The first frost: To cover or not to cover?

– Posted in: FAQ, Garden chores, Weather

The sun rises over our frosty hillside. Photo by Cadence Purdy, November 2005

The sun rises over our frosty hillside. Photo by Cadence Purdy, November 2005

Carol over at May Dreams Gardens advises us to Embrace The End of The Growing Season For A Happier Life. She says, “Save yourself both time and worry and forget about covering plants in the fall.”

Well, yes and no. We covered some things for our first frost. Yes, we already had it! From experience we know that after the initial frost there are often 2 or 3 weeks until the next one, and our growing season can be so short that we feel we haven’t fully enjoyed the fruits of our labors. After all, our last spring frost often occurs the first week in June. So we covered the grapes because they weren’t really ripe yet, and my husband’s favorite orange-colored cherry tomato, because, well, it’s his favorite. And Cadie covered her morning glories as best she could, because one variety hasn’t bloomed yet! (Scarlett O’Hara)

This motley assortment of sheets is stored in the attic and used to cover plants when frost threatens.

This motley assortment of bedsheets is stored in the attic and used to cover plants when frost threatens.

But we aren’t stupid. We know frosts will soon be a regular occurrence. We have plenty of tomatoes covering the kitchen counters, so we’re not going to go to great lengths to prolong their season. Basil doesn’t grow well in cool evenings anyway, so we cut every plant down to the ground and made our last batch of pesto. Many flowers can take a light frost , but not the cosmos, so we cut them all and have bouquets all over the house. It’s a festive way to mark the beginning of the end of the growing season.

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In its own way, frost may be one of the most beautiful things to happen in your garden all year . . . Don’t miss it. Like all true beauty, it is fleeting. It will grace your garden for but a short while this morning. . . . For this moment, embrace frost as the beautiful gift that it is.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

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Gail October 6, 2008, 4:20 am

In my zone 4 garden, I will cover my tomatoes, they have only been ripening for about a month and a half now and DH has not had his fill. We are suppose to get down to 29 next week, so I will cover until then and pull the plants to hang upside down in the greenhouse. We have not had enough fresh goodies yet. I will harvest the potatoes this week, everything else is cleared from my small garden or put into the greenhouse.

Benjamin October 5, 2008, 1:51 pm

I like your attititude: my mom wouldn’t. I mean, living in MN, she would and is lamenting their first frost because summer is BARELY 3 months long. I have the advantage of zone 5. I used to cover stuff that was still blooming, as if trying to reanimate a dead goldfish with string or something, but not anymore. I’ll bring my cosmos in too.

tedb September 28, 2008, 9:37 pm

We cover for the first few go rounds with frost also. The early ones usually occur on clear, still nights – eventually a wind cold front comes through and no covers stay in place anyway so a new chapter begins in the garden.

Robin September 27, 2008, 8:34 pm

Oh! To be thinking of Frost! We are still in the 90’s here in Austin, and may not have a frost until after Thanksgiving. Fall is our second, and most enjoyable, growing season, with temps cooling down enough that we can get in the garden again. I know, I know, gardening weather is like sailing. There’s either no wind, not enough wind, too much wind, or hurricane. It’s never Just Right!

Cindy September 26, 2008, 9:58 am

Kathy, I hope the sheets do a good job and your husband will get to enjoy his cherry tomatoes soon. I was happy to read Cadie’s comment that she had a couple of blooms on Miss Scarlett.

Here’s to some fine fall weather for y’all to savor before winter takes hold!

Shady Gardener September 25, 2008, 8:22 pm

We shouldn’t have a frost for awhile, yet. But there’s always a chance for the unseasonable! I, too, would cover things during an early frost… if only for my own enjoyment.

There are times when one must pick and choose. Sounds to me as though you made wise choices. Hopefully you can enjoy “balmy” weather during these next couple of weeks.

(I have a very similar assortment of sheets!) ha.

Meadowlark September 25, 2008, 4:00 pm

We have very similar frost-schedules to yours. We had a freeze the other night and I finally gave in a cut all the green tomatoes off. Wouldn’t you know that today is supposed to hit 80.
Sheeeesh. 🙂

dlyn September 25, 2008, 3:11 pm

About now, I am wishing I had let the darned tomatoes freeze – I have no place left to put any more!

Cadie (Cadence) September 25, 2008, 10:55 am

So much for covering the morning glories, though, unfortunately. There were only a few sheets left in the box after the other things we covered, and I forgot that you have to cover the morning glories on both sides of the fence. So even the few that I did cover (I made sure I covered some Scarlett O’Hara) turned brown and shriveled. The biggest cluster of Glacier Star that I partly covered have been struggling on with less prolific and more feeble blooms. So I never got to see the Scarlett O’Hara bloom–oh well. For some reason they are a much less vigorous grower than the other kinds.

Well, isn’t that a surprise–I just went outside to check for sure, and some of the Scarlett O’Hara survived! Not only that, but one plant has two small blooms. They are a bright pink, whereas I imagined them as more of a dainty deep red. But it’s the principle of the matter, anyway: a plant shouldn’t get killed before it has a chance to bloom.

It seems that its tendency to form a cluster of vines near the bottom and grow upwards very slowly served it well. The other varieties that had vines covering the fence got utterly fried, but some clusters of leaves near the base are still green, such as the places where I covered the Scarlett O’Hara. It’s interesting how in some spots, some leaves on the plant are green while others (or the vine tips) are brown. They’re half-dead and half-alive. In some places where they’re all green it looks like leaves from other morning glory varieties kind of sheltered them.

Dee/reddirtramblings September 25, 2008, 8:06 am

We won’t get our first frost on the punkin until the end of October, maybe later. By then, I’m ready for things to be gone and ready for cleanup.

If I lived in your cold climate, I would cover too, my friend.~~Dee

Christina September 25, 2008, 7:04 am

I do the same thing, here in Maine – cover selectively for that first one-two night frost that seems to be in the third week of Sept in hopes of prolonging our short season (I cut the basil though, too – five batches of pesto!!). We haven’t had a second frost yet, and I’m not expecting one for a while, looking at the 10-day forecast. Maybe a few more of my peppers will turn red!!

Susy September 24, 2008, 10:28 pm

I cover a few tomatoes, just can’t bear to lose them. Although I’ll still pick all the green ones and make chutney out of them. This year I’m geared up for cold with a lot of cool weather crops that should keep going until a hard freeze.

Carol, May Dreams Gardens September 24, 2008, 10:04 pm

Well, okay, where you are, it may make more sense to cover plants if you get an early, early frost. Where I am we won’t see a first frost until mid-October.

Valerie September 24, 2008, 9:45 pm


If we didn’t cover the plants we would miss weeks of that rich color that the flowers take on during Fall.

And funny, right before I read your post, I ran across another ‘Kadence’ in Colorado. The only 2 I’ve ever heard of.