Thursday, November 13, 2014

Frost Advisory

Welcome back to another episode of Lost in the Farmer’s Market. The current weather has prompted a change to our intended topic for this week. As some of you noticed we have a serious cold front due to hit late on Friday. Temperatures are expected to be below freezing so instead of our planned photo tour we’ve got a bit about frost and how to make sure your winter crops survive the weather.

The first thing you need to consider is that you should make provisions to either bring in any crop plants that are NOT hardy or make a complete harvest of said plants so that you don’t lose what you have.  In the case of the test gardens the houseplants there outside as part of the warm season display have all been brought inside for the winter. The crop plants that I’ve decided to overwinter were withdrawn indoors and everything else received maintenance including all things that were planted within the last month. The first thing to know about a frost is that frosts are unpredictable; it may kill everything next door and skip your yard entirely or only hit one plant in your entire yard. The best thing you can do about a impending frost is to make sure you water all potted plants left outside as well as any new planting that has occurred within the last month. The reason you water new plantings and potted plants is because a well-watered plant is more likely to survive frost damage and resist being damaged. Basically a under-hydrated plant has shrunken cell walls within the stems and leaves that are more easily frozen and burst but the crystallization of whatever water is in and around them. Frost damage often looks like an ugly bruise because for plants that’s almost exactly what frost damage is. So before any frost hits it’s always wise to water your winter crops and if there is a lot of wind involved it may be necessary to protect your crops with tarps to reduce exposure. I always recommend harvesting lighting just before a frost so that the crop plants have less surface area that can suffer frost damage.

Obviously there are those last vestiges of the warm season crops in your garden right now. If the weather predictions are as serious (26 degrees) as suggested then it’s wise to go ahead and harvest what you can. Certain warm season crops such as basil, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes and potatoes in general tend to be ruined by a killing frost. In the case of the root crops if the ground freezes there is a high probability of crop loss. Basil is easily damaged by frost so of course harvesting all of it cleaning it and freezing the resulting materials is the best recourse. the images below demonstrate how to harvest a sweet potato crop as well as what happens when you plant sweet potatoes too late.

In this particular case the basic tools for harvesting sweet potatoes can be as simple as a pitch fork and a wheel barrel.
The sweet potato crop at the test garden was started late and honestly I didn’t expect much of it.

Patiently loosening the soil to see what has developed without doing any damage is why I always go with a pitchfork for this sort of task.
The tubers often are caked with dirt and may not be immediately visible but generally the tubers are right under the central crown of the foliage.
For note I didn't get the seed tuber in the ground until late in the summer so it's no surprise that little came of it. Generally you want to get sweet potatoes in the ground in late April or May and I wasn't able to plant the seed tuber until late June.

Aww look someday these might actually turn into real sweet potatoes.
It looks pretty bad right? not quite the Steadman wilderness test plot made up for the test garden failure quite nicely. The Wilderness plot started with twenty five starter plants, we lost two and ended up with roughly 135 pounds of sweet potatoes.

Now that’s what I’m talking about, Test garden crop was a bust, the Steadman experiment yielded way better.
Yes…you are reading that right the scale does indeed say four pounds. This single sweet potato from the Steadman test plot is the size of a child’s head and is that heavy.

Switching the focus of this post slightly I often get questions at the market about when to begin picking leaves off a plant for eating purposes. The obvious answer is that you can do that at any time you like however it may not promote the best health for your crops if you start picking to early. So now that some of the crops at the test garden are of the right size I snapped a few photographs for size comparison so all you winter gardeners out there can get a fair idea.

Rouge D’Hiver lettuce, at a a good size to pick a few leaves per plant.
Lettuce is one of those things where most gardeners have been a bit indoctrinated to it looking and being harvested a certain way. We like to think that lopping off the heads of lettuce is the right way and in truth it isn’t. From the plant’s perspective you’ve done massive damage and from the long term perspective if you lop off the top of a lettuce plant you have stalled any further harvests for a while assuming the plant survives. The size shown above is just right for picking a few of the lower leaves from each individual plant to make up a salad.

This is a good size to pick a few leaves on a Japanese Red Giant Mustard Plant.

Mustard and other cabbage crops all can be ‘harvested the same way as I suggested with lettuce. Picking just a few leaves per plant and focusing on the lower most leaves first can rapidly give you a lot of food in a short amount of time and, your plant lives and will produce more. The low-pick method is a win-win situation for you and your garden.

Radicchio needs a little more caution in picking lower leaves but the same rules apply
But then not all things are affected by the whims of the harvest and the mercy of the frost. Perhaps it is a funny irony that some of the plants at the test garden seem to not care that theres a frost I mean look at the below photograph.

Brown Echibeckia still blooming despite weather so far.

Oh look these here zinnas don’t care.

Hah, the snow peas are doing their thing, sticking it to the man…old man winter that is!
So there you have it, perhaps the ‘killing’ frost on Friday isn’t so scary anymore. If you remember to protect anything you have doubts on and thoroughly water everything else the frost won’t be so bad. But even with the potential for bad weather the Fayetteville City market continues on. The City Market occurs every Wednesday between the hours of 1:00pm and 6:00pm and on Saturday between the hours of 9:00 am and 1:00pm.  You can find the City Market on the property of the Fayetteville Transportation Museum located at 325 Franklin Street. Below is a list of what is coming to market this Saturday.

Southward Skies: A northern guide to southern Gardening
This is the second edition of my book, which was published using data compiled from several years of test garden operations. It’s written to aid gardeners of all skill levels in successful garden methods that are targeted for the south east but had proven to be a valued resource for gardens across the eastern coast. It’s certainly a good gift for that gardener you know or for yourself if you’d like to have a reliable field guide. The book costs $25.00 and we do take checks for this item, you can even have it signed.

Good Stuff
Rain Forest & Devil's Tongue Pepper packs - ($1.00)
Sweet Potatoes, 2lb Bag – ($2.00)

Cold Season Crops
6x Romaine Lettuce, “Parris Island Cos” - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
6x Mustard Greens, India - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
6x Mustard Greens, Japanese Red Giant - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
6x Cabbage, Copenhagen Market - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
6x Cabbage, Savoy – Perfection Drumhead - 3.5” pot ($3.00)
6x Collards, Georgia Southern Creole - 3.5” pot ($3.00)

[Depending on weather I may bring some aloes]

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