Archives for posts with tag: frost

There gets to be a point when it is just weird to still have vegetables growing in the garden.

I mean, it’s November already. My thoughts are turning to Thanksgiving—only a few weeks away—and its menu of turkey, gravy, and stuffing. Tomatoes and bell peppers seem completely out of place.

And, of course, there is the weather. It was warm much later than usual this year but it has finally turned cold and frost will be here soon. It’s time to clear things out.

Thanks to the late fall and the crazy growth that came with it (see October 17, 2014), we have many green tomatoes. There are probably as many green cherry tomatoes now as there were red and yellow cherry tomatoes in the entire season up till now. I’m not exaggerating.

And I’m not complaining, either.

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A funny thing happened to our tomato plants as the growing season started to wind down for the year. They went berserk!

Usually, production of new fruit diminishes at this time of year. Fewer flowers blossom and once the weather gets colder, the pollinators stop visiting them. The fruit that remains ripens only slowly, if at all (often, it doesn’t).

But this year, the number of blossoms has actually increased as we have moved later into the fall. And, apparently, the bees haven’t packed it in yet. Most of the blossoms have been pollinated and many fruits have set.

This is particularly true of the Black Cherry tomatoes. All of the remaining branches are supporting multiple clusters of dozens of tomatoes. Most of them are green but each cluster includes a handful that are starting to turn red.

With no signs of frost in the short-term forecast, it looks like we’ll be eating tomatoes at Thanksgiving!

We were under a Frost Advisory last night. That’s the warmest of the cold-weather cautionary notices issued by the National Weather Service. It indicates that temperatures may drop into the range of 36 to 33 degrees over the duration of the advisory.

Was there any real threat? No. The overnight low forecast for our area was in the upper 30s, at the upper end of the advisory scale. Frost was possible, especially at daybreak, but not very likely to occur.

Did I cover the garden anyway? Yes. Even as the likelihood of frost or freezing temperatures diminishes, the consequences of their occurrence increases. The farther along the vegetables are, the more exposed they are to damage. Also, the later in the growing season that damage occurs, the larger the investment (of time, energy, materials) that is lost.

It’s a good example of risk analysis. Moderate likelihood multiplied by high consequences produces moderate risk which can be mitigated with low cost (throwing plastic sheeting over the planters is easy, provided I get the warning in time). Overall, the risk to the garden is low.

The temperature did drop into the 30s overnight but there was no frost this morning nor signs that anything froze. It has gotten very easy to throw the plastic tarp over the planters so “better safe than sorry” is my philosophy.

Timing remains critical, however. I must wait until the sun has set (or is about to set) before placing the black plastic sheeting over the planter and in the morning, I need to get outside early and remove it before the sun’s rays fall directly onto the garden. Otherwise, the planter would become a solar oven and in no time, we would have roasted beets and carrots.

We’re leaving on a road trip tomorrow which motivated me to do more potting up this afternoon. The basil was ready to go—the seedlings are about three inches in height—but the other herbs are coming along much more slowly. The rosemary is growing at a particularly leisurely pace. Despite three months under the lights and over a heating pad, the seedlings are still mere wisps with only a few leaves each. I potted them up anyway, along with the sage, oregano, thyme and spearmint.

I also moved the eggplant and red bell peppers into pots. Like the planting before it, the second try at orange bell peppers yielded no seedlings. Clearly, this lot of seeds has lost its viability—and much sooner than expected. In general, the germination rates of last year’s seeds are very low, leading me to conclude that saving seeds is probably not worthwhile after all.

To wrap up the potting, I transplanted the second batch of lettuce heads into another pair of window boxes. This presented me with a storage problem because although I can fit two drainage trays onto each shelf of the seed-starting apparatus, there isn’t enough room in a tray for two of these larger planters.

So I ditched the trays and doubled up on the window boxes. The boxes that contain the soil and lettuce have their drainage plugs removed while the boxes into which they are nested do not. The lower boxes act as water catchment devices without taking up much more space than single planters. And even better, four of the compact units fit crosswise on a shelf. I may have figured out how to have fresh lettuce year ‘round.

