Remember when I decided to take my chances planting two different varieties of dry beans next to each other at the community garden?
Well, this was the year I grew out some of that seed. At first, there was nothing distinguishing about the beans plants growing up the arbor in my new herb and pollinator garden, but as they reached maturity, there were a few bean pods that started to look a little different. A few of the pods were not quite as flat and wide as I remembered them, and a few pods started to express a little purple coloration – some lightly speckled, others fully purple. The final harvest confirmed what I had started to suspect: a little cross pollination had occurred between the Good Mother Stallard and Cherokee Trail of Tears beans.
Beans are technically self-pollinating, but that doesn’t mean that an ambitious bee can’t introduce pollen from a different variety to a flower here or there. I do remember there being a very healthy amount of pollinator activity at the community garden that year, so I suspect this is what happened. There were not enough black beans to make a significant impact in my final yield, but it was really fascinating to see how the various traits expressed themselves on those few plants that were hybridized. Also, a good reminder as to why I beat the drum of making sure you are saving seed from open pollinated varieties.
One of my favorite things about fall is seeing colorful and creative displays of pumpkins, squash, and gourds on the front steps of my family, friends, and neighbors. What’s not to love? They’re festive, practical, and economical (particularly if you grow your own) and the colors and textures bring a richness that encompass falls so well. I am always a little sad when they start to disappear as fall gives way to winter, but before you toss those gourds in the compost bin, consider saving a few seeds from your favorites to grow next year.
The biggest challenge to saving seed from members of the cucurbitaceae family is that these plants are highly likely to cross pollinate with other cucurbits of the same species growing nearby. When hybridization happens in pumpkins and winter squash, there is a possibility that the desired flavor and appearance of the original variety can be lost depending on which combination of squash genes pair up in each individual seed.
Decorative gourds, on the other hand, are a little bit of different story. Gourds tend to be unpalatable to begin with, and a high degree of variability in appearance is very much a desired trait, so the fact that a certain variety may have crossed with another variety growing nearby resulting in a less tasty or odd looking version of the original becomes less of a concern.
Now, if you are trying to maintain a pure line of seed for a specific variety or want to ensure that your gourds express a particular appearance, you will need to make sure that you are saving seed from an open pollinated variety (not a hybrid) and you will want to follow recommended practices for isolation and hand pollination to ensure that the seed you are saving will produce true to type, but if your only goal is to grow a variety of decorative gourds for your front steps in the fall or a Thanksgiving table setting, you can save seed from gourds without being too particular about what variety they are or what other varieties were grown nearby.
I’ve been doing this for a few years now with some really fun results. It all started when my husband purchased a bag of assorted gourds at the grocery store to add to our outdoor fall decor. There were a couple of really unique looking gourds in there, and on a whim I decided to cut into them and grab a few seeds on the way to the compost bin. Since then, I’ve been growing out a few plants each year and have continued to add to my collection whenever I find another interesting looking gourd.
Gourds are pretty easy to find this time of year. Check farmer’s markets, local pumpkin patches or apple orchards, grocery stores, garden centers, and even home decor and home improvement stores. Individual gourds are usually pretty inexpensive, and in some of the more commercial settings you can probably find a bag of assorted gourds for a pretty reasonable price. Thrifty gardeners might even have some luck asking neighbors or friends for their gourds at the end of the season.
To save gourd seed, you’ll need a cutting board, a sharp knife, a colander, and a paper towel or plate to spread the seeds out to dry.
Carefully cut the gourd in half lengthwise (properly cured gourds will be quite hard, and there often isn’t much to hold on to, so cut with care).
Scrape out the seeds. There are some distinguishing features, like a slight difference in size or shape of the seed, but for the most part, gourd seeds are pretty similar in appearance. If you want to keep the seeds separate, be sure to label the seeds and containers as you work (if you don’t know the name of the variety, jot down a description). If you’re up for an added element of surprise in the garden next year, create an assortment of gourd seed.
Separate the seeds from the membrane. Save only the seeds that are fully formed and mature, and rinse them off under running water to clean them up. After the seeds have been cleaned, put them in a glass of water. The viable seed will sink to the bottom, so skim off any seed that is floating and then strain out the viable seed.
