute, which is inexpensive, sustainable, biodegradable and very strong. According to the Dayton Burlap and Bag Company, one of its original uses was as the material for the uniforms worn by German mercenaries (aka: Hessians) during the Revolutionary War, which is why in many parts of Europe the fabric is still referred to as “hessian.” It was still in use in clothing up until the 1970’s when synthetic fabrics which were equally inexpensive and far more comfortable finally replaced it.

These days burlap is used for all kinds of stuff from rustic accent pillows to feed sacks, and, of course, landscaping where it does everything from carrying lawn clippings to controlling erosion.

Where to get Burlap

You can pick up rolls of burlap or smaller burlap “blankets” at just about any home and garden store as well as at big online stores like Amazon.com. (You can also get it at fabric and craft stores, but those varieties tend to be a bit tighter weave and may be dyed colors, which makes them less suitable for outdoor work.) It’s cheap. Less than 50 cents/yard for bulk rolls and about 60 cent/yard for 24 foot “blankets.” Generally it’s 36-inches wide, though you can get it in 48 and 60-inch widths as well.

Uses for Burlap in the garden

Beyond being super inexpensive, the other reasons I really like this fabric are versatility and durability. You can leave it exposed to the elements for months at a time, pick it up and re-use it over and over for all sorts of different purposes, which isn’t something that floating row cover, shade screen or plastic mulches can do. Here’s how I use it:

Shade cover

Burlap’s coarse weave and natural color makes it an ideal shade covering that knocks down somewhere between 50% and 80% of sunlight and heat radiation, making it particularly good at providing cover to plants that would otherwise get scorched in the hot, dry weather we have in late summer on into mid-fall. It’s heavier than floating row cover, so you’ll want to support it or cut it down into smaller strips to keep it from squashing your more delicate plants.

A burlap shade tent protecting parsley from scorching in midday sun

For vegetables like sweet peppers and tomatoes where the fruit is prone to sun scald, I like to use strips cut down to 18” x 36” and lay them directly over the fruit and plants I’m trying to protect. For more delicate plants, I’ll cut a 36” x 36” or 48” x 36” piece and drape it over poles made of cut PVC pipe and secured with fabric pins pushed through the burlap and onto the poles to make a shade “tent”.

Seed Protection

We’ve got all kinds of foraging birds and animals that love nothing more than treating a freshly seeded bed like a buffet. To discourage that, once the bed is planted, I cover it with burlap and secure the edges with landscape pins to keep the more enterprising rabbits and scrub jays from peeling it back to get at what’s underneath. Best part here is I can either put drip irrigation under the burlap or simply water over the burlap. Either way, most of the water goes directly into the soil, but the fabric also absorbs some itself providing a sort of insulating moisture blanket for the seeds underneath.

burlap ground cover mulch

Burlap is great for protection seed beds and keeping soil moist

Best of all, if you’re planting fine seed like grass or many herbs, you don’t even have to remove the burlap once the seeds sprout. They’ll grow up through the gaps in the coarse weave of the fabric providing you a built-in weed barrier that you can leave in place forever (the burlap breaks down into the soil), or pull up once the plants in the bed are done.

Insulation and Mulch

Along with seed protection, burlap also makes a great soil blanket that provides insulation, water retention and weed barrier. You can put down a single layer of fabric for just a little cover, or double or triple layers to make a “blanket” of sorts. Water will still seep through the fabric and into the soil, but it won’t evaporate as quickly, and it’ll maintain soil temperature without baking the ground like plastic mulches can do. Better yet, you can use it in combination with compost and organic mulch. Spread your organic matter first, then lay the burlap over it to prevent birds, dogs and other critters from scattering your carefully laid compost.

So there it is. When it comes to plant protection options, along with floating row cover, screens, plastic mulch and compost, make sure that a roll of plain old burlap is in your garden shed. You’ll be pleasantly surprised how easy, versatile and effective it is.