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First frost in the garden

09/09/04 12:00AM By Henry Homeyer
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(Host) As gardeners everywhere listen to the weather forcasts more intently, commentator Henry Homeyer has some advice about extending the season a bit longer.


(Homeyer) Frost. The word instills fear in the hearts of gardeners about this time of year. We've had a cool, rainy summer, and I still have lots of green tomatoes I'm hoping to ripen on the vine.

We live in a place where, if Mark Breen says "Frost in the cold pockets", we get a frost. Not the ideal site for a gardening guy like me. But over the years, I've learned to cope.

It means covering the garden every night when frost is a possibility, as early frosts are often followed by a month of warm weather.

If the temperature has dropped to the low fifties by 6 pm, the night is clear, and frost warnings are out, I cover my sensitive vegetables. It doesn't take much to save the squash or tomatoes from damage. Even a thin layer of plastic will shield them from a light frost, and hold in the earth's heat that radiates all night.

Later, when temperatures are due to drop into the mid twenties, I cover my favorites with old bedspreads or multiple layers of plastic. I use rocks and bricks to keep the plastic from blowing off during the night.

When a hard frost is forecast, I pick any tomato with a little red on it, as these I can ripen on the kitchen counter. My grandfather always picked bushels of green tomatoes before frost and ripened them slowly in the barn. He wrapped each one in newspaper, and checked them daily for rot. I've tried doing so, but have found that even a small imperfection will soon turn a tomato into mush. And although he continued to eat his own tomatoes until Christmas some years, I don't find a 2-month old tomato very appetizing, even if it is my own.

Potatoes, on the other hand, I store all winter with no problem. They need to be stored between 35 and 55 degrees, and with high humidity. My cellar stays chilly, usually in the 40's, so I built a cement bloc enclosure with a plywood lid to store root crops. This keeps them cool and protects them for invading field mice.

If you don't have such a place, you might be able to store potatoes in 5 gallon buckets on the steps of a bulkhead. If you have a heated basement, hang a tarp or blanket over the opening to the cellar to keep your potatoes cooler. Some moist sand in the bottom of the buckets will help with the humidity, but don't close your buckets with plastic lids.

If you get caught by a light frost and haven't covered your garden, don't despair. Just go out early and wash off the frost with your hose. It's not a cure-all, but it helps.

As much as I love fall and winter, I try to resist their incursion into my garden for as long as I can. I just wish I could keep my tomatoes growing all winter long.

This is the gardening guy, Henry Homeyer, in Cornish Flat, New Hampshire.

Henry Homeyer is a gardening writer and columnist. He spoke from our studio in Norwich.
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