Preparing for the freeze

We spent a busy Sunday afternoon preparing for the coming killing freeze, working as the temperature steadily fell and a cold misty rain fell that was almost, but not quite, snow.

I got a call from a TV reporter trying to find out more about the freeze and its effects on local farms; she asked if she could come out to film us working to protect our crops. I said no (I got the sense a lot of farmers had been turning her down). I have a very low opinion of TV news, and no matter how much they promise to not be in the way, they would be during a very busy day. It’s tough, though, because the media so often gets these kinds of stories terribly wrong. I remember an incident leading up to the 2007 freeze in which a local newspaper reporter called me to check facts on a story he was running the next day, in which he claimed that the freeze would mean no local vegetables that year. I had to explain the difference between long-lived, early-budding fruit trees and annual/seasonal vegetable crops that weren’t even in the ground yet; he really didn’t know the difference between an apple tree and a tomato plant. And if he hadn’t happened to call when I was near the phone that afternoon, that story might have run. Just frightening.

In any case, this is the sort of thing we’re trying to protect. Above, you see a just-emerged lettuce seedling. We have many beds of very young lettuce, beets, radishes, and more that are fairly cold-hardy when older, but when they’re just a day or two out of the ground, can be damaged or badly set back by sub-30s temperatures. We’re not sure how our larger lettuces and plants will do either, but if the next three nights knock all the newly emergent stuff out, we’ll have lost a lot of money. Hence work like this:

Above you see an example of the clear plastic hoops we use as mini-greenhouses on some of our lettuces, radishes, and spinach. They work pretty well and I think the more mature plants in these setups will be ok. Behind the hoops, Joanna is spreading thick straw mulch over beds with young plants or just-germinating seeds. Loosely scattered, the straw holds a multitude of air pockets that act as a reasonably insulating blanket.

The problem with straw is that it can be hard to pull back off, especially when you have very young and delicate plants underneath. For the youngest beds, we spread old sheets first and apply the straw over that. This adds another layer of temperature protection, and makes it easier to pull the mulch off the plants.

Of course, one of the problems of a multi-night freeze is that you can’t easily take these measures on and off during the day. So all these plants are going to have to hibernate under the mulch and blankets through at least Wednesday; we’re taking the risk that a few days without sunlight is less destructive than 25 degrees.

Plants aren’t the only thing we’re trying to protect. I’ve been trying to get the foundation piers for our new prep shed poured for weeks now, and haven’t had a window in which the ground was dry enough AND there wasn’t frost in the forecast. I finally got my window last week, but the concrete hasn’t fully cured yet. So I covered each pier with an old shirt or sweater, then a big piles of straw mulch. Hopefully this keeps the worst of the freeze away and maintains the integrity of the concrete:

All in all, though, we’re not the ones with the most to worry about. The biggest dangers of freezes like this are to flora with flowers and buds, like fruit & nut trees and berries. I told the TV person to call orchards and vineyards. I wish I’d reminded her of one other thing, too: this is NOT an “early” freeze. Average last frost date for mid-Missouri is April, and we can expect the possibility of frost through May. What makes this unusual and dangerous is the fact that spring is very early this year, as I’ve been documenting for over a month, which makes the buds on fruit trees and so on come out early and become susceptible to a later freeze. Vegetable folks like us take our chances, knowing this might come and planning our plantings accordingly. We have some control. Orchards and vineyards can’t really stop their trees, vines, and so on from reacting to natural stimuli.
Still, this isn’t likely to be the absolute disaster 2007 was; we’re expecting up to three nights of freezes, not four; and those temperatures were in the teens, not the 20s. Still, once you get below 28 or so it’s a killing frost for a lot of things. Much will depend on just how cold it gets these next three nights. Subtle changes in cloud cover, wind, and geography can mean the difference between 29 and 26, and the difference between loss and survival.

One thought on “Preparing for the freeze

  1. we’re looking at low to mid 30’s here Eric. Hope your plants all fare well, I’m not even covering mine since we don’t depend on them for income. If we need to replant, I always over-buy on seeds anyway and I think mine have been up long enough to survive. We’re almost a month in the ground now, ready to harvest some of the lettuce and such…