We may live in a gambling state, but it is a whole different subject when it comes to our vegetable gardens. It’s one thing to drop a few quarters in the slot machine, but the idea of losing the that precious tomato plant that you searched long and hard for to a late snow or frost can be devastating.
We all seek advice at one time or another. Right now, the internet chat forums are in full bloom with questions mainly focusing on: is it safe to plant tender crops? The answer is yes, as long as you have a game plan for how to protect your tender plants when we get a late freeze or even snow.
The vast majority of our cool-season crops can handle snow and mild freezing temperatures, but if we have a hard freeze, even they will need protection. Cool-season or cold-hardy vegetables are plants that can handle temperatures down to 25 to 28 degrees Fahrenheit. These include lettuce, peas, carrots and spinach. The semi-hardy, frost-tender or warm-season crops such as cauliflower, celery, potatoes and Swiss chard can handle light frosts, but temperatures need to stay above 30 degrees Fahrenheit. The ones we worry most about are the warm-season crops, which tend to be most people’s favorites. These include beans, corn, cucumber, eggplant, melons, gourds, okra, peppers, pumpkins, summer/winter squash and tomatoes. These crops cannot handle even getting close to freezing temperatures. The cold air causes the leaf tissue to change color and even freeze, killing the tender plant.
Now you have to decide: do you take the gamble and get a head-start or play it safe? I am a weather-watcher, and with my busy schedule, I was a little behind this year. But, most of my tomatoes and peppers are in the ground with Wall O’ Water Season Extenders protecting them. As for my beans, corn, cucumbers, melons and possibly okra, I am going to wait until Memorial Day. But, I will be prepared with floating row covers, frost blankets and fabric cloches.
If you don’t have these materials, you can easily get creative with materials you have around the home and shop. First, find anything that can safely cover plants, may it be a clean 5-gallon bucket, old nursery pots, totes, tarps, old sheets, blankets or old-fashioned burlap. If you use tarps, plastic, sheets or blankets, try to keep them off the foliage, as they trap moisture and may freeze to the plant. If you use a true frost blanket or floating row cover, your plants can will be able to breathe. Doubling up may be needed, depending on how cold temperatures are forecasted to drop. Most all of these covers will only provide 4 to 8 degrees Fahrenheit of protection.
No matter what you use to protect your plants, don’t forget to anchor your material down. The wind can come swirling through and not only uncover plants, but blow all your frost protection into your neighbor’s yard. Hopefully, with a little planning, some early planting and a close eye on the upcoming weather, this year’s garden will be not only beautiful but productive.
Wendy Hanson Mazet is the horticulture program coordinator for University of Nevada Cooperative Extension in Washoe County. Have questions about your plants? Contact a master gardener at 775-336-0265 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or visit www.growyourownnevada.com.