A Rude Start to Summer

Frozen Opalka Tomato Plant
Frozen Opalka Tomato Plant

The month of June started out very cool with lows in the 30’s and highs reaching the 70’s but more often in the 60’s. On June 18 I woke up early like I do every day to do my morning round of feeding the chickens and sheep and listen to the birds singing in the woods. I looked at the yard thermometer, which is about 25 feet from the house, and it read 39 degrees. Lows forecast for the early morning were for the lower 40’s so this seemed alright, but when I stepped outside I felt a definite chill. The garden thermometer which is much farther from the house read 36 degrees which is cold and could damage pepper plants but it is not freezing so I felt safe. And besides it was almost dawn. As I began cutting grass with the scythe and filling the wheelbarrow I felt my hands becoming very cold. The air felt colder, too. By now the first rays of sunlight were coming over the trees. I went back to the garden thermometer and the dial was now at 32 degrees. I could see frost beginning to form on grass blades and on my corn, potatoes, and squash. It was time to get busy covering sensitive plants with hay. Even if frost forms on the plants if you can keep the sun from warming them too quickly they have a good chance of surviving. A little hay over each plant would keep the sun out and let them slowly warm up minimizing damage. I couldn’t cover the corn not with 250 feet of rows so I left them as they were and hoped for the best. Next I headed up to my tomato garden. The frost was already heavy here and I quickly pulled hay around and over all the plants.

Later that morning I went back to my gardens. What I saw was not encouraging. The corn was damaged and 27 of my 46 tomatoes were severely damaged. I had covered them too late after they had already frozen. Some plants just a few feet away were not damaged at all. The squash looked like it would survive with little damage but some plants did not look good at all. It was hard to tell much about the potatoes but some plants looked burned. Even the cabbages, garlic, and onions were touched by frost.

Over the next few days the most damaged tomatoes died. A few squash, potato, and corn plants also died but in general these came through very well and have begun growing again. Fortunately, the corn had only two leaves which meant that the growing point was well protected in a wrapping of several layers of developing leaves. Had the corn been past the five leaf stage I doubt any plants would be alive because by then the growing point would be more exposed and so more likely to freeze. Even so, many corn plants suffered the loss of 1 or 2 leaves. On some corn plants the frosted leaves lost much of their chlorophyll and turned from dark green to yellow-green. Now the corn is beginning to grow again and many plants have put out two new dark green leaves. On some plants the injured leaves are interfering with the emergence of new growth so I gently loosened the twisted and drying dead leaves.

I’ve replanted most of the tomatoes that were killed by frost but not all the varieties. I did not plant multiples of each variety this year as I usually because there was no space in my propagation room for that. All but one each of Opalka, Elberta, and Peace Vine were killed and I had none to replace them. The survivors are severely damaged and the goal now is to get a few tomatoes from each for seed. Silvery Fir was wiped out but one might survive. I will have to wait until next year to grow these again. This is more than a loss in potential sales at the farm market. I grow almost all my vegetables and fruit each summer. A frost of this severity takes a big chunk from my personal food production and it reduces the amount of seeds I will be able to save for next year. But it is also a test of the plants and those able to survive and produce well become seed for future plantings. I do not coddle most of my garden plants

The winter squash and potatoes fared better than I expected. I have been growing this strain of winter squash, my mix of Kuri, Blue Ballet, and Lakota, since 1999. It is fast growing and adapted to the local climate including cold weather. It is tolerant of light frost. Some winter squash plants that had come up at the edge of the garden (where I’d left rotten fruits last fall) survived beautifully without any mulch or hay over them. The potatoes, which have been through two frosts already, came through with only a little injury to the uppermost leaves. My summer squash and cucumbers, which I planted on June 10th, came up four days after the frost so they were safe.

I’m not holding out much hope for a warm summer. I had anticipated this before the frost and planted extra rows of cool season crops like onions, rutabagas, chard, kale, and cabbage. I have also been harvesting the rhubarb more intensively than in previous years and so far have about five gallons of cooked and chopped stems in the freezer. There is still a good chance that the apples and Canadian plums will do well this year, too, as they are loaded with immature fruit right now. The American plums have been infected with a fruit gall so they are a total loss. Pollination of the currants was poor with only about 50% of the flowers setting fruit. My cultivated blueberries bloomed when the weather was cold and wet which kept the bumblebees inactive and so pollination was poor.

Since the frost the weather has gotten very warm and humid. This has spurred growth in the winter and summer squashes, the corn, and the tomatoes. Even a few of the tomatoes I’d given up on are growing and may make a few fruits so there will be seeds for next year. The re-planted tomatoes and those that suffered minor damage are growing but compared to other years they are way behind. My potatoes suffered a bit but have put out a lot of new growth but they are also much smaller than in other years. It is the corn that is is doing best with most plants at the five and six leaf stage. In the rows patches of small yellow-green pants show were the frost hit hardest.

I dug up clumps of the “feral” winter squash and planted these in piles of rotting hay with a little soil. They have survived the transplant very well. Although they may not produce mature fruit the young immature squashes can be harvested and eaten. These are much more flavorful and with a denser texture than typical summer squash. And there will be many more squash blossoms, too.

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