We had a relatively warm and bright morning today, something that we will not have many more of (the warm part, anyway) until spring.  So, after breakfast, we performed another round of fall clean-up in the garden.

It is not as if everything is dead or dying—there has been no killing frost so far—and yet, nothing is developing very quickly.  The growth of the squashes, in particular, has slowed to a near stop.  There are plenty of zucchini and crooknecks and even a few large yellow blossoms—all beaming like it was still August—but none of the squashes has gotten any bigger than a few inches in length.

I have to keep in mind that the squashes are summer vegetables and we are now squarely in fall.  The zucchini and crooknecks are past their season and it is time to let them go.

Pulling out the vines was relatively easy.  The only difficult part was finding where they were rooted to the ground.  Summer squashes grow from one central stem along which the leaves and fruit radiate.  After the squashes ripen and are harvested, the leaves wither and die, leaving their section of stem barren.

At the same time, the leading tip of the stem continues to grow outward and new leaves, blossoms and fruit are created.  As a result, after four months of bounteous growth, the vines reach a length of several feet.  The active end gets separated from its starting point and the intervening stem gets buried by fallen trees leaves.  At a casual glance, it looks as though the vines have moved around the garden.

The winter squashes we grew this year develop in a similar manner.  But instead of letting the Naguri squash (a Kabocha-like variety) trail spread out on the ground, we trained it up and around a tripod of garden stakes.  When we removed the vine last week (see October 13, 2013 for photos), it had reached the top of the tripod, within striking distance of the temple bell that hangs there.

The Zeppelin Delicata squash looked as though it would follow the same path as the summer squashes.  Sadly, though, it got no farther than the perimeter of its mound of soil.  It produced only a few fruit, none of which got any bigger than an inch or so in length.  For us, their name was something of a misnomer.  I wouldn’t even characterize them as weather balloons.

Well, the temperature never dropped below 40 degrees, so there was no real danger of frost.  Yes, 40 degrees is cold—more wintery than autumnal—but not low enough to damage anything.  Still, everybody (people included) will be moving slowly until the sun warms us up again.

Of course, the frost warning underscores the fact that we are in an end-of-season race with the weather.  We have plenty of fruit—tomatoes, peppers, eggplants, string beans and squash—that could potentially ripen if given enough time.  The question is, will a damaging frost or freeze occur before the vegetables are ready for harvest?  It’ll be a closer finish than I think because the days are shorter and the garden more shaded than in summer.

If the summer squashes froze, it would be no great loss; they have yielded many fruits already this year and, in fact, this is the first season that we have actually had enough.  The same is true of the string beans.  We will make one more search through the vines to collect the stragglers before pulling the vines out.

There are many tomatoes left and it would be a shame if most of them cannot reach maturity.  On the other hand, there is plenty that can be done with them when green.

We didn’t get many bell peppers but we did enjoy the few we had (with sausage and onions).  There are several in the earliest stages of development (right now, they are green miniatures of their full-grown selves).  It would be nice to have a few more but I consider this year’s experience to be research into ways to achieve better success next year.

My main hope is that the eggplants can survive until they are ready for harvest.  At their current size of about three inches in length, they would not make much of a meal (although I’m sure that they will be delicious at any size).  If we are lucky, however, they will continue to enlarge until big enough for us to throw on the grill or roast in the oven.  Two of them have a good chance; the others are questionable.

Warning:  Insect photo below.

We have reached—and moved beyond—the point of diminishing returns on the basil.  It has grown much faster than we can use it and now, the leaves are starting to deflate and turn yellow.  The plants still smell divine—this has been by far the most aromatic basil I have ever grown—and their flavor remains bold and clear.  But the basil won’t be getting any better and could easily start to degrade.

