I’ve talked about shade cloth many times in the past. Shade cloth is great for shade, as you might expect, but also for evaporation prevention and energy savings.
Today I’m going to talk all about shade cloth – what it is, why and where you could use it, and some alternatives.
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What is shade cloth
If you look for shade cloth on Amazon, there’s a ton of options, sizes, and types. Many come from China, and quality is all over the place.
You can find shade cloth in from about 30% to 97% gradients.
Shade cloth is often made of plastic, like nylon or polypropylene (often HDPE).
It’s constructed either as woven, which is usually cheaper but frays at the edges when cut if not finished with nylon “taping”, or knitted. Woven is usually heavier than knitted, and so heat builds up more. It can last longer than knitted, but this is quite variable and no guarantee.
You can also get shade cloth in a knitted form, which tends not to fray when cut. Most of the higher quality shade cloth is knitted. It is more expensive than woven, lighter, and somewhat more commonly found.
Thirdly, you can get shade cloth in a form that is a knitted reflective aluminum/mylar. This is better than regular knitted shade cloth because it reflects the heat back instead of absorbing it. This will keep whatever’s under it cooler.
Last, you could look into a fence wind barrier or privacy screen. These are very similar to shade cloth, and depending on the manufacturer could actually be shade cloth. The fence/privacy screens are around 90-98% gradient, which works fine for patios or house shading.
The fence style will usually be 6-7 feet by 50 feet or longer, which may be inconvenient for your application. But it’s often the lowest price per square foot.
Regardless of type, you can find pre-made “panels” in many sizes where the edges are sewn with 1.5″ or 2″ nylon tape, which has metal grommets every 24″ or so for easy structure attachment.
You can also find large rolls of unfinished shade cloth, but unless you have time and a good sewing machine strong enough to sew this material, I would stick to the panels.
The lifespan will depend highly on the level of UV inhibitors in the plastic. From experience, regular painter’s plastic will break down and crack apart after 6-8 months.
I’ve heard of shade cloth breaking down after 18 months, but on the other hand some manufacturers have 10 or 12-year warranties. This is a case of “you get what you pay for.”
Shade cloth’s somewhat short life means it’s not really a “buy once” sort of purchase, but more of am ongoing maintenance cost.
It’s also not cheap, at anywhere from $0.19 to $0.65 or more per square foot, depending on size, vendor, grade and material.
Often, but not always, the large of a piece you buy, the cheaper per square foot it will be.
Shade cloth will last longer if it’s cared for and put away during the winter. Sunlight, debris (dirt and leaves/pine needles, etc.) and weather exposure will damage it more over time.
Why to use shade cloth
When a plant tag says “full sun”, it usually means just 6-8 hours of direct sunlight.
And if you’re at higher elevation like me, then you can maybe get away with even less.
Because there’s less atmosphere between your plants and the sun, the sun is more intense, so you need less time.
So make sure that your plants aren’t getting baked all day by the hot summer sun.
They don’t need (all of) it, which means they’re probably getting stressed. And stressed plants don’t grow well.
Also, some plants like tomatoes won’t set fruit (or will drop immature fruit) if they are too hot. For tomatoes specifically this is around 86-90°F.
Since summer means 14-16+ hour long days, you would need to either shade half the time (6-8 hours) or limit half the sunlight, which is a better option.
Shade cloth is one of the best options to do this. You could move plants into and out of fixed shade every day, but that would get old quick.
Coming in many different sizes, types and gradients, you can find a shade cloth to fit nearly any situation.
For growing fruiting plants, successful market gardeners recommend no more than 50% shade. I’ve followed this advice for my greenhouse, and it seems to help tomato set fruit better.
It is certainly much cooler in the greenhouse, even during the heat of the day.
Shade cloth alternatives
I didn’t like that shade cloth is plastic, doesn’t have a long life, and is a consumable product that is thrown away every few years.
So I looked into alternatives to shade cloth and here’s what I found some other people had tried. Most options aren’t very aesthetically appealing (AKA they’re ugly), so keep that in mind. Most options don’t have nice finished edges, so you’ll have to figure out a way to attach them securely to your structure.
Note: Shade cloth can act as a sail (one style is even called a shade sail) and pull quite strongly in even moderate winds. Please make sure your attachment hardware is strong and anchors are solidly in place.
One lady went to the fabric store and bought nylon netting to use for shading her plants. It’s certainly cheaper at $1.50 per yard (72″ x 36″), but I think you would have to put at least two or three layers on to have a decent amount of shade.
I don’t believe it’s UV stable, and the size would be OK for garden beds, but too small for anything else.
Another idea was going to the military surplus store and getting either a old parachute or camo netting. These are also fairly cheap, and in larger areas are not too hard to find. They both should be fairly UV stable, especially the camo netting, but this depends on their age and condition.
The parachute is going to block almost all light underneath it, while the camo netting will block much less. Depending on your application, these may or not work.
If you want to totally block sunlight and heat, try this project I read about in Mother Earth News from (believe it or not) 1983!
Apply high-gloss aluminum spray paint on poly sheeting (thick painter’s plastic or vapor barrier), then face towards the sun. The paint should protect the poly from UV exposure.