Spread seeds out to dry on a paper towel or plate. Once fully dry, the seed can then be stored in an envelope or other appropriate storage container. Extra seed will remain viable for 5 years or more with proper storage conditions.
This would make a great seed saving project for kids (with a little assistance, of course) and perfect for anyone who has even a mild obsession with decorating with squash and gourds. Next spring, the seed can be started indoors up to 4 weeks before the last frost or directly sown in the garden once the soil was warmed up. Gourd plants will vine and sprawl just like their larger scale counterparts, but because the gourds themselves are smaller and lighter, they easily lend themselves to trellising and will not need extra support as the plants set fruit – a great option for small space gardeners who would like to grow (mini) pumpkins!
The only thing better than a beautiful fall display is a beautiful homegrown fall display!
Whew – we made it! Another election (and a 4 year term!), a mad dash to do a season’s worth of yard and garden work in three days, and the first snow storm of the season – all in a matter of a week. We’re getting kind of good at this whole go-go-go thing, but I am certainly not complaining that things are finally starting to slow down.
This year, more than ever, I’m welcoming the fallow season and looking forward to a time of rest to regain my bearings in the garden and the blog.
On at least a few occasions here, I have confessed my tendency to put off any and all end of season garden clean up until the last possible minute. With so much time and effort put into the garden, I always feel like I’m cheating myself if I give up too soon and so I try to take advantage of every possible minute of the growing season – even if it means I am harvesting the last of the garden produce in the rain as it starts to turn to snow. I am
hardcore stubborn like that.
I usually enjoy the thrill of tempting my luck with frost (and sometimes even snow), but this year is a little different. Faced with an extremely busy fall – and the repeated need to protect the garden from frost most of last week – and not having nearly enough time to do it all, I realized it was time to start the process for the sake of my sanity. I haven’t gone all out (there is still a lot growing, actually), but a little here and there has made a huge difference in making the garden a little more manageable during this busy time. I’ve started to refer to it as my Minnesota Goodbye with this year’s garden.
The tomatoes were the first thing to go. The plants are just so big and so time consuming to cover, that picking anything that would still ripen was the easiest first step. They are currently ripening faster in the boxes in my kitchen than they were on the vines this year, which has made the decision to pull them early a little easier. Of course as soon as all of the tomatoes were gone, the plants started setting blossoms like crazy. The eternal optimism and tenacity of nature is pretty astounding.
I also pulled the last of the tomatillos and ground cherries and I will have some quality kitchen time ahead of me as I put them up for future use. Both harvests were really impressive this year!
I haven’t given up on the pepper plants yet. Covering them up is completely manageable, and now that the garden is mostly empty, their colors really show through as the gobs of green peppers continue to turn red, orange, yellow, and purple. Also, the demand for pepper jelly is high this year, so I’m counting on this week’s warmer temps and much needed rain to make the most of the green peppers remaining on the plants!
The other thing I am still covering up as needed is the arbor where the Good Mother Stallard beans are growing. There are still a good number of beans that need a little more time to fully mature and start to dry before I can harvest them – and these beans are waaay too good not to try to get every last one. The arbor is a little challenging to cover, but I think this is some of my more refined work!
As you can also see, the humble beginnings of my herb and pollinator garden is still showing off a little color, even with several sub 32 degree nights.
Over on the other side of the yard, I let the cucumbers and beans go (they were all but done anyway) and the brassica bed is holding its own without any extra help from me yet. I’m still getting a little broccoli harvest every few days, the kale is growing like crazy, the cabbages are setting new growth, and I even have some broccoli seed saving in progress. I’m hoping that our first hard frost holds off so I can continue to enjoy these harvests well into the the fall.
I also have a nice crop of chard continuing to grow.
Sadly, I let the pumpkins go as well after harvesting a handful of pretty gourds and a couple of baby pumpkins that started to turn orange (they probably aren’t mature enough to amount to much, but at least I have something to show for my work!) The squirrels did a number on the pumpkins this year, but I’ll be back with a better plan next year. I’m not giving up on backyard pumpkins, and apparently the frostbitten pumpkin vines aren’t ready to give up yet either!
