With first average freeze dates being just that – averages – it’s important to be prepared ahead of time, in case your freeze comes earlier this year. So how should you prepare your garden for a freeze?
How Mulch Can Help You Prepare for a Freeze
The beginning of fall is a good time to add mulch to your garden. It helps regulate the soil temperature to prevent the ground from freezing.
Apply at least 4 inches of mulch around the base of your crops for the best protection.
Use Row Covers to Prevent Frost Damage
Depending on the row cover you use, you may be able to keep your crops anywhere from 2 – 10 degrees warmer. There are several options, so you can select the one that best suits your needs.
I use rebar, PVC pipe and row covers that keep my plants 3° warmer, but on warm, sunny days, I make sure to remove the row covers so the plants don’t get too hot – this is especially important to if you live somewhere with mild winters.
If you live where winter weather is extreme, check out Elliot Coleman’s The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year Round Vegetable Production Using Deep-Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses for more tips on growing through the winter in cold climates.
Which plants should I cover?
Different crops have different frost tolerances and even still there are specific varieties that hold up better in colder temperatures.
Warm season crops most likely will not survive a frost and, even if they do, their growth will be stunted by the colder temperatures.
As far as cool season crops go, there are a lot of variables (e.g. maturity of plants, soil temperature before frost hits, how quickly the temperature drops, microclimate, specific varieties). Botanical Interests lists common edibles that can withstand a light or hard frost. While this information has helped me make informed decisions in the past, it isn’t always a perfect predictor. Last year, my arugula, Swiss chard and cabbage did not survive a hard frost. Some varieties of lettuce didn’t survive while others did, and my lavender, garlic, cilantro, spinach, carrots, kale, collard greens, rosemary, sage and bok choy all survived just fine with no coverage at all.
It may take a winter or two to get a better idea of how the varieties you grow do in your specific microclimate. Until then, let your goals be your guide. If you’re experimenting and learning, cover some and not others or leave all them exposed and record the results. If you are growing food for your family for winter and don’t want to risk losing any crops – cover them!
How to store row covers when not in use
During seasons when you aren’t using the row cover, fold it and store it in a container to keep it clean in between uses. If you have multiple covers that are different sizes, you may want to consider labeling each one to make the process of covering your produce go faster in the future.
Use Water to Protect Against Frost Damage
According to Today’s Homeowner, it’s important to water your soil before the ground freezes – just be careful to moisten it and not soak it. The article recommends watering a day before the freeze, when temperature are above 40°F and there is no snow or ice on the ground.
Move Plants Inside to Keep Them Warmer
If possible, move your potted plants into a garage, greenhouse or another type of shelter to protect them from freezing temperatures.
Stay Informed of Weather Changes
In addition to frequently checking the weather, set up a weather alert app on your phone or computer to warn you about changes in weather and advisories for your area such as these:
- wind chill advisory
- frost advisory
- freeze watch/warning
- winter weather advisory
- freezing rain advisory
- ice storm warning
- blizzard warning
- winter storm watch
Additionally, it’s important to think about how quickly temperatures are changing. In Texas, we can experience a month with highs in the 70’s and then all of a sudden dip down to 32°F. This extreme change – although not below freezing – can actually cause more damage because the plants haven’t had a chance to acclimate to the new temperature. If you experience a drastic change in your weather, it’s best to protect your plants to be on the safe side.
It’s also good to remember that clear skies bring the coldest nights.
Know Your Microclimate
While your local weather should be adequate for predicting the weather in your backyard, the most accurate information will come from a thermometer that’s actually present in your growing space.
When discussing frost and freezing temperatures, a few degrees can make a huge difference, and no matter what you read or who you talk to, it may be slightly different in your specific growing space.
It’s best to either exercise caution knowing that your backyard may be a few degrees cooler, or get a thermometer and become the expert of your growing space.
When winter is on its way, it’s important to be prepared regardless of how low the temperatures are dropping, how dramatically they are changing or how long they are supposed to stay low.
Overall, my best advice is to observe your space and record your results. Knowing how the specific varieties of seeds I grew handled the winter weather changes last year is the best information I have going into this year because it is specific to my growing space.