As for many gardeners, that morning after the first killing frost is a sad one for me. Tomato plants hang limply in their cages. Zucchini vines lie soggy and lifeless on the ground.
But for me, first frost doesn’t mean the end of garden produce. Here’s how I make things last a little longer in the fall.
One: Plant crops that thrive in cold weather
Certain vegetables–leafy greens such chard, carrots, turnips, beets, for example–do well in cold weather. These cool-weather vegetables can survive the first frost and subsequent light frosts.
I’ve kept Swiss chard growing in my Chicago-area garden as late as Thanksgiving or early December. Carrots can be left in the ground after first frost; some cold-weather vegetables have better flavor after the first frost.
Two: Cover what you can
Often, a few weeks of nice growing weather (warm, sunny days) follows the first frost. If you protect your sensitive plants, they may provide you with a few more weeks of vegetables.
The best way to protect plants is to cover them with something that will act as a blanket. Even a thin layer traps air and keeps plants a few degrees warmer, hopefully above the critical 32 F (0 C). I use an old shower curtain, a torn sheet, and some plastic sheeting left over from painting the TV room. Anything you have on hand will work.
Cover the plants in mid- to late-afternoon if possible, before temperatures start to drop.
Three: Harvest everything else
If you know frost is coming, go outdoors and harvest all of your frost-sensitive crops. If you aren’t covering your plants, pick your tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers, melons, beans, and any other crop that won’t survive the cold. You can also harvest things that have not yet become fully ripe, such as green tomatoes and squash blossoms. For recipes for stuffed squash blossoms, visit Big Oven. I like my squash blossoms filled with cheese and sauteed. See my article about things to do with green tomatoes for ideas on how to use them up.
Four: Bring movable plants indoors
If you have potted plants, move them into your house or garage overnight. It’s even possible to keep and grow potted plants indoors all winter.
When winter comes permanently, I move my two favorite large geranium plants, a bay tree, and some other herbs such as parsley and rosemary indoors for the season. In a sunny window, the potted plants give me fresh basil and parsley all winter. Others, such as the rosemary and the bay tree, will last a second season.
With help from a sunny window and plant food, my geraniums have survived several winters indoors. My friend who has grown geraniums indoors longer than I have, has some that are now about four feet tall. They may not bloom in the winter time, but it’s still fun to have them.