If I had to pick a star of this crazy garden season, it would easily be the cucumbers. I grew three heirloom varieties this year, Delikatesse, Boston Pickling, and Mexican Sour Gherkins. All three varieties thrived and produced so prolifically, that I couldn’t even keep up during the busy weeks of August.
The more traditional varieties have slowed down pretty significantly in the past few weeks, but the Mexican Sour Gherkins are kind of like the Energizer Bunny of cucumbers – they just keep growing!
Today I’m wrapping up Salsa Week with a recipe that is perfect for these last summery harvests. Crisp and refreshing cucumbers are elevated to another level with the addition of sweet scallions, hot chili peppers, lime, and a little mint.
The Mexican Sour Gherkins add their own something special to the mix. These little bite-sized cucumbers are plump and crisp and almost pop in your mouth with a really pleasant lemony tang. They’re incredibly beautiful, too! I’ll be honest, not many of these little guys made it past the garden this summer!
As light and refreshing as cucumbers are, I wanted to keep the onion notes a little milder than in some of my other salsas, so I used a small bunch of red scallions (a mild, sweeter heirloom variety, Red of Florence), but I also wanted to use this cool background to really turn up the heat. I added a couple of small green Joe’s Round peppers (seeds and all) for an outstanding hot salsa.
I was this close to chopping up some cilantro to finish the salsa, when I paused in the herb garden long enough to notice the mint that I’ve hardly touched this season. Cucumber and mint are such a natural combination, I had to go for it – and I was not disappointed!
This is a salsa recipe that will definitely be making a repeat appearance at our patio table next summer when the cucumbers are coming in faster than I can use them up.
2 medium-sized cucumbers, peeled and seeded
12-15 Mexican Sour Gherkins
8 red scallions
1 or 2 green chili peppers
Juice from half a lime
Fresh mint leaves
Prepare ingredients by finely dicing the cucumbers and Mexican Sour Gherkins (I found it easiest to cut in half length wise, then slice), slicing the scallions, and mincing the peppers (leave seeds in or remove, depending on desired heat level). Combine in a bowl, squeeze the lime juice over the ingredients, and finish with ribbons of finely sliced fresh mint leaves. Toss until well mixed.
You know the saying, “when it rains, it pours?” That’s how I’m starting to feel about my experience growing tomatillos. My initial bad luck with tomatillos has given way to a living, breathing tomatillo monster that has taken up residence in the middle of my garden. It’s a little hard to tell by the photos, but the tomatillos have taken up close to 36 square feet of garden real estate in the middle of the center bed:
I was a little surprised to see the tomatillos sprawling as much as they are, since I grew the very same determinate variety (Rio Grande Verde) last year in the community garden. Last year the plants were a fraction of the size and required no additional staking beyond a sturdy tomato cage to provide a little protection from the wind. Clearly, my soil quality is much better here at home!
Not that I’m complaining, though. Massive tomatillo plants mean a massive tomatillo harvest, which in turns means massive quantities of Salsa Verde!
I made my first batch with this recipe late last season, and knew even before the first jars went into the canner that this recipe needed to be included in Salsa Week this year. I looked at a number of recipes before diving in, but in the end I made a few safe changes to the basic recipe in the Ball Blue Book. I decided to oven roast my tomatillos to enhance the flavor. I used spicy serranos and substituted lime juice for the vinegar* to bring out a bright, citrus quality in the salsa, which resulted in a great tangy-spicy combination (I’ve included the original vinegar and lime juice quantities below, for those who might want to go the other direction).
*An important note on substituting bottled lemon or lime juice for vinegar: lemon and lime juice are more acidic than vinegar, so it is safe to substitute the same amount of lemon or lime juice (used bottled juice to guarantee acidity) for the vinegar in a canning recipe, but not the other way around. Unless a recipe specifically indicates that you can substitute vinegar for lemon or lime juice, doing so may reduce the acidity of the final product.
