The frost is coming!

Frantic last harvesting of tender plants is in full swing.

It’s always tempting to leave things until the last moment, especially these days when the climate is so unpredictable. Used to be that frost date meant frost date but now it could be weeks or even a month later than the normal frost prediction date. The frost date is taken as a averages of when the frost has appeared in the past, its not totally accurate but for most years its been pretty close. However with the constant climate changes these predictions are becoming more of a guess and frost dates can be way off. This year the first frost date for our area should have been October 15th but we had weather in the 80’s after that. Moving plants to a ‘warmer’ location at that time would have fried the poor little guys.

It’s the same with vegetables. On our farm peppers are still flowering right up until the frost every year. There is no point harvesting them, ‘just in case’ it could be weeks before the frost hits and a lot more peppers could be enjoyed. Same with other crops. So we leave them.
Then the frost warning comes through the national weather service and there is a mad scramble to get everything harvested before the frost hits. From experience we know what plants will survive a mild frost and those that wont. All the peppers need to be harvested, the semi tropical leaf plants like Manihot and roots of things like Jewels of Opar. It’s a lot of work and our cold storage is stuffed to overflowing by time we have finished.

Floating row cover over green bean crop

Any crops that we still want to hold onto after the frost need to be covered in floating row fabric. This can either be draped directly over the row or made into a kind of tent structure if the plants are tall.
You can do this yourself in your garden if you have crops or plants that you want to protect. Many places sell floating row cover or if you only have one or two plants you can cover them individually with plastic shopping bags. Weigh them down with stones or other heavy objects so they don’t blow away in the wind. Once the frost has gone the bags can be removed. This is only supposed to be a temporary measure to keep the plant alive until you can do something with it. Or in the case of crops for a few weeks to either extend the length of the growing season or to protect crops that have not yet finished fruiting.

This year for us its green beans. We planted a late set of green beans because we ate so many of them this year, and we sold some too. We realized we would not have enough for the family through until next season so planted a late crop. These have not yet finished maturing so they will be protected until the beans are ready.
Every year we protect the Cape Gooseberries. These plants grow tall and always continue to flower right into the frost. There are a lot of fruits that wont mature but a lot that will if give a little more time. Next year I want to put up a hoop house over them and extend the season even further, but we don’t have time this year.

Of course this is just a mild or light frost or freeze, down to 32°F (0°C). It will kill tender plants but most of the hardier ones will be fine until we get a hard or killing frost that goes down to about 24°F ( °C). This will kill off everything. Long range weather forecast is not predicting this for at least another month, maybe more so we have time to harvest the rest of the leafy greens and the root vegetables and herbs before the ground freezes.

Knowing when your first frost date is in important to any gardener. If not it can be really disappointing to go outside and find all your tender plants wilted down and dead. Keeping and eye on the weather and listening for reports of frost is always important. Learn when the frost dates are for your area. The Farmers Almanac has a nice clickable map to help you out.

Finally the temperatures are cooling down.

We can get some real work done.

While I know that there are some people who just love to work outside when its hot and humid, I am not one of them. I worked with someone like that not long ago. He just loved to go out in the hot sunshine and work in the fields. I loved him for it and was very sorry to see him go (to a more distant university to get his doctorate).
Me I don’t like to work when its too hot. In the summer months I get up very early, mostly when the sun comes up. Get outside and do what I need to do and get in before 10.30am when the sun gets too hot.

Now however the temperatures are cooling down and I can spend the whole day outside working without overheating. I love the crisp fall weather. Being outside at this time is exhilarating even if it does come with hard work. Its easier to work in cooler weather although its alarming just how many jobs suddenly need doing. This year has been especially bad for heat so the normal set of tasks have built up a bit more than usual. We still have a lot of plants flowering but others have finished and need to be cleaned up before winter comes and the weeds have increased in size more than I would have liked but now it can be hit hard and pushed back into order.

