Listen/Download Article

As I write these words, many of you are waking up this morning and clutching your blankets a little tighter around your chins, aware that the ambient temperature in your bedroom has crept below ‘pleasantly cool’ and moved into ‘nippy’ territory. After weeks of temperatures soaring twenty degrees or more above normal, it may take you a minute or two to understand that we had a freeze last night, and while you were unconsciously pulling the duvet off your spouse, your tender plants outside were succumbing to the cold like the Little Match Girl of old.

Welcome to a real spring.

If you are new to gardening, it may now be clear to you why, when you walked into a bone-fide local nursery last week, took off your sunglassses, adjusted your strappy sandles and announced that you were looking for a nice tub of basil, the owner looked at you like you had a screw loose.

But that might not have stopped you in your quest to get your pesto underway. Just down the road, the big-box retailers were more than happy to indulge you. Far from being concerned over how their market-packs and four inch pots would fare in your early spring garden, they were far more interested in how much cash they could strip from you during a sun-induced spending spree. A quick survey last weekend confirmed that just under half of the pretty babies being peddled to unsuspecting gardeners are tender; and not just a little tender, but melt-in-a-stiff-breeze-tender.

Lemon balm damaged by frost - but's lemon balm.

This may not be obvious to you – after all, gardening is 90% experience. And, when you take your purchases up to the cash register, a green-thumbed clerk will not send you on your way with a few last words of wisdom about frost or protection or homemade row covers – he’s far too busy wondering if it’s too early to ask the blonde in hardware to the prom.

So, here you are: up the creek without some Agribon. And we are more than likely to experience these late night lows a couple times before summer officially arrives. What does the gardener do to keep those precious plants safe?

1)   Watch the forecasts. At this time of year and in the early fall, the NOAA website is my home page in the mornings, and the Weather Channel, my bedtime companion. You can’t prepare for something that you don’t know is coming. Luckily, the weather service knows there are people trying to break the rules out there and specifically issues frost watches and warnings to aid them in their mission to make the first salsa of the season.

2)   Don’t plant too early. I am all for pushing the rules a bit, but once you plant tender seedlings in cold soil, you can only cover them and pray. However, if you keep them growing on in larger pots until mid-April, you have a bit of leeway to move them to warmer spots in case of trouble, and the soil around their roots stays warmer.

Once transplanted, these Zinnia will need a whole lot of protection until frosts are behind us.

3)   Be prepared. Though it is conceivable that you could bring 150 tender seedlings back indoors to rub shoulders with your family on cold nights, it is not practical – especially when one considers that it may happen a few times before all is said and done. Keep your tender plants together, in the warmest part of your garden, and if possible, in a cold frame or mini-greenhouse shelving unit with protection. During the day the covers can be lifted to take advantage of or remediate against the sun – at night they can be tucked in with a kiss.

4)   Know your tools. To protect plants from hard frost, you can use commercial products such as Agribon floating row covers or Wall-o-Waters; or you can access your inner cheapskate and use upturned milk jugs, pots, plastic wrapped cages or old comforters propped on sticks.

There are many ways to out think Mother Nature, but without a climate-controlled greenhouse, you can only push it so far. By all means, experiment; but never discount the effect that cold soil and cold nights have on heat-loving plants like tomatoes, basil and peppers. Some plants may be stunted and are then prey to early spring disease – and that won’t bode well for your summer-time pesto.

The whole point is to keep these little guys healthy and robust, not to have them meet the summer season alive, but in a weakened state. On this great green battlefield, sometimes the better part of valor is discretion.