Gardeners often dread the first frost of the season

October 17, 2012
After the first light frost browns a Dahlia’s leaves,carefully dig up the bulbs and let them dry out fully before storing them for the winter.

Misunderstandings, like trees in a garden, often live on well past the time they take root.

When Europeans first met Native Americans in the 15th century, the Indians presented them with gifts.  The Europeans accepted them only to find the Indians wanted them back.  The Indians thought they were bartering, and when the Europeans failed to give back, the Indians indignantly took back their gifts.  “Indian givers” soon meant anyone taking back a gift.

Soon many phrases used the adjective “Indian” to mean false, so that “Indian corn” was not true corn (corn to Europeans was wheat or grain), an Indian burn is a schoolyard punishment of twisting another’s skin to mimic the scorching pain of a real fire, and a brief period of false summer after a frost is called Indian summer.

Gardeners often dread that first frost that lays low the plants and flowers, but it can serve a good purpose.  After the first light frost browns their leaves, cut tender plants such as Canna, Gladiolus, Dahlia, Colocasia (elephant ears) and caladium down to about 3 or 4 inches.  Carefully dig up the bulbs (actually rhizomes, corms and tubers) and let them dry out fully.  Store them in a cool, dark spot set in peat moss.  If you put them in a box, be sure you cut holes for ventilation.  Be sure to label the bulbs.

Empty all of your patio and container plants.  Dump the spent soil into the garden or onto the compost heap.  Wash the pots well with a mix of one cup of chlorine bleach to a gallon of warm water.  This will disinfect the pots.  Let them dry before storage. Once frost has killed your annuals and vegetable plants, pull the plants up completely, roots and all, and toss them on the compost heap.  Put any diseased or insect-infected plants into the trash so you do not spread diseases next year.

You can add grass clippings and leaves directly to your garden where they will break down over the winter, adding humus to the soil.  To break down leaves faster, try running them over with a power mower.  These smaller pieces have more surface area for bacteria to work on and decompose the leaves.

Frost is not always a killer.  Crops such as brussels sprouts, kale, cabbage, parsnips, carrots, celery root, beets, turnips and rutabagas actually become sweeter after a frost.

And it is not your imagination, because plants such as kale and brussels sprouts build up sugars in their cells that act like anti-freeze. Parsnips, celeriac (celery root) and carrots change their starches to sugars when cold weather hits.

To harvest these root crops all winter, just cover them with a thick layer of mulch. This will keep them from freezing solid.

After that first frost, look forward to a brief jolt of warm, friendly air, the true Indian summer, followed by real winter.  Frost, then warm sunny days, then snow - that is the not the gift of Indian summer, but the trade-off.

  • Paul Barbano writes about gardening from his home in Rehoboth Beach. Contact him by writing to P. O. Box 213, Lewes, DE 19958.

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