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Garden: Frost Warnings

The following is a regular column that addresses basic issues facing the ever-inquisitive back- and front-yard toiler, proffered by someone who knows best; one of the fertile master gardeners from the Berkshire Botanical Garden in Stockbridge. This week, Brian Cruey explains how to protect your plants from impending low temperatures.

frostWow—that was a close one. Of course, it’s in the 90’s this week, but last week we came really close to having our first frost of the fall. Correction, first frost of the summer—autumn doesn’t officially begin until September 22nd! I asked our Director of Horticulture, Dorthe Hviid, when we usually get the first frosts here in our area, and she said that it’s really unusual for it to come before our Harvest Festival (October 5th and 6th—fun for the whole family, tell your friends). She could only recall two or three times in her 20 years here at the Garden that it happened prior to that event. So a frost in the first week of September is early, indeed.

Even though we are back into muggy heat, don’t be fooled—the temperature is supposed to drop again and according to the world wide web, which is NEVER wrong, we could be looking at temperatures down into the mid-thirties again by next week. That means you should be prepared to protect your annuals and veggies just in case.

Usually, a frost will be forecasted by your local weather authority in the form of a frost warning. You can also tell that a frost may be on the horizon by your friends and neighbors totally freaking out—people love to talk about the weather, and an early frost is like the Miley Cyrus of atmospheric publicity stunts. If you don’t have access to either of these warning mechanisms, be on the lookout for cool, clear nights with low humidity that follow a cold front—the perfect frost recipe.

bedsheetsIf you do suspect a frost, the best thing to do is raid your linen closet. Old bed sheets are really the perfect protection for your plants. Gently cover them or use stakes to tent the sheets over your plants. You may want to use clothespins to keep the sheets from blowing away if the wind is kicking up. Burlap and other woven materials will work just as well, however, you will want to avoid plastics or anything that isn’t going to breathe. This will only trap more moisture and could result in a harder freeze.

This is also when you are going to want to dig up your summer bulbs and take cuttings of plants that you don’t want to over-winter—things like canna lilies, begonias, and dahlias. Each plant is going to have specific requirements for winter storage, so make sure to do the proper research, as these things can be very specific. You will also want to remember to bring in any houseplants that you took outside to enjoy the warm weather. Sorry plants—your summer vacation is over!

I also use the first frost as a green flag to start some of my fall chores. It means it’s time to start cleaning out my perennial bed and start breaking down the vegetable garden. It’s also time to order mulch to provide an extra layer of protection for warmth and moisture for beds, shrubs and trees. Time to drain out and shut down my outdoor water systems to protect against winter freezing. Time to start attacking that huge pile of firewood and time to put out my bird feeders. This is also right around the time when I start dreaming of next spring.

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Posted by Scott Baldinger on 09/11/13 at 01:13 PM • Permalink