Next, instead of buying shade cloth, you could use an old white or light-colored bedsheet. If it’s thin enough, it might let enough light through to allow plant growing.
Now if you’re wanting something with a little more beauty, look at these ideas.
Build an arbor or trellis and grow some vines over it. As the summer wears on and it gets hotter, the leaves get thicker and you have more shade. This is especially effective and useful for outdoor entertaining when next to a house.
I’ve also heard of people (with much more crafty talent than me) weaving canes or willows (or any flexible wood) into a lattice.
I like this option because you can vary the spacing to the shade percentage you need, and you’re using sustainable materials.
And finally, the slowest option is also the most sustainable, long-term beneficial one. And that is planting trees.
Trees cool the air by evaporating water from their leaves, and block the sun resulting in dappled light underneath.
They’re also great to have around: they just make me feel better and more connected to nature.
Where to use shade cloth
Shade is used to make a microclimate that is cooler and more humid. Any place you want these features, you can use shade cloth to get those benefits.
You can use it in the garden, greenhouse, or around your home. It can make summer outdoor cooking, eating and entertaining much more enjoyable.
Used over rock, stone or concrete, shade cloth lets those dense materials act as cold sinks, which help cool the air.
In the Garden
Installing shade cloth in the garden is especially helpful in summer or in arid regions.
Shaded, cooler plants can set and develop more fruit, and leaf crops like lettuce spinach and kale produce longer before bolting and tasting bitter.
In my article on 7 tips for desert gardening success, I suggested these shade grades:
- Overhead: 50%
- East: 0-20%
- South: 50%
- West/southwest: 70%
This is true for hot and arid locations, but may be too much shade if you get plenty of rain or usually have lots of overcast days.
So adjust for your climate. And check out this permaculture textbook:
You can set up a greenhouse-style hoop frame or tall posts with cables to make a frame for hanging the shade cloth.
To get the suggested gradients, you can buy special types for each section, or just overlap two layers of 50% to make around 70%.
You will have to adjust when you put the shade cloth on your garden and when you remove it.
This will depend highly on your local microclimates and current weather conditions.
In a Greenhouse
In combination with fans and passive ventilation, shade cloth can help keep your greenhouse’s temperature under control in the late spring, summer, and fall.
Greenhouses can get too hot during the day, even in winter. This is worse in the summer when you’re getting 14-16+ hours of sunlight beating on that glazing.
I need to start shading my greenhouse in April/May, and will remove it in late September/October, depending on weather.
This time frame (for me) is when it’s too hot to go without greenhouse shade cloth. Your required shading time will vary with location, climate, and greenhouse design.
I get little rain in the summer, and 300+ days of clear skies annually, so I have to use shade cloth or the greenhouse is way too hot to grow well.
I bought my 12×24 foot “SilviShade” 45% reflective shade cloth from Catalog Clearance. It was the best deal I found on shade cloth (reflective or not), at around $0.19 per square foot, with a finished taped edge and grommets.
Though it wasn’t the 50% I wanted, I figured the reflective nature would at least overcome that 5% difference. And I think it has.
It was a little awkward to install because of my greenhouse’s configuration. I would have preferred to run steel cable through the grommets so it was easy to move up and down. It would also look neater.
Also, I draped the end of the shade cloth against the west wall to prevent late afternoon sun from escalating the temperature too much.
It’s not pretty, and I will probably add a dedicated west wall shade panel.
But it works for now, and it works well. Even during the heat of the day, the greenhouse is tolerable. I do also have the top vent open constantly, with the bottom vent drawing cooler air as hot air escapes.
I’m quite satisfied with this shade cloth’s performance. I think the reflective stuff is much more effective than a regular shade cloth at preventing heat buildup.
Around the Home
You can use the above shade grades for your home too.
Most of the cooling costs in the summer come from the sun heating up your roof and walls. There’s also some heat from dirt or rock radiating onto the house.
The more of your house you can keep shaded, the less your AC or swamp cooler will have to work, which saves you money.
Shade the walls up to the eaves, and even the roof if possible.
I would go with at least 50-70% grade here, but you could go up to 90-95% if you want.
The percentages I suggested for the garden also apply here when deciding to shade your house.
You want to have (at a minimum) medium shade on the south side, and heavy shade on the southwest and west side.
It’s also possible to set up shade cloth on the south side so it can do double duty as both cooling the house and creating an outdoor patio area for summer enjoyment.
I love that permaculture idea of stacking functions!
You can do the same method here as in the garden, either with steel hoops or a wooden frame and cables to support it.
If you consider attaching it permanently, I would advise against it in areas that see winter snow.
Removing it after fall also allows winter sun to help warm the house, and will help the shade cloth last longer.
Shade cloth is made from UV-stabilized plastic. It comes in many types and grades.
Use shade cloth to cool and increase humidity in the desired area.
There are alternatives to buying shade cloth.
It’s not cheap, but it is a tool that can be useful.
Use it in the greenhouse, garden, and around the home.
Pick the right grade for the application.
Remove the shade cloth in winter to allow the sun’s radiant warming and make it last longer.
OK, that’s all folks! Do you have any questions or comments about shade cloth, sustainable homesteading, permaculture design or anything else? Ask your question down below and let’s talk! You can also use the contact form, or email me at info at thepermaculture dot life.