I like to keep my fields with a few weeds as possible. I know many farmers who don’t weed their rows much and will often abandon a crop if the weeds get too bad. It’s a tough choice, often there is not enough time to do all the weeding, the darn things grow so fast. However if you keep the weeds down and don’t let them seed, eventually you get less and less weeds to remove. Sadly I am not at that stage yet, while I have less weeds others still blow in and crabgrass is always rearing its evil head scattering seeds everywhere. While I do have a band of wild turkeys who seem to love crabgrass seeds they don’t eat enough of them for my liking. If I could just train them….

Group of turkeys.
Group of turkeys at the top of one of our fields.

Harvesting Catnip and Rue seeds.

This week the catnip and rue seeds have ripened and are at their peak for harvesting. These two plants need very different approaches in the harvesting process.

When harvesting seeds, all plants, and hence the seed, needs to be very dry. If not the plants and seeds tend to retain moisture and may develop mold. So instead of being able to harvest first thing in the morning when the temperatures are cooler we have to wait for around mid day when the plants have totally dried off before we can start. This makes the job more unpleasant if you don’t like too much heat.

Seeding catnip plants
Catnip seed ready to harvest

Catnip (Nepeta cataria) is grown in full sun in large beds. Its not bursting with seed. Fortunately its not to difficult to harvest the plants, we do this with a scythe and lop the plants off. In most cases they will regrow a fresh crop of leaves for late fall harvest, often they will flower again. It also means that harvesting is fairly rapid with most of the seed separation done later in the seed processing shed.

The other problem with heat is that the harvester tends to sweat more, and is wearing sunscreen a very important factor for working in the direct sun. The downside is that this tends to make the skin sticky. Add to that the person is working in hot sunny weather so they tend to sweat as well, making them even more sticky. Now place that sticky person in a field full of catnip plants bursting with seeds. The result tends to be a very interesting plant/person hybrid or someone that looks as if they have a very unpleasant disease. It also tends to mean that a lot of seed wasted in the shower drain. Sometimes it can take hours to remove all the seeds afterwards, and never ever put your hands in your hair while harvesting!

Seeding rue Ruta graveolens plant.
Seeding rue Ruta graveolens plant.

Rue (Ruta graveolens) is a different matter. It’s a semi shrub like bush with seed heads that need to be cut off individual, while a scythe can be used it usually more effective to use snips. This means that the harvest takes a lot longer. The later processing is faster because there is not as much extraneous material but the bulk of the work is done outside in the sunshine not in the shade of the shed. Additionally rue plants exude a sap which can be very irritating to some peoples skin and cause very unpleasant dermatitis or ‘rue rash’. Intolerance can also build up over time so just because someone was ‘immune’ last year does not mean that they will be this year. So to overcome this problem the harvester must have long sleeves, long pants and gloves. Not the most desirable attire in hot summer weather. We tend to draw lots each year as to who harvests the rue. Which takes much longer to harvest that then catnip due to the selective ‘pruning’.

This year the short straw has fallen to me, so I am just waiting for the dew to evaporate off the rue bushes before I gear up and go harvest in the heat. This is one of the days when being a farmer is not quite so pleasant.

Harvesting is in full swing.

At this time of the year its hectic on the farm. There is still planting going on and the harvesting is in full swing too. I like to harvest quite a few things at once then come in and work on processing them through the dryers over the next couple of days. This is especially important when its going to be hot and humid, or if its going to rain. Of course we cannot harvest on rainy days and I really don’t like being outside working when its really hot. If and excessive heat warning is predicted its time to get out, harvest and store in the refrigerator for a couple of days while its processed.

So with that in mind I harvested solidly for two days.

Day one was catnip day. We have a lot of catnip and it was beginning to flower nicely. That means its time to harvest for ‘flowering tops’ which is very popular with cat owners as the catnip has higher concentrations of nepetalactone the active compound that cats react to. Catnip harvesting is always active, its not just cats that react to the smell, its more stimulating to humans and is often used in tea blends.

Day two was more gentle. It was lemon balm harvest time. This is more calming plant and even during harvesting it’s has a more calming effect. Its also a little faster to harvest so I was able to get the lovage and the rest of the meadowsweet harvested at the same time. That filled up the fridge so for the next few days its washing and processing down for the dryers and time to stay out of the excessive heat.

Lemon balm plants
Lemon Balm plants ready for harvest