There’s something magical about windows etched with crystalline patterns or trees dusted white on a clear winter morning. Frost may be one of nature’s most artistic displays, but for the unprepared gardener, it can be downright devastating. More than one eager planter has lost everything to a cold snap, wasting all the time and effort put into starting seeds or planting too early. And, how frustrating is it to wake up on a fall morning to find your promising pumpkin patch limp-leaved from an early freeze, your dreams of Thanksgiving pie shrivelled up and ready for the compost pile?
Luckily, most weather reports include frost warnings for your local area, and you can learn to predict a frost. But what do you do when you suspect Jack is on his way?
Protecting your garden in the spring
Your priority in spring is keeping your babies alive long enough to become the flowers or veggies you’re hoping for. That means keeping the heat absorbed by the earth during the day trapped around the plants at night. Niki Jabbour, author of The Year Round Vegetable Gardener, remembers overhearing a frost warning on TV one night in her early gardening years. She donned a bathrobe, fuzzy slippers and a headlamp, and traipsed out into the dark garden, bedsheets in hand, to cover the 40 heirloom tomato seedlings she had planted just hours before. “Not my most attractive moment!” she admits.
These days, a more experienced Niki is likely to have a stack of cloches ready to pop over tender plants. You can buy ready-made cloches, recycle milk jugs or pop bottles, or use old wine glasses or the punch bowl collecting dust in your cupboard. You can run outside Niki-style with bedsheets (I know I have), but try to do your covering before dark to take advantage of the day’s heat.
Be warned: When the sun comes out, young plants can fry quickly under the covers. Plan to do a take-off/put-on routine until the weather evens out, or avoid it somewhat by building simple hoop tunnels overtop of your garden beds like Niki does. “Using ½-inch PVC conduit, I make upside down U-shaped hoops over the bed, spacing them about three feet apart,” she says. She pushes them right into the soil or anchors them to lengths of rebar, then covers the hoops with a medium-weight row cover or a piece of greenhouse plastic. “A mini hoop tunnel takes only a few minutes to set up, but can save months of work, especially if your seedlings are homegrown.”
Hoop photo courtesy of The Year Round Vegetable Gardener (Storey Publishing 2012)