Last year’s Salsa Verde was consumed with a lot of enthusiasm, so I was pretty excited when I had harvested enough tomatillos to make the first batch of the season. It makes a nice addition to a spread of chips and salsa and taco bar nights with friends, but our all time favorite way to enjoy this salsa is in a pan of white or green chicken enchiladas or in a batch of white chicken chili. With many more bowls of tomatillos to come out of the garden yet, I am anticipating a good supply this winter and ample opportunities to find a few more recipes to add to our salsa verde repertoire!
2 lbs. tomatillos, husked and washed
1 cup chopped onion
1 cup chopped serrano peppers
4 cloves garlic, minced
3/4 cup bottled lime juice*
1/2 teaspoon ground cumin
Spread tomatillos in a baking or roasting pan and place in a 375 degree oven until tomatillos are soft and are just beginning to brown (about 30 minutes or so). While tomatillos are roasting in the oven, prepare onions, peppers, and garlic, and set aside.
Transfer roasted tomatillos into a large pot along with all of the liquid in the roasting pan. Add in the remaining ingredients. Using an immersion blender, process until tomatillos are smooth.
Bring salsa to a boil over medium heat and simmer for 10 minutes. Fill prepared half pint jars, leaving 1/2 inch headspace and process for 15 minutes in a hot water bath.
*alternatively, use 1/2 cup apple cider vinegar (5% acidity) plus 1/4 cup bottled lime juice.
Yields 4 half pint jars
Recipe adapted from the Ball Blue Book
Have you been wondering what happened to the rest of Salsa Week?
When I left you guys on Tuesday, I was packed and ready to head out of town for the rest of the week for work. I was pretty proud of how prepared I was: I had the last three salsa recipes queued up in my drafts, ready for one last read through before hitting “post” on the appropriate day. What I didn’t count on, was that the resort’s wireless network would be down the entire time. Three days left of Salsa Week, and three days with no internet access – so much for good intentions!
But tonight I’m back online and ready to get on with the salsa love!
The inspiration for this salsa started with some of my favorite oven roasted salsa recipes. I love the way a little heat transforms the sugars in the tomatoes and develops an crave-able rich flavor, but in the middle of tomato season, turning on the oven to slow roast salsa ingredients for an hour isn’t always practical or appealing. I started to think, if roasting produces a little salsa magic, why not try the grill?
I prepared a variety of heirloom tomatoes (Opalka, Carbon, Striped Roman, Old German, and Amish Paste), peppers (Anahiem, Black Hungarian, Jalapeno, and Serrano), tomatillos, onion, and a few cloves of garlic by tossing them in olive oil and then spread them out on the hot grill. I also grabbed an ear of sweet corn to roast on the grill along with the other ingredients.
I grilled everything just long enough to soften it all up a bit and achieve a little char, but not long enough to fully cook everything all the way through (the exception: the sweet corn and the garlic cloves – get those babies soft and caramelized). After coming off the grill, I coarsely chopped everything and mixed it all together. The result was a rich, thick-sauced chunky salsa with lots of warmth and body. I really liked it as is, but tried a pinch of cumin with a little of the salsa and really liked what that did with the flavor as well. Some fresh cilantro would be another good way to finish off this salsa. Whichever route you go, one this is for sure: you’ll be dipping into this salsa over and over again until it’s gone!
8-10 heirloom tomatoes
2 large sweet peppers,
6 chili peppers
4 large tomatillos
1 large onion
3 large garlic cloves
Prepare the ingredients to go on the grill: trim tomatoes and onions and slice in half; leave peppers, tomatillos, and garlic cloves whole. In a large bowl, toss all ingredients with olive oil and then transfer to a hot grill.
Grill until the ingredients begin to soften and have a little char, but are not cooked all the way through. It will take more time for the peppers, onions, garlic and corn, and less time for the tomatoes and tomatillos.
Allow ingredients to rest until cool enough to handle. Coarsely chop ingredients and combine in a large bowl.
Optional: add a couple of pinches of cumin! or a handful of chopped cilantro! or both!