Therefore, we decided to end the season for the original planting (at the southeast corner of the east planter) and clear-cut the lot.  Doing so produced a huge pile of leaves, enough for several batches of pesto.  In addition to the usual recipe—with pine nuts and parmesan—we will vary the nut and cheese options.  One batch will use walnuts or pistachio nuts and another will include Pecorino Romano.  We’ll also make what might more aptly be called basil paste, with neither nuts nor cheese.

The basil’s corner of the planter now looks a bit ravaged, like a miniature tornado tore through it.  Eventually, I will pull out the stubs and roots as part of my fall clean-up.  Meanwhile, the more recently planted basil in the southwest corner of the planter will provide enough green leaves to add to salads, etc., until the first frost.  If we get enough warning (the National Weather Service is not always timely), we will clear-cut this basil as well.

Because I already had the clippers out (and I had to use the big ones; the basil stems were large and tough), I took yet another pass at pruning the tomato vines.  My periodic cutting and trimming has been keeping them partially in control although the branches are still more tightly entwined than I would like.  It is reassuring that the plants remain healthy and robust.

I had been holding my breath, hoping that we might make it through the year without seeing a tomato hornworm.  But, really, what was I thinking?  Sure enough, as I was untangling a couple of Brandywine branches, I uncovered a large hornworm, calmly munching away.  It hadn’t done much damage but I shudder to think of how many leaves it could have eaten if it had been left undiscovered.

This is the latest in the season we have made it without finding any of them.  Last year, the first hornworm appeared in mid-August; in 2011, we had two broods, one in mid-July (which seems very early) and another in late-September.  After three seasons of vegetable gardening, I have concluded that the presence of this particular pest falls into the “inevitable” category.  If you grow them (tomatoes), they (hornworms) will come.

At the other end of the garden, the Purple Amethyst and Roma II string beans have been quietly producing an abundance of beans.  Perhaps stealthily would be a better description.  A casual glance at the plants—a wall of leafy vines clinging to the trellis—might mislead one into thinking that no beans were present.  But after reaching into the vines and pushing the leaves aside, a multitude of ripening beans is revealed.  They dangle vertically, parallel to the vines and protected from the sun by the leaves.

We are growing purple beans, which aside from their color look quite typical, and Italian-style beans, which are wider and flatter with larger lumps (the actual beans).  Rachel grew up with the latter but they are relatively new to me.  They have a distinctly vegetal flavor—their taste might be the definition of green—and are delicious steamed and/or sautéed with lots of butter.

We’re not the only ones who like them.  Several of the beans had been tunneled through by creatures unknown.  They are some type of worm, judging by the entry and exit holes, and left the beans looking like Swiss cheese.

Late yesterday afternoon, the National Weather Service posted a frost advisory for our area.  I didn’t see this until I checked the forecast at about 9:00 pm.  The advisory did not seem to make sense—the expected overnight temperature was warmer than 40 degrees—but just to be on the safe side, I covered the garden with a sheet of black plastic.  The effects of micro-climate should not be underestimated.

The temperature did drop into the 30s (but only just, at 39 degrees) so there was no real danger of frost.  Still, I imagine that the peas, carrots, turnips, radishes and beets appreciated the protection.  They have spent their entire (if short) lives out in the cold and probably envy their cousins (the tomatoes, squash, cucumbers, eggplant, bell peppers and basil) who have yet to venture outdoors.

Now that we are into the month of May, the risk of further frosty nights is rapidly diminishing.  It’s tempting to think that the threat has vanished but statistics don’t work that way.  No, there is still a non-zero chance of freezing temperatures but the probability has dropped below ten percent.

We’ve been starting to think about this year’s garden which is the first step towards actually doing something about it.

When planning at this early stage, the milestone that comes up most often is the average date of last frost.  Seed choice, time of sowing, period of hardening off, and date to transplant all work backwards (or forwards) from this important seasonal transition.

So, when is it?

In the old days, we would ask an old-timer or consult an almanac.  I don’t know anyone around here who falls into the former category but there are a variety of almanac websites (and, presumably, one can still buy a print version), most of which provide a list of cities and dates.  Looking at the Farmers’ Almanac, for instance, I found a map of the US and after clicking on New York, a short list of cities popped up.  The nearest to us is Albany for which the average last spring frost is May 2.

