Most readers of this blog, which is essentially written with Northern gardeners in mind, will at some point in this fall see a first frost. Sometimes it occurs in a timely matter. Depending on where you live, the first frost is “expected” in September, October, November or even December. Since most of us plan ahead and prepare our gardens for that event, we’ve often completed our preparations for winter before that first frost occurs. Other years, though, frost occurs suddenly, weeks or even months before it should theoretically occur. That’s what we call an early frost.
In our grandparents’ time, gardeners were inevitably caught unawares by early frosts. These days, however, with weather information services widely available, there’ll usually be a frost alert: a day or at least a few hours of advance warning.
So, the media is announcing frost tonight, but your garden really isn’t ready. What should you, as a gardener, do?
Here are a few suggestions:
- Bring frost sensitive plants indoors. This would include any houseplants that have spent the summer outside.
- Also bring in cuttings of any annuals you want to overwinter indoors (coleus, geraniums, fuchsias, begonias, etc.).
- Harvest fruiting vegetables such as tomatoes, eggplants, squash, cucumbers, beans, etc. or…
- Cover the plants with a cloth, a blanket or newspaper, preferably using a few stakes as a support so the cover doesn’t squash the plants or …
- Turn the sprinkler on them before you go to bed: water flowing over the leaves will help keep the foliage from freezing.
- Apply the same treatments to frost sensitive leaf vegetables, like lettuce, Swiss chard and celery and annual flowers like begonias and impatiens.
Don’t panic about the following plants, though: they can handle an early frost.
- Summer bulbs (cannas, tuberous begonias, dahlias, etc.): the first frost may destroy foliage, but won’t penetrate the bulb. Do dig them up and bring them in before the ground freezes solid, though.
- Root vegetables (carrots, beets, turnips, rutabagas, etc.) are protected from frost just by being underground. Again, just make sure you dig them up and bring them indoors before the ground freezes.
- Some vegetables actually taste better after a frost or two, as a light freeze brings out their sweetness. This group includes cabbage, kale, Brussels sprouts, Jerusalem artichokes, leeks and parsnips.
- Spinach is very resistant to even severe frosts and needs no special frost protection. In fact, you can still sow spinach if you feel the ground won’t freeze solid in your area for another 6 weeks or more.
- Hardy plants (trees, shrubs, conifers, perennials, vines, etc.) are designed by Mother Nature to take a few degrees of early frost. At worst, they’ll be a bit of tip damage on leaves that, in most cases, will be dropping off soon anyway.
When you garden, follow the rule so familiar to boy scouts and always be prepared!