My Tomatoes Were Hit by a late Frost in April
Frost-Damaged Tomato Plant
I Was Sure All the Tomatoes I Had Planted the Weekend Before Were Dead
When it warms up in April here on the California Central Coast, gardeners often throw conventional wisdom out the window. Surely when you're in the midst of an April heat wave the frost season is over. April 24 seems an arbitrary last frost date when it's triple digit weather on April 17. So I planted the wonderful heirloom tomatoes I'd been buying at Farmer's Market for two weekends. Even when the nights got cooler, I didn't worry too much about my tomato garden. High 30s didn't seem too dangerous. So I didn't worry about getting the row covers on. Then Jack Frost paid my lovely tomatoes a visit. I learned that it always pays to be prepared for frost, even when you don't expect it. The picture shows what he did to my tomato transplants the weekend after they were planted.
I took all the photos in this lens except as otherwise noted.
Only Healthy Plant Left
The Gruesome Discovery
I didn't even suspect.
Sure, I knew the days had gotten cooler the last week of April, and I had felt the chilling wind. The weatherman, however, kept silent about impending frost. I was, after all, busy. We had discovered some termite damage that week, and I was busy moving books around to allow access for repairs. (See lensroll at right to read more about the termite fight.)
After the heat wave ended and I wasn't in the garden every day to water, I wasn't keeping close tabs on what was happening in the raised beds. I was more worried that the lettuce would wilt or bolt from the heat, and I had put some dead branches with the leaves fanned out flat over them to help shade them. I watered about every three days when it started to cool off. The last Friday in April, which just happened to be the 24th, I was busy elsewhere. When I went out to water on Sunday, all the tomatoes but this one lone Celebrity, appeared to be dead. The only green I could see was the the lower part of the stems on the others -- even the other Celebrity planted only two feet away.
My Favorite Gardening Books
This book has been a great inspiration to me. I actually take it to the garden with my seeds and other gardening tools. When I'm planning a garden, it's also a great help, with its many suggested layouts. Besides that, it's just fun to read during those off-season months when you are itching to get your hands in the soil and see things growing again. It discusses plant rotation, beneficial insects and how to attract them, preventing pest problems, and, of course, companion planting. It also teaches you how to make a raised bed, what to fill it with, and how to water it. I highly recommend it, and I love the clear illustrations of how to do things, as well as the gorgeous photos of the plants and gardens.
Has frost ever killed your plants?
This year is the first time I lost vegetables. About three years ago I lost some flowers when we had an usually cold winter. I thought then my gazanias were gone forever, but most grew back again from the roots.
What kind of frost damage have you experienced?
The version I have is now out of print, but this is a good basic book for those who want to grow their own food using deep beds to grow more food in less space.. Its illustrations are especially helpful. My version is arranged by vegetable families, and also shows what should be going on in the garden through each season of the year. It helps you determine how large your garden should be to feed you and tells you how to preserve all your produce after harvest. Other topics covered are herb gardens, growing in a greenhouse, garden paths, and many more. At the beginning of the book is a wonderful illustration showing the ecology of the soil and how things look in a healthy soil underground.This is followed by color drawings of vegetables, fruits, and herbs by their families, and most include the entire plant (except for trees) -- root, stem, blossoms, leaves, and fruit. That's something I haven't seen in any other book in my vast collection of gardening books.
Getting Advice at Farmers Market
I Was Devastated.
If you've ever planted something, cared for it, and lost it, you know how I felt.
I didn't pull up the ten plants I was sure were going to die. Hope springs eternal, I guess. I did water well and I did put up row covers to keep any other late frosts away. I made daily visits, but it looked pretty hopeless. All I saw were partly green stems and brown leaves.
On the next Saturday, I went back to Farmers Market and went straight to Ralph Johnson's booth. He had sold me the tomatoes and I wanted to see about getting more. He's the only one that brings heirloom tomatoes to sell. I told him my sad story and he told me all was not lost. He told me that if there was even one green leaf left on a plant, it could survive. He told me to keep watering and that although the plants might get a two-week set-back, they would probably come back if there was enough root in the ground.