That was very simple and convenient but Albany is significantly farther north than we are.  Also, the notes indicate that there is a 50 percent chance that frost will occur on a later date, which sounds risky.  With further research, I thought I might be able to determine whether the risk of frost—with a higher confidence level—might be expected to end earlier.

Other websites attempted to refine their estimate by combining information from several nearby cities, based on our zip code.  For example, Moon Garden Calendar presented data for Poughkeepsie (to the north of us) and Yorktown Heights (to the south).  For a 10 percent probability of exceedance (the site allows a choice), the dates range between May 14 and April 29; a linear interpolation would give us May 7.  At Dave’s Garden, three cities were presented (Mohonk Lake and Middletown, both across the river from us, and Poughkeepsie) and their information was averaged for me.  The “almost guaranteed” date after which frost will not occur is May 4.

These dates still seemed late to me so I went looking for other sources.  I next tried the Cornell Cooperative Extension (CCE), which provides a map on which rough contours have been plotted.  Based on this map—which is extremely low in its resolution—we are on the border between a last spring frost in the range of April 30 to May 10 and April 20 to 30, with proximity to the Hudson River clearly accounting for the latter zone.  We are in a transitional area with a microclimate that depends not just on the river but elevation as well.  Apparently, I needed a more detailed map.

A little web searching led me to PlantMaps.  This site is a great example of a geographical information system (GIS), where a lot of available information is linked to a physical location.  In this case, after entering my zip code, I was presented with a zoomed-in interactive map of New York hardiness zones (see July 28, 2011), along with a list of other available maps, among them a Last Frost Date map.  I clicked on this link, and was directed to another color-coded contour map.

This one appeared to be in greater detail than the CCE version—after all, it is powered by Google Maps—but the problem with it is that because of all of the detail (roads, terrain, satellite imagery, etc.), the contour colors are difficult to match with the legend.  As best as I can tell, we are located somewhere between a last frost date of May 1 to 10 and April 21 to 30.  This is essentially the same result as before but with higher resolution.

Which should not be a surprise.  The source cited by all of these websites is the National Climatic Data Center, a part of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.  They maintain data for a long list of locations in each state, compile and average them, and maintain contour maps that present the information visually (the raw data is also available in text form).  Their map (which is low resolution, just like CCE’s) puts us squarely in the May 1 to 15 zone of last spring frost; the nearest city listed in their database is West Point, with a last spring frost date of May 3.  The Farmers’ Almanac had it right after all.

Based on all of this, we are approximately 14 weeks before the last frost.  Therefore, we’re already behind!  Of course, I knew that before I even started this exercise.

It’s Election Day!  Finally, an end to the relentless campaigning that has filled every day since the spring (remember the interminable Republican primaries and debates?).  We voted early this morning and even though this is my eleventh presidential election—and who knows how many other state, local and school votes there have been—it never gets less thrilling.

It was very cold over night—temperatures dropped into the low 20s—and we awoke to a frigid and frosty morning.  Now that Halloween has passed, the National Weather Service no longer issues warnings (cold weather can now be expected every night, I guess) but I check the forecast every day and was prepared.  I brought in the last garden hose last night and shut off the faucet from inside the basement.

But I decided not to cover the radishes.  They have not been making much progress and it is unlikely that they would ever reach full maturity, especially the French Breakfast variety whose roots have not even started to enlarge.  Although the leaves were covered with a fine lace of frost, they fared better than I expected.  When the ice melted (by mid-morning), only a few of the leaves had the deflated look typical of cold-weather damage.

Nonetheless, I pulled them all up.  About half of the Pink Beauty radishes were near ripe (if small) but the other half and almost all of the French Breakfast radishes had not developed at all.  This crop is mostly leaves and in keeping with the season, we’ll sauté them (instead of throwing them into a salad).