Note: this recipe has not been tested for canning
Salsa Week continues with another quick and tasty fresh salsa today: Ground Cherry Salsa!
You may recall my adventures in starting ground cherries were a little hit and miss earlier this spring. After all of my efforts to grow ground cherry seedlings ended in failure, I scratched what was left of the seed packet directly into the garden soil, watered, and hoped for the best. I figured since most people who grow ground cherries talk about how readily they reseed themselves, it was worth a shot, and wouldn’t you know it, that’s what finally did the trick!
Ground Cherries are extremely fragrant and have a bright, complex, almost tropical flavor that is sweet and fruity like a pineapple, but full and smooth, kind of like the flesh of a really sweet cherry tomato. When picked a little on the green side, they tend to be a kind of tart, but when fully ripe, they are sweet and smooth.
They are a member of the solanaceae family, and the growth habit is very similar to tomatillos, only on a smaller scale. The marble-sized fruits are a little fussy to harvest and clean, but well worth the effort. As they ripen, the husks start to turn from green to yellow, and the fruit falls to the ground (thus, the name ground cherry). Every day I search the ground beneath the plants for the day’s windfall. It often is only a handful or so, but picking them off the ground right away is the best way to keep the ants and other sweet-toothed insects from finding them first!
Once collected, the husks are removed and the fruit rinsed clean. In falling to the ground, it’s not uncommon for a little dirt to find its way inside the husk and onto the fruit, but the berries clean up quite easily with a little running water (one here or there might need a little rub to remove dirt). It’s also not uncommon for some of the fallen ground cherries to be a little green still. If that is the case, just set them out in a small bowl and they will fully ripen in a day or two.
In preparing this salsa, I simply cut them in quarters with a serrated knife (I prefer this salsa with a little more body, but you could also pulse them in the food processor a couple of times to cut down on the prep time a little). I love both the golden color and the tropical aroma they bring to this salsa–it’s very fresh and light.
Because the ground cherries are sweeter, this is a salsa that lends itself well to some good heat. I used a couple of red chili peppers (Black Hungarian), but I would love to try this out with the slightly hotter Joe’s Round that aren’t quite ripe yet, or a bright red Santa Fe Grande, and I also have hunch that a little bit of finely diced habanero would add an interesting dimension to this salsa. The red chili pepper and red onion keep things bright and colorful, and the fresh cilantro and lime juice really pull it all together. Go ahead and throw and extra handful of cilantro in this one–you won’t be sorry!
Ground Cherry Salsa
2 cups ground cherries
1/4 cup diced red onion
2 red chili peppers*
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilanto
Juice from 1 lime
Pinch of sea salt
Finely dice ground cherries and peppers and combine with onion, and cilantro. Add a pinch of sea salt and the lime juice and toss to mix all ingredients.
*increase or decrease as necessary, depending on the heat level of the variety of red chili used
Salsa Week is FINALLY here! In keeping with this year’s strange growing season, it’s a little late (it’s usually the first week of September), but given that the last week has felt a lot more like the last week of August than the last week of September, it somehow seems appropriate to wrap up September in this way – and I’m kicking it all off with salsa in its purest form: Salsa Cruda
Last February Mike and I spent a week in Mexico for an early 5 year wedding anniversary celebration (the real deal was last week). For an entire week, we ate most of our breakfasts and lunches at a little open air beach-front restaurant with this view:
And each and every one of those meals included Salsa Cruda in some shape or form: incorporated into a breakfast omelet, served along with any number of authentic Mexican lunch entrees, and straight up with chips, salsa, and fresh guacamole as we sipped margaritas and anticipated a fresh seafood lunch. We definitely ate our fill and I knew before we were even halfway through our vacation that Salsa Cruda was happening with this summer’s garden harvest.
Salsa Cruda is simple and pure: finely chopped tomatoes, onion, jalapeno, and cilantro. That’s it–no extra seasoning, no dressing, no extra ingredients, just fresh, uncomplicated flavors that meld together perfectly. A meaty roma or paste-type tomato with good fresh flavor is key (my favorites are Striped Roman and Amish Paste). If possible, select tomatoes that are ripe, but still a little on the firm side, which will give the salsa good body.
