Now that the cold days of winter are passed your green thumb is starting to itch. It has been dormant over winter, barely surviving by re-potting houseplants. The thumb wants to do some serious digging. You decide to appease the thumb by giving the vegetable garden some attention. You’ll till it, rake in the compost and dig out some old rocks.
Well these activities only aggravated your itch for spring. In your mind you knew the last frost date for your area had not arrived, but you figured it probably wouldn’t frost. The spring had been so mild it was okay to plant the vegetables. If this worked you would have tomatoes in June!
The garden looks great with all the tomatoes, beans, cucumbers and corn started. Spring is on its way and the weather holds nicely. Each day the temperatures rise and your seedlings grow. Then all of a sudden the weather forecast calls for frost and you panic. Now how will you protect your seedlings? You would be crushed if they died from frost exposure.
This is a problem that most gardeners face in spring. It is too difficult to wait until the last frost date for planting. When the last frost comes knocking you’ll need to cover those tender seedlings because frost will kill the plants if they are left uncovered. Vegetables need protected as well as young fruit trees and flowers.
This first step is to start covering the plants before nightfall. This will trap some extra heat from the day inside the covering, but the covering material needs to have ventilation. Condensation can accumulate inside solid materials like plastic, which freezes and in turn kills the plants. Plastic will also transfer the outside cold temperatures onto the plants. Old sheets, pillow cases, blankets, linen or burlap sacks are a better choice.
Whatever material you pick it should be draped across the entire plant but make sure the covering isn’t so heavy that it crushes the plants. If you have an entire flowerbed planted you can drape a sheet across the entire bed instead of protecting individual plants. Then secure the blankets to the ground with bricks, rocks, flower pots or anything heavy so that the wind does not blow off the covering.
The next morning you’ll need to check on the plants to see if they survived. Make sure to uncover the plants the next day if temperature rises. In some cases I have checked the plants before going to work and left the coverings on for the day, only to return from work to find sunburned seedlings. The sun will quickly warm the soil and the plants which allows extra condensation to escape.
If you do not have enough old sheets or blankets to cover all of your plants, anything is better than nothing and plastic jugs, 5 gallon buckets and tin cans will give the plant a chance to survive. Grab whatever is on hand, cross your fingers hoping for the best. Make sure to watch the weather and keep an eye out for cold nights. The only way to harvest tomatoes in June is to keep them alive in early spring by protecting them from the cold nights and frost.
Lyndsey Roth is a Garden & Greenhouse contributing editor.