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by Mort Mather

The frost has been toying with me this year. Arriving home from Common Ground Country Fair after dark September 21st I hurried to the garden to throw sheets and other covering over the tomatoes, eggplant and my cucumber experiment. It was crystal clear and the time I usually get my first frost. It didn't come.

A couple of nights later with the threat of frost again I picked most of the tomatoes, ripe, nearly ripe and green. I covered the eggplant and cucumber experiment. The tomatoes did not get frosted. Nor did the peppers left uncovered because we have already gotten all we expect from them. The winter squash was completely killed but right next to the squash the basil was untouched. That is weird since basil is the most tender and first to go.

I think I know what happened here. It was the mulch effect in reverse. A think hay or grass clipping mulch insulates the soil keeping it a fairly even temperature. In this case the frost was extremely light and there was enough warmth rising from the uncovered soil under the basil plant to protect it while the mulch held the soil warmth in and allowed a vagrant whiff of frosty air to freeze the squash leaves.

The next time there was a threat of frost I only covered the cucumber experiment. No frost that night. Then two mornings later I looked out and saw that the tomatoes had been pretty well frosted, some green leaves close to the ground. The eggplant had been hit but not terminally. Same for the cucumbers. The cucumbers would have been wiped out if it weren't for the covering that I had left partially over the plants.

The cucumber experiment, by the way, is a hill of cucumbers that I planted August 5th. I figured if the weather is going to keep getting hotter maybe I could get a late crop. The planting was a bit later than I wanted but I thought I'd nurture it along anyway to see what happened. There are cucumbers on the plants about two inches long so I wasn't that far off. And, as usual, the first planting has died.

A photographer from New Jersey was here in mid August. When taking pictures of me harvesting cucumbers he asked if that was my second planting. Ah, no. In Maine with the spring frost free date being about June 1st that was the first planting. In Maine seldom does anyone bother with a second planting. But the vines do usually die before frost which is why I thought I'd just try a second planting. Though late, I like the idea. If I get my act together next year, I will start some cucumber seedlings indoors timed to transplant about mid May into black plastic mulch with silted row covers to keep off late frost. That should extend my season at least two weeks (The set-back of transplanting and the cool temperatures won't give me much more of an advantage than that.) Then a second planting in early to mid July should extend the season the other way.

What I find most amazing about these light frosts is that the peppers are still growing with just slightly nipped leaves. That is not the most amazing thing though. The peppers were not mulched but the zucchini was and it is still alive. It has gone bald on top but there is a three-inch-long zucchini with a flower on the end of it which, with the warm weather predicted for the week, will probably reach harvestable size. I don't have any theory on why those plants are still alive.

October 5, 1997

Mort is a husband and father. He authored a book, Gardening For Independence and was named Environmentalist of the Year by Down East Magazine in 1987. He is a consultant for organizations. You can eat his organic produce at his son's southern Maine restaurant. His address is 802 Bald Hill Road, Wells, ME 04090.

Mort retains all rights to his columns. Anyone interested in using them can get the rights at a very reasonable rate.



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