5 Ways To Prepare The Garden For Fall's First Frost

Whether you like it or not, winter is coming. The telltale signs are everywhere. The trees are beginning to show their beautiful colors, each passing morning ushers in cooler temps paired with dense fog. Oh, yes, winter is coming, and for some, the first frost is days away. 

Before you pack it up and head into the cave for winter, do these five things to protect your garden from winter doom.

1. Container pots: Cluster or Comin' in? Before you resolve to drag your container pots in every frost, decide now which will stay out and which will come in for the winter.  

Before dragging plants inside, spray with an organic pesticide, like neem oil, to rid the plants of unwanted stowaways.

According to HGTV Gardens: Evergreens in large pots may be fine during mild winters, but evergreens in small pots should be protected. Place them against a wall and cover the pots with mulch or shredded leaves. Keep them watered throughout the winter. Don't allow the root balls of evergreens to dry out completely, even if it means dragging the hose out in the middle of winter and giving them a thorough soaking. 

FUN FACT: There are two types of Frost: 

Advective Frost: (Rare for the first frost) occur when a cold front sweeps into an area. Winds are typically gusty, clouds may occur and the thickness of the cold air layer may reach more than a mile high. 

Radiation: (Most common): Occur under a clear sky and calm winds. Clear skies and calm winds allow radiant heat from the Earth to rise to the upper layers of the atmosphere. Lack of wind prevents mixing of the air and an inversion layer develops. An inversion means that atmospheric conditions are inverse or opposite of normal daytime conditions when air temperature decreases with height. In an inversion, cold air collects near the ground while warmer air lies above this trapped cold layer. 

2. It's not the temps outside, it's the temps inside the plants that matter. According to  

Cornell University Cooperative Extension, Chemung County:
"The essential criterion in damaging plants is not the appearance of frost, but the internal temperature in various tissues of the plant. If this is cold enough to break cell walls or disrupt cell constituents beyond repair, damage, wilting, and death will occur in affected tissues. Frost will not always cause this degree of chilling within plant tissue, nor is it the only cause."

3. Harvest Sensitive Crops Before Frost. Plants like tomatoes, which are complete wussies at fighting the first frost, should be harvested prior to frost. If you have very sensitive crops, and no way to protect the plants, harvest all fruit that is in the mature green stage of ripening. Fruit harvested at this stage will still ripen. (Don't expect the same full harvest flavor.) 

Tip from Cornell Cooperative: Place fruit in a single layer in a warm (Above 55f), dark location with some air movement. Tomatoes and other fruit do not need light to ripen. In fact, light will slow ripening.  

4. Water, Water, Water, Water. And also... Water.  Did you know: Moist soil can hold four times more heat than a dry soil! #True Watering well the evening before the frost is essentially throwing a huge blanket across the yard.

Moist soil further aids in frost protection and prevention by conducting heat to the soil surface faster than dry soil. A study found the air temperature above a wet soil was 5 degrees F higher than that above a dry soil and the difference was maintained until 6 a.m. the next morning.

Note: Frost-damaged leaves appear water-soaked, shrivel and turn dark brown or black.

5. Careful Covering Is Key. Walking outside at midnight and throwing a plastic bag on the plants will result in a fail. Instead, use woven fabrics and wooden steaks to create a covering, with limited direct contact with the plant--protection is less wherever the cover touches the plant. Covers provide 2-5 degrees more protection, which can be significant to the super sensitive plants. (I have a box of old sheet and shirts I've collected for the plants in the shed ready to go)

Consider a pop-up greenhouse for temporary frost areas, overwintering, and to preserve crops a month or two more!

I used this one last year and it worked great! 

The plastic cover was thin, but worked well for me in Zone 6. Everything overwintered, including begonias and a spider plant! After the winter, I disassembled the top and used the shelves separately in the garden for shelving and planting. I just ordered a new greenhouse since the current shelves are permanently being used, and was pleasantly surprised to see it had a major upgrade! The cover is now woven mesh lined. Exactly what it needed. Totally worth the $50!


The bottom line: Winter is blowing in. There's no slowing it down, or fighting it. It's time to start preparing the garden for overwintering, and find a workout routine so the winter months don't make you dormant, too.  

April is an award-winning writer and blogger. Her work has been published in over ten countries and four languages. From books to newspapers, to print/online magazines and everything in between, you can find her work. For more on April, Visit AprilMcCormick.com