I was pretty sure I had plenty of root. I normally pick off any blossoms when I plant and then I pull away the four bottom leaves and plant the stem deep into the ground. I bought just a couple more tomatoes, another sage, and some golden squash. I decided to go home and wait it out.
After another week, this is what I found under the row covers. - It was hard to believe the resurrection I was seeing.Click thumbnail to view full-size
Where There's Life, There's Hope
It pays to be patient.
When I first saw the results of Jack Frost's visit to my tomato garden, I was sure my tomatoes were doomed. My first impulse was to just rip them out, wait until there was no chance of frost again, and replace the dead plants. But if there is one thing a gardener needs to learn, it's patience. When the Biblical writer James wants to show an example of patience, he uses the farmer: "Behold, the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth, being patient over it until it receives the early and the late rain." (James5:7)
I'm glad now I did not follow my first impulse and give up. By waiting for two weeks I saved myself from buying eight new plants. I also learned that God has built into plants a way for them to heal themselves when the wound is not fatal. I have learned that if I am patient enough to wait and see, my damaged plants might very well still live to grow and produce fruit. I am hoping to post some pictures later in the season when these plants I almost gave up on start bearing their tomatoes.
A New Threat
New pictures of once dead tomatoes on July 25, 2009 - You will see that some have made a lot of progress, some not so much.Click thumbnail to view full-size
Frost Can Kill
Sometimes only barrier protection will keep plants from damage.
A greenhouse would have helped my poor tomatoes more than my efforts to try to save them after they were damaged. Hubby is finally seeing that it would be worth the money.
Update on my reviving tomatoes on August 15, 2009 - This is almost four months after the freeze.Click thumbnail to view full-size
How the Tomatoes Looked on September 2, 2009.Click thumbnail to view full-size
Links for Tomato Gardeners
- Preparing the Raised Beds for Planting
This short blog shows the preparation of the raised beds where these tomatoes were planted. We knew the soil in the beds needed amending because our tomatoes and other vegetables planted there last year simply weren't thriving until I added fish emul
An Early Frost Made Me Dress My Tomatoes in Row Covers - Don't they look like ghosts for Halloween?Click thumbnail to view full-size
You can protect your crops, too.
Floating row covers can protect crops from early frosts, allowing you to start your garden earlier, or it can help extend the growing season. They also help protect young plants from insect damage until they are old enough to defend themselves. You can see in my pictures that I did not just float them. I used rocks to weigh down the edges and corners and I used clothespins to close gaps. I did this because we also got 50 mph winds with our cold snap. We often have fairly strong winds, and it just doesn't make sense here to let the row covers float without support.
I spotlighted this because these row covers have helped me in the past to start crops earlier and keep them growing later . They let light and water through, but keep the crops a few degrees warmer by holding in heat during the day and keeping the frost at bay by a few degrees. Depending upon the thickness, they can raise the temperature by 4-6 degrees. Had I had these in the early spring this year, my crops might not have frozen in the first place, but I didn't think ahead last fall, and in the spring this year, none of the local nurseries or farm supply stores had any in stock. Think ahead. Get yours now. You can cut them up for container plants, or huddle a lot of containers together under one, as I did. You can also cover an entire raised bed as I did. If your raised beds are larger than mine, you could use close-pins to join two in the middle.
May 11, 2010: A New Start and August Update
I Just Can't Win with Tomatoes This Year
I put all those new plants in yesterday, working even as it began to sprinkle. Everyone in the nurseries and at Farmers Market has told me they are fairly sure I won't encounter any late frosts now. I hope they are right. I'm already envisioning this year's crop of yummy varieties of heirloom tomatoes. I will continue my adventures with this year's tomatoes on another page of this lens or in a new lens. I haven't decided yet which. I'm hoping to have some pictures of a colorful and delicious harvest about August.
Update: This year's tragedy is a ground squirrel invasion. I have moved every container tomato I can lift to our property in Paso Robles, thus saving some of the tomatoes. See the pictures and the full story of what these destructive animals did.
Feel free to share anything that comes to mind from reading this.