I will admit that you can’t really duplicate the ambiance of the Mexican Riveria Maya, but a warm late September evening on the deck with a delicious sun-ripened and homegrown tomato salsa is a pretty great close second.
And just like in Mexico, you’ll find the bottom of the bowl way too quickly!
4 large roma or paste type tomatoes
1/2 large onion
2-3 jalapeno peppers*
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
pinch of sea salt (optional)
Remove seeds from tomatoes and jalapenos. Finely chop all ingredients and toss together in a bowl to combine.
Flavor is best if salsa is allowed to rest for about 20 minutes before serving to allow flavors to meld; a pinch of sea salt can help this process along, but is not necessary.
*increase or decrease the amount of jalapeno to achieve desired heat level
I was really, really hoping that I had a few more weeks before I had to finish up this post, but unfortunately for many here in Minnesota, the potential to see our first frost in the next day or two is looking more and more likely. Fortunately, frost in the forecast doesn’t necessary mean the garden season is coming to an abrupt end. With a little effort and a few basic supplies, you can cover up your plants to protect your garden from frost and keep it growing for several more weeks.
When to Cover
Predicting frost can be a little tricky at times. As accurate as weather forecasts can be, they are not always perfect. We’ve all experienced days where the actual temperature has fallen a bit short or exceeded the projected high, so it goes without saying that the same can happen when the weather models are forecasting the overnight lows. There are also a lot of local environmental variables that can make the actual temperature in your garden a few degrees warmer or colder than the surrounding area, making it possible to experience frost in your garden even when the forecasted low is higher than 32 degrees and no frost or freeze advisories have been issued.
A difference of just a few degrees can make a pretty big difference when you’re hovering close to freezing, which is why it’s important to know the conditions that increase your chances of frost:
- Clear Skies: Clouds act as a blanket, holding the heat of the day in the atmosphere and keeping temperatures more even overnight. When skies are clear, that heat is more readily lost, and overnight temperatures tend to dip lower.
- Low Humidity: The more moisture there is in the air, the easier it is for the air to maintain daytime temperatures. When the dew point is at 45 or less, frost is more likely.
- Still Air: Cold air is heavier than warm air, so on nights when there is no breeze to keep the air moving, the cold air settles on the ground and increases the chances of frost.
- Location: Along the same lines, if your garden is situated in a low spot or at the bottom of the hill, it is more susceptible to frost than gardens that are situated on higher ground. Similarly, gardens with southern exposure retain more heat during the day than gardens with northern exposure.
There are a number of factors related to your specific micro-climate that can come into play as well, like tree cover, proximity to bodies of water or other heat-retaining features of the landscape, and urban density.
As a general rule, I tend to pay close attention whenever I see the forecast call for a low of 40 or lower. For me, that’s the “too close for comfort” threshold, and the point at which I find myself really evaluating if extra precaution is necessary. At 40 degrees, I may or may not decide to cover the garden, depending on the conditions and details of the forecast, but when the low gets within about 5 degrees of freezing, I usually go ahead and cover the garden no matter what, because I’d rather be safe than sorry.
It is also important to look beyond the immediate forecast for frost and see what the long-term forecast is looking like. If it appears that temperatures are going to rebound, it can be worth your time to cover the most vulnerable plants in your garden, but if the long term forecast shows little chance for a return to good growing conditions, you may want to weigh your options to simply harvest what you can and let the rest go.
What to Cover
Knowing how to quickly triage your garden when frost is forecast can be a huge time and energy saver, particularly if your garden is so large that it is not possible to protect everything from frost.
Plants that always need protection from frost are your tender plants, like tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, beans, cucumbers, melons, squash, onions, and most herbs. These plants have a lower tolerance for cold temperatures and are likely to sustain frost damage even from a very light frost.
Plants that are more tolerant of frost include: kale, broccoli, cabbage, radishes, parsnips, carrots, spinach, lettuce, chard, beets, turnips, and celery. These cold hardy vegetables will often bounce back from a light frost as if nothing ever happened, and often can survive uncovered until you are facing a hard frost (when the temperature drops below 25 degrees and stays below 25 degrees for several hours).
