When frost comes, a gardener can't freeze in his tracks

October 14, 2006|By ROB KASPER

I did my first "frost dance" of the season the other night. I stepped out the door, sprinted around the backyard, scooped up some potted plants and lugged them into the house.

The wind was blowing, the temperature was dropping and my wife was worrying, not about me, but about the well being of the plants.

This is what happens when an early-season cold front drops into Maryland from Canada, disrupting an idyllic fall, forcing us to make hard calls about which plants are worth protecting from the threat of frost.

A month or two from now, when real winter hits, the dancing will be done. It will be cold all the time, and most of the vegetation will be dead or dormant. But these early cold fronts are short-hitters. They vamoose pretty fast, and soon glorious autumn weather returns. The trick is to limit the damage they do during their overnight stays.

Frost damage is not a pretty sight. It occurs when the liquid in a plant cells freezes. As the cells freeze, they expand and burst. It is a definite downer.

Over the years, when faced with the report of a possible frost, I have used four tactics -- the wastebasket, the drape, the shuffle and the shrug.

In the wastebasket maneuver, every plastic waste vessel in the house is called into action. They are emptied of trash, turned upside down and placed over endangered plants. For a night or two the yard looks like a garish, littered, recycling center. When the cold weather passes, the wastebaskets return to their lairs, and the plants live for another day.

The drape involves blanketing plants with protective covering. Some people use sheets of heavy plastic or agricultural fleece. One fellow I know covered his vegetable plot last fall with canvas that was a shade of Fort Meade green. This made his tomato plants look like an Army camp. It was ugly but effective.

The coverings have to be removed once the cold weather passes to let in the sunshine. However, if a strong wind blows, both the covers and the wastebaskets have a tendency to take flight.

The shuffle is the dance I began doing the other night, carrying potted plants indoors for a night or two, then hauling them back outside when the weather warms. It can strain back muscles and, if one partner does all the hauling, marriages.

In the shrug, you let nature takes its course. Instead of covering or moving plants, you shrug your shoulders and say whatever happens, happens. Sometimes the weather forecast is wrong. Depending on how cold it gets, this laissez-faire approach can be hard on cherished plants .

Initially, I was inclined to react to reports of this week's coming cold weather with the shrug. But the more weather forecasts I saw, as I pored over the predicted lows with the avidity of a trader following the Legg Mason stock prices, the more I fretted.

Six inches of snow was predicted for Upper Michigan. The temperature was dropping into the 20s in Garrett County. While frost was not in the Central Maryland forecast, the nights were going to be chilly, with temperatures possibly down in the 30s.

As often happens in my life, I ended up compromising.

I shuffled some potted plants into the basement. In the garden, I covered the basil plants, notorious cold-weather wimps, with agricultural fleece, a lightweight material that gives the plants 5 degrees of frost protection. But the geraniums in the backyard and the tomatoes in the garden got the shrug. They were, I figured, tough enough to take this weather. If not, it was their time.

rob.kasper@baltsun.com

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