Frost is a gardener's nightmare

The real dirt

September 20, 1990|By Mike KLingaman

Every fall, when the weather changes, I go nuts.

I go nuts because my vegetable garden is on death row, waiting for Mother Nature to pull the icy switch. It could happen any time: tonight, next week or next month. Mother Nature makes her own rules.

I could wake up tomorrow and find the garden dead. Plants wilted. Peppers frozen. Mother Nature usually carries out the sentence in the middle of the night. Forget about the customary "last meal." Mother Nature will execute the last tomatoes and squash before they touch my plate.

Mother Nature is no Mother Teresa.

This makes me angry; also quite nervous. An early frost is a gardener's nightmare. I bask in the self-sufficiency of summer. I want to produce my own produce as long as possible. A hard frost sends me running out for Birdseye.

Come autumn, it's apparent that cold weather is nigh. Errant footballs replace the baseballs landing in my garden. The cucumber harvest slows down. Zucchini finally start growing the speed limit.

The cool night air sends a chill down my pines. Eventually, the temperature dips below my age, and I really begin to worry. I wish I was George Burns.

In September, my reading habits change. I study the weather map before I read the sports page. Never mind the late news from the Middle East. Gardeners ignore headlines and focus on that tiny box at the top of Page 1. "Fair and mild" gives us hope: the crops receive a reprieve from the governor, who is really the weatherman.

One can never start worrying about ICE! too early. CentraMaryland isn't due its first frost for a month . . . but what did I scrape off my windshield this week?

Tuesday had dawned, bright and brisk. I knew it was cold outside. Our two cats, who hate each other, were asleep on the same bed. That's cause for alarm. Was Jack Frost nipping at my rows? I sat bolt upright and peered out the window. I couldn't see the garden, but the thermometer in the back yard read 39 degrees. I breathed easier and tried to imagine how embarrassing it would be in September to be caught with my plants down.

No wonder gardeners go crazy, I thought. Two days ago it wa swimming weather. The Sesame Street wading pool was still sitting in our back yard, filled with water and killing the lawn. We empty the pool every week and drag it a few feet to the side, where it kills another circle of grass. By summer's end, there are five overlapping brown rings on the lawn. I've got the Olympic symbol, but Atlanta will host the Games.

Anyway, I forgot about the big chill, ate some oatmeal and left fowork. Halfway down the driveway, I realized I couldn't see where I was going. And then from the windshield there arose such a clatter, I jumped out of the car to see what was the matter.

The wiper blades were grating furiously against something, and it wasn't dew.


I examined the windshield. It felt like . . . ICE! During the growing season! I recoiled in horror. Better I should touch a garden slug than ICE! Instinctively, I feared for my loved ones. The vegetables needed help. Racing to the back yard, I expected to find a horticultural holocaust: an array of droopy plants covered with frozen fruit that would turn to mush with the first hint of warmth.

I envisioned tomatoes blackened by frost. . . cucumbers fit only for compost. . . ripening beans that I would never eat. As I ran, I cursed Mother Nature. I cursed the thermometer. And I cursed the weatherman, who had called for overnight lows in the 40s. Alas, I could see all my curses on my breath.

What I found was puzzling.

The garden had escaped, unscathed. The plants were fine. Nothing succumbed in the night.

I returned to the car, which was still running. The windshield had melted. Or was it ever frozen? I tried to remember. My head hurt. I wasn't nuts. I had seen ICE! on the car, but not in the garden. Had I experienced the rare phenomena known as "scattered frost?" If so, could I sell my story to The National Enquirer?

I'll tell you what I think.

I think Mother Nature is setting me up for the big one.

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