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  • 8 Ways to Use Shade Cloth on the Homestead

    April 18, 2024 8 min read 0 Comments

    Large backyard chicken run with reflective shade cloth wrapped partially over the top and side of the run fencing. Small flock of various chicken breeds standing by fencing inside the run.

    What can you use shade cloth for on your homestead?

    Shade cloth is a lightweight fabric that provides UV protection and light diffusion. It serves several important purposes for farmers and homesteaders alike beyond simply shading hoop houses during the warmest parts of the season. This article discusses several other uses for this breathable, semi-opaque fabric.

    Choosing Shade Cloth

    Shade cloth is available in different light diffusion percentages, typically ranging between 30-70%. The percentage refers to the amount of light blocked by the fabric.

    The synthetic covers also come in a range of colors, with the three most popular being white, black and aluminum. The shade cloth color you should select varies depending on the fabric's intended use. 

    Read our Guide to Using Shade Cloth to learn more about choosing the perfect shade cloth for your application.

    black shade cloth on hoop house greenhouse

    Top 8 Ways to Use Shade Cloth on Your Homestead:

    1. Shade Plants During Peak Summer
    2. Extend Growing Season
    3. Moderate Greenhouse Temperatures
    4. Support Seed Germination
    5. Transitioning Seedlings Outdoors
    6. Provide Shade for Livestock
    7. Patio Shade or Temporary Shade
    8. Regulating Compost

    Shade Plants During Peak Summer

    In many climates, even warm weather crops cannot handle the worst of the summer’s heat. Excess sun exposure can result in several issues for plants, including:

    Sun Scalding - Prolonged high temperatures and direct sun exposure can damage both leaves and fruit. Leaves will develop either brown “crispy” areas or turn bleach white, while the skin on fruit usually turns bleach white. Smaller, developing fruits are especially susceptible. The affected areas are the cells beginning to break down from intense UV exposure, which microorganisms will soon move into and start the decay process.

    Heat Stress - Like humans, plants thrive under a specific temperature range. For most species, this falls between 59° and 86°F. When temperatures exceed 90°F for days or weeks, plants will show signs of distress such as leaf cupping, wilting, bolting (cool season vegetables), and blossom or fruit drop(1). The heat will stunt growth and may lead to smaller fruit at lower yields.

    Dry Soil - The sun significantly affects soil health and moisture content. Too much sun can wreak havoc on soil fertility (picture a desert, for example). Heat evaporates the moisture in the top layers of the soil, creating a dry and inhospitable environment for roots. Not only will you need more water to keep your plants happy, but forgetting to water for even a day or two could wipe out much of the garden.

    The fastest and most effective way to prevent heat-stressed plants is by using sun protection for plants. Shade cloth can provide them some relief. For low-lying plants, you can support the cloth with small hoops that you bend yourself and stake into the ground.

    Trellised plants such as tomatoes and beans require a different solution. You can simply drape a piece of cloth over the trellis or suspend the cloth above for multiple plants. Anchoring the cloth to a nearby tall fence or building will work, but you will typically need to add other overhead supports. The simplest way to do this is to place a tall post in a 5-gallon bucket filled with concrete (soil may also work if tamped around the post to keep it upright).

    Low tunnel with aluminum shade cloth held on emt hoops with green clamps

    Extending the Growing Season with Shade Cloth

    The growing season for cool weather crops can be cut short by an early wave of warm days. Plants like lettuce and broccoli are especially sensitive to warmer temperatures and may begin to bolt (go to flower) prematurely if the daytime temperatures exceed 68 ℉. (2) Hot temperatures and warm soil will result in quicker flowering.

    If you see a series of unusually warm days on the forecast, use a shade cloth over DIY metal hoops to diffuse light and keep the surface of the ground cooler. Use a hoop bender and EMT conduit to make custom hoops to fit your bed. These hoops can provide support for other fabrics, such as frost blanket or insect netting.

    We recommend monofilament shade cloth or aluminum for using directly over hoops.Tape shade cloth is a cost-effective and lightweight option for many growing uses. It has a high shade efficiency, but is not as strong as monofilament shade cloth. Learn more in this helpful article.

    The shade cloth will also prevent the soil from drying out as quickly and will reduce additional stress on the plants.

    Planting heat-tolerant plant varieties with a shade cloth cover can help extend your typical growing season, resulting in more harvests.

    Inside view of high tunnel shaded with shade cloth and a table of seedlings.

    Moderate Greenhouse or High Tunnel Temperatures

    The ideal greenhouse temperature varies depending on the time of year and the crops you are growing. Plants have a base and optimum temperature. As the temperatures within a greenhouse reach extremes, the rate of plant development decreases(3).

    Although solar radiation plays a significant role in air temperature within a greenhouse, several factors influence temperatures, including ventilation, ambient temperature, plant transpiration, and humidity.

    During the warmest times of the year, temperatures in a greenhouse can easily exceed the optimum temperature for plants - sometimes reaching upwards of 90-100°F. 

    Reducing the solar radiation entering the greenhouse is an effective way of reducing greenhouse air temperature. Shade cloth with 30-50% light diffusion is ideal because it allows adequate light for healthy plant growth. 

    Place the shade cloth over the exterior of the greenhouse or high tunnel and secure it using clips or lock channel. The knitted fabric allows air to travel through Bootstrap Farmer shade cloth, preventing wind from lifting the fabric from the structure.

