Fall Cold Comes Unexpectedly

Fall Cold Comes Unexpectedly

Yes, Frost arrived unexpectedly this year, and definitely not on little cat's feet like Carl Sandburg's fog.


Instead of the usual teasing dips toward the freezing point, which afford the alert gardener plenty of warning, we went from nights in the high 40s to one light sweater day which spiraled downward until the thermometer hit a low of 25 degrees F.

I wasn't ready. This wasn't a matter of physical unpreparedness. After all, when it's time - it's time. You can race around the yard throwing blankets and protective tents all over things, trying to squeeze an extra week or two out of the season - and for vegetable gardening this may be essential. But when it comes to ornamentals, why postpone the inevitable?

I tried it one year. I heard the frost report on the way home from school and so ran upstairs to the linen closet and hauled out all the sheets and towels. It was, of course, dark, and so my husband and I struggled trying to make a tent around a giant brugmansia that we could barely see. It was too dark for digging, so a shield was the best we could give it. And it survived - although wherever we miscalculated and the covering actually touched the foliage, it got frostbite anyway. The blanket acted like a conductor for the cold in those spots where it actually made contact with the plant.

We struggled in the windy night trying to spread Re-may over the raised beds. Every stray gust of wind made that 30' length act like a ghostly jump rope. But we got it down.

And as a reward, we got maybe an extra five days of growing season - which we didn't go out to admire because it was just too cold to sit and enjoy the somewhat flattened remains of the garden. Three hours of work for a five minute stroll? I haven't done the cover-and-protect routine since. If it's time - it's time. And there's lots left that frost never fazes.

The problem this year was that I wasn't mentally ready. If I had been, I would already have had a firm list in my head of plants that needed to be dug before frost (the colocasia and caladium and probably the Pennisetum rubrum), those that needed to come out after they had been hit by frost (cannas, calla lilies and dahlias), and those that needed to be raced into the house before they were murdered by the frost (the jasmine and brugmansias).

brugmansiaflowerAs luck would have it, fall arrived on a Wednesday. Any other night I would be home to perform a rescue mission. But Wednesday is my very late night. So when my husband called at 10 p.m. to announce the falling temperatures, all I could do was yell through the receiver, "Bring in the brugs." I was truly thankful that he could identify those. I wasn't about to try to tell him how to find the colocasia in the dark. And I never even thought about the Pennisetum rubrum.

The next morning I went to survey the damage. It was tough getting outside, what with the two large brugs filling most of the laundry room, but at least they were safe. The garden itself looked like it had been hit by a random bomber.

The cannas and dahlias were wilted mush, the elephant ears lay curled, yellow and translucent on the ground. The castor beans looked dead. I cursed my foul luck on this one - the seeds hadn't ripened yet - but further inspection showed that the lower leaves were fine - so I cut off the tops and am hoping.

Aside from these big, frost-blackened holes in my beds the garden looked as if it were a fine day in August.

pennisetumThe pennisetum looked terrific. Next to the mish-mash of blackened dahlias, nicotiana rose staunchly and the roses that had been buds the day before were unfurling. The coneflowers and rudbeckias stood up and saluted. In fact there was so much in bloom that it was a tough job getting to the dead stuff to dig it out.

But now the tender plants are safely tucked up for the winter. I let them sit in a dry place overnight then knocked off excess dirt and trimmed the foliage, leaving only about an inch at the base of the plant. I dusted any nicks that I had inadvertently created with my trowel with Comet cleanser. Then I packed them into labeled paper bags filled with peat moss saved from the bulb packaging from this year's order. And then I tucked all the plants into the cool laundry room, which seems to have enough humidity to keep them happy all winter. Or at least I will tuck them there when we figure out what to do with the two giant brugmansias. (Somehow I just KNEW that greenhouse wasn't going to be finished on time!)

I also dug the amaryllis, which I plant out each summer after their winter show. Those that had gone dormant are repotted, sitting in darkness resting; the rest are potted up and will be watered until the leaves go yellow. Then they, too, will get a rest. I keep an eye on the dormant ones for signs that they are coming back to life, ready to add color to my winter home.

Now that there are clear areas in the bed, it's my favorite time to start the end-of-season weeding. It's always a good idea to leave the beds as free of intruders as possible over the winter. Things don't look like they're doing much - but underground, many of them are spreading roots and getting ready to take over. Get them before they get you.

Now is also a perfect time to take a plant inventory. On warmish days, I like to sit and stare at my beds, trying to envision the ideal plants to fill the holes. Where do I need new plants? What shape and texture would work with what is already there? What can be moved in spring? Is there anything taking up space that really isn't contributing to the overall design? If the answer to that one is yes, I dig and compost it. Or pass it on to someone who can use it. Best of all I feed it to the chipper/shredder and put it back in the bed as mulch.

The big question is - always - how can I make it better next year? If I don't look at things carefully now, while they are still in front of me, I'll forget over the winter, and once again buy too many plants (probably of the wrong kind) for too few spaces.

The frost-blackened tubers and rhizomes have already been forgotten. I am focused on the future eagerly awaiting the arrival of the winter plant catalogs. Eagerly awaiting spring.

About the AuthorCarol is a garden writer and college professor in northeast Pennsylvania. She manages the Gardening section of Suite 101.com, where she also writes the column Virtually Gardening.

About this Author