What should you skip, if you can’t cover everything? Skip the rhubarb, strawberries, and any other perennial fruit or vegetable that has already produced its crop for the year. These plants have already stored up nutrients for next year, and there is really no advantage to keeping them going a few more weeks. Likewise, skip any plants that have significantly slowed in production or quality. The small number of extra beans or one more cucumber that you might be able to harvest in the next few weeks is probably not worth the effort at this point in the season, whereas a tomato plant loaded with lots of green tomatoes might still have a chance at ripening a good number of fruit.
What Kind of Cover to Use
The best covers for your garden are lightweight fabric, like sheets, light blankets, and burlap. Heavier cloth like canvas tarps, drop cloths, or comforter-style blankets can also be used, but it it might be a good idea to use some sort of support to help bear the weight so as not to crush or damage the plants. You can also use newspaper or large pots to cover low to the ground plants.
These materials are ideal because they are breathable, and they easily insulate your garden by trapping a layer of warm air around the plant.
The use of plastic sheets or plastic tarps should be avoided unless you are able to utilize supports to tent the plastic over the plants without the plastic coming into contact with the foliage. Plastic acts as a conduit for cold temperatures, and if the plastic is in direct contact with the plant, you are likely to see damage to the leaves because there is no layer of air between the plant and the plastic to insulate from those cold temperatures. The moisture that can become trapped underneath the plastic can be problematic for this reason as well.
Plastic can, however, be used as a secondary layer, placed over a first layer of cloth covers if wet weather is anticipated along with the frost.
How to Cover:
If possible, water your garden really well the morning before frost is predicted. Wet soil will hold more heat than dry soil, and you want to capture as much daytime heat as you can when frost is in the forecast (mulching your garden can have the same effect).
Wait to cover your garden until the sun starts to get low in the sky and is no longer having a heating effect on the garden. Ideally, you want to cover the garden before the sun sets, so you have enough light to ensure that everything is properly covered, but I have certainly spent more than a few nights in the garden with a flashlight, frantically covering everything in the dark, so ultimately you do what you need to do when the tomato crop is at stake!
Start by draping the fabric over the plants, making sure that there is enough material to reach all the way to the ground. This is important because the soil is where most of your heat is stored, and you want that heat to help warm the pocket of air you are creating around the plants with your covers. Overlap your covers as necessary to make sure that there are no gaps where heat can escape and cold air can settle in.
Once everything is covered, start to tuck the covers in around the edges. Fold the material around the plants, and tuck it in at ground level to ensure that all of the foliage is under cover. You don’t want to pull the material in too close to the base of the plant, but rather let it naturally fall straight down to maximize the benefit of the heat that the soil has retained throughout the day. As necessary, use rocks, bricks, or other heavy weights to hold the bottom of your material in place and to prevent the covers from blowing open or off in the wind. Clothes pins can also come in handy to keep two pieces of material together or to secure a piece of material to the top of a tomato cage or fence.
It is safe to uncover your plants as soon as the temperature warms back up above freezing. This usually happens within an hour or two of sunrise, but it can take longer, depending on how low the temperature dropped overnight. Obviously the air flow and sunlight are good for the plant, but more importantly, you want the plant and the ground underneath it to start warming up as quickly as possible.
However, if you are like me and usually leave for work in the morning before the sun rises, it is better to just leave the covers in place than to risk taking them off too soon. When conditions are favorable for frost, the temperature usually continues to drop until just after sunrise. Leaving your plants covered all day isn’t ideal, but it’s not really going to seriously harm your plants either if it’s just for a day (or two, if there is a stretch of cold nights). As long as you are using light fabric covers, enough air and light can pass through that the plant will survive; you just won’t see the ground or the plant warm up as quickly. If you are using plastic covers, it is more critical to remove the covers, or at the very least vent the covers to allow for air flow.
Finally, allow the covers to dry out before returning them to storage, but don’t put them too far out of reach just yet. This time of year the forecast can change quickly, and you never know when you might need to protect the garden from frost!
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