Back in the 1980’s I owned Echo Nordic Center, a Cross Country Ski business at Echo Summit in California. In those days, by April the snow was deep, maybe still ten feet on the ground, the weather was sunny and cold, the snow a perfect corn snow. It was back-country skiing at it’s best.
But did people want to ski then? No, they wanted to ski in November, when there were a few inches of snow barely hiding rocks, branches and anything else that could scratch up your skis. It turns out that gardeners are not such a different lot. By September, when all the produce is ready and berries waiting to be picked, gardeners are a bit tired of it all and really wish that those carrots and potatoes would dig themselves. In March though, we are raring to go, and when it rolls around to May, and the weather is still awful as it was this year, it can lead to severe cabin fever.
So, we have all these plants; we know that if we don’t get an early start, nothing will ripen before the fall freezes start, but it’s still going to be 27 at night. What to do? If you have succumbed to potted plants from a nursery, don’t put them out until you see that other plants in your yard have put out leaves, and look at the weather forecast for the next week. If it’s going to be freezing at night, don’t do it. Keep those potted plants in a garage or under a covered porch, and wait…. They’ll be OK with low light for a little while. Better that than frozen. Do remember to keep them watered.
If you have bought bareroot plants, you can plant them if they have not leafed out yet. They need to be in the ground and developing roots before the hot weather starts. If they have leafed out, though, you will have to wait or those leaves will freeze and die and the plant will be extremely stressed trying to replace leaves and grow roots at the same time.
If it’s vegetables that you want, there are some that don’t mind being frozen and you can plant them in March if you want, though most likely they won’t do much until May anyway. These cold hardy gems are spinach, lettuce, onions, peas (the shelling variety not the snap variety). Then come those that can be frozen and still live, but don’t like it a lot. In this category I would put carrots, snap peas and sunflowers. Potatoes will freeze back but sprout again from the seed potato, so they won’t die, but if you let them freeze back too many times you won’t get much of a yield. Unfortunately, asparagus shoots up very early, and since it’s a perennial, you don’t get to choose when to plant it. All you can do is try to protect it because those spears will shrivel away to nothing if they get frozen. Then there are those tender plants that shouldn’t grow in Klamath County at all – tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, basil, beans and corn. Don’t even think about putting them outside before June, and even then they will need protection at least until July.
There are several ways to protect your plants. You can run out every night that there’s supposed to be a freeze and cover them up with a blanket, but you have to remember to take it off during the day and it can be heavy enough to smash your plants, especially if it gets wet. I’ve done it, but it’s really too much work. Gardening is supposed to be fun. Whatever you do, don’t use plastic. It doesn’t insulate and if you forget it, it will bake your plants when the sun comes out.
What I have used for many years is a product known by a number of names – floating row cover, crop cover, thermal blanket, Reemay, and in several thicknesses – featherweight, summer weight, winter blanket, all purpose. It’s a white colored spun polypropylene ‘fabric’ that you can lay right on the plants. It lets air and water through, and depending on the ‘weight’ protects against freezing. The summer weight can stay on all summer and helps protect against insect damage. I recently bought a roll of ‘Crop Cover’ at the Grange Co-op that should protect down to 26 degrees. So you can put it on and forget it until the really warm weather arrives. When I put the tomatoes out, I put a ‘wall of water’ around each plant, then row cover over the top of it all. Wall of waters encircle your plant with a column of water that heats up during the day and keeps your tomato warm at night. They need to come off when the weather gets hot or they will also cook your plant during the day. I also know of people who plant their tomatoes in big pots on a cart and wheel them into the garage every night, but once again, that requires remembering every day…..