    Support Seed Germination

    For seed germination and the next use of transitioning seedlings outdoors, aluminum shade cloth is an even better choice than white. The aluminum acts as a thermal blanket overnight to moderate temperature swings. 

    Seeds require moist soil to germinate. This typically isn’t an issue when starting seeds indoors in a controlled environment. However, when direct sowing outdoors, maintaining consistent moisture levels can be challenging due to external factors such as sunlight, wind, and humidity.

    Retain soil moisture with the help of a shade cloth. Place the shade cloth slightly above the surface to allow enough space for ventilation. Use metal hoops to elevate the shade cloth off the surface of the soil.

    We recommend elevating the shade cloth above the surface of the soil for germination even if it is only a few inches. You can use lumber scraps or bricks to achieve this as well. Because shade cloth has gaps in the material, seedlings can grow through it if it is lying directly on the surface. 

    Check on the soil each day and water as needed.

    Transitioning Seedlings Outdoors

    Hardening off plants is a critical step for transitioning seedlings outdoors. This is the process of gradually introducing seedlings to an outdoor, uncontrolled environment. Preparing seedlings to move outdoors typically happens over 1-2 weeks before planting in the garden. If you are unfamiliar with the hardening-off process, check out our article entitled Seed Starting 101 for five easy steps to harden off your seedlings. 

    The first step is to move the plants outdoors to a protected, shaded area for a short period of time (2-3 hours). Gradually increase the duration outdoors, avoiding excessively windy days or days with inclement weather.

    Once the plant has been exposed to the elements in a protected environment, slowly introduce the plants to the direct sun. Shade cloth can make this process easier and reduce the risk of wilting or sunscalding. Use the shade cloth in the transition phase between going from a shaded area to a fully sunny area.

    The shade cloth can be draped over the seedlings or a purpose-built temporary structure built from recycled lumber or an upcycled shelf. For any delicate seedlings, a support structure is necessary since the weight of the cloth may damage them. 

    Close up of reflective shade cloth wrapped over the top and side of the chicken run.Secured to chicken run fencing with black circular shaped clips.

    Provide Shade for Livestock

    Cooling down livestock during the warmest days of summer is essential for the animals' health. Several methods for cooling down livestock include providing fans, shade, adequate water, shearing (if applicable), modifying feeding time, or wetting down the animals(4). Multiple methods will likely be required for the most effective cooling strategy. The needs and requirements will vary depending on the animal species and breed. 

    Adding portable shade to a grazing area or livestock pen/run is an easy and effective way to provide relief from direct sunlight.

    When providing shade for livestock, opt for a cover that has a higher light diffusion percentage and is lighter in color. Shade cloth is a great solution for portable shade structures because they are lightweight and breathable. They can also be attached to an existing structure as a lean-to or used to cover a portion of a run for additional shade. Knitted shade cloth can cover a large area and be cut to a custom size depending on the required coverage area.

    Due to the knitted nature of the shade cloth, it won’t protect livestock from heavy rain or snow loads but may act as a partial wind block.  

    Related: Caring for Chickens in Every Season

    Patio Shade or Temporary Shade Structures

    A less obvious use for shade cloth is general shade outside the garden. Many gardening or animal-keeping activities happen in the middle of a yard, subject to full sun in the hottest times of the year. This could be anything ranging from washing lettuce to processing meat chickens. Using shade cloth to protect you during these activities is an excellent alternative to a pop-up tent, especially because the shade cloths come in custom sizes. You can cut the cloth to a specific length without unraveling if you purchase a knitted type (as opposed to a wove one).

    The hardest part of creating a free-standing sunshade in the middle of an open area is suspending the cloth. If this is an area you will use frequently, consider placing a few tall fence posts at the corners to anchor the cloth into. You can make moveable posts by placing them in 5-gallon buckets of concrete or compacted soil. If you are next to a building, two corners could attach to the side while the other corners are staked into the ground, creating a lean-to of shade cloth.

    An application for shading a deck shade might be to add a decorative pergola that you can overlay shade cloth on during the hottest times of the year and remove it when you would rather have more sunlight. An alternative would be to anchor two corners of the cloth to your house, and the other two corners to a deck railing. You can use a similar lean-to idea on a chicken coop or other livestock shelter and anchor to the ground to create shade for the animals.

    Regulating Compost

    Similar to plants, compost needs moisture to thrive. A compost pile in a full-sun area will dry out more quickly than a shaded one. A lack of consistent moisture will slow down the microorganisms that break down the organic matter.

    During the hottest summer weeks, keeping your compost pile shaded is a good idea to ensure the decomposition process is working as intended. Providing this temporary shade with a shade cloth couldn’t get much easier - simply drape the cloth over your compost pile or bin. This will create a cooler microclimate under the cloth, keeping microorganisms well-hydrated and happy.

    Shade Cloth Applications on the Homestead

    Shade cloth is a versatile and invaluable tool for homesteaders and gardeners alike, with numerous applications beyond simple plant shading. From extending growing seasons to providing relief for livestock, the uses of shade cloth are diverse and practical. 

    From protecting delicate plants from scorching summer sun to keeping optimal composting conditions, the benefits of utilizing shade cloth are clear. The versatility of shade cloth opens up a world of possibilities for sustainable and efficient growing practices, making it a must-have tool for any homestead or garden.

    (1) Heat Wave in the Garden, Oregon State.

    (2) Growing lettuce, endive, and radicchio, Minnesota State.

    (3) Growing on at Cooler than Optimum Temperatures, University of Massachusetts.


    Written by Elaina and Alex of Homestead Dreamers

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