Why Must They Suffer?

February brings cold and this week, even Florida won’t escape the freeze. As a gardener, it’s important to stay vigilant. I’ve set my tomato seeds in sprouting trays and will keep them safely indoors during the dip. But what about my poor babies left out in the cold, exposed garden?

They’ll have to be covered. The sensitive ones, anyway. Broccoli and cabbage don’t mind the cold. Peas, either. But my new potatoes I put in ground a week ago? This photo proves how susceptible they are to a wintry blast…

frost bitten potato

Many of my plants are not happy about this cold front. At all. But as I plan my method of protection, I can’t help but wonder, Why do plants suffer during cold snaps?

The answer may surprise you. Like other living forms, plant cells contain water and water can freeze.  According to scientists, during a frost, if water in plant cells freezes, it can damage cell walls.  Why?  Because solid ice takes up more space than the liquid from which it was frozen.  The crystals then rupture the tough cell walls and when the ice melts, any liquid drains out, dehydrating the plant. Soil can also freeze, which threatens plants’ abilities to get nourishment.

Is it true that watering your plants when it gets cold will help protect them?

Yes.  When water from sprinklers turns to ice, the heat released protects the plant from injury. As long as a thin layer of water is present, on the bloom or on the ice, the blossom is protected. This is important. It’s not the layer of ice that provides the protection. It’s the water constantly freezing that keeps the temperature above the critical point. It’s one way citrus growers protect their crops.

orange freeze

Other factors that can affect how damaging a cold spell will be include how long the temperature remains low, whether or not it’s a clear evening versus a nice warm “blanket” of cloud cover, are the plants located in low spots or high across the landscape—even the difference in heat retention between dark soil and light!  Amazing, yes.  But true?

I sure hope so! Temperatures are dropping this week and I’m hoping my black paper will help soak in the sunshine. I’ll keep you posted.

Well I’ll be frostbitten…

Yes, I know it’s 80°F today in Florida, but last weekend it was cold. I mean really cold — 32°F of cold.  And as I mentioned, it was over the weekend.

Unfortunately, the garden lady doesn’t go to school on the weekend.  Yep.  Covered my potatoes at home but at school?  No could do.

So I did what any wise old sage would do and planned this week’s lesson around the realities of life. 

“Sorry kids, Mother Nature got us on this one.  Layered the landscape in cold when we were least able to protect against it.”  (That, and your garden lady completely forgot about to bring sheets with her to school on Friday.)  It happens.  It’s real life.  We cope.

Printing out the pages, I tucked them in my pretty floral folder and went to school.  Walked the kids out to the garden and stopped cold in my tracks.  “What the–” More

Peppers in January?

“Who’d a thunk it?”  Especially after the frost just before Christmas, when I was out shopping and too busy to cover them, in addition to the fact that my local weather folks had it in the 40’s until I arrived home that evening.  Frost alert!  Maybe even a freeze!

AGH?  Are you kidding me?  This is not something to joke about!

But alas, it was true.  Two nights in a row.  Ho, hum.  Who expects to grow peppers in the winter, anyway?

Only the most optimistic gardeners like myself!  I left the peppers in ground after the damage was done, deciding to pull them out at a later date.  Then the green peppers started turning red, and the Hungarian Wax started sprouting a host of new leaves.  What the heck?

The curious sort, I left them in and kept an eye on the little fellas.  Checked one of the red peppers, turned it to and fro.  Didn’t appear frost-bitten.  Was it possible it was good? More

Poinsettia for Next Year

The Poinsettia I planted from last season did not fare as well as I hoped.

The reason?  I believe it has something to do with sunlight.  The year before, I re-planted them in pots and kept them on the back patio, south side of the house.  They weren’t kept in direct sun, mind you, but they were in a very bright location.  Those I planted in ground out front of my home, full shade, no good. 🙁

So this year?  You guessed it!  Someplace nice and protected–they are somewhat dainty, I think–but with plenty of bright light.  Which makes sense.  After consulting with my “grow-guides,” I was reminded these beauties prefer indirect sunlight, protected from cool drafts.  As a native of Mexico, this plant doesn’t like the cold, so whenever the temperature dips below 50-55 degrees, you must be vigilant and cover it else it shrivel up and die.  More

How Cold Affects Our Plants

This week the kids had the solemn task of removing their frozen tomato plants.  Three days of frigid temperatures—by Florida and tomato standards—were simply too much for the sweet things.

We salvaged what we could and will hope for the best when it comes to ripening “post vine.”  Not sure how they’ll fare, but our spirits remain high.

Not only will we plant a new crop this spring, we’re going to make ketchup with our harvest.  Hip-hip-hooray!  AND–we’re going to plant potatoes for French fries!  Does it get any better?  Only if you prefer mayonnaise on those fries!  Besides, our broccoli is ready.  Who can’t be happy about that?  The kindergarteners promptly took it back to class and washed it for a nice, healthy snack.  YUM.

Even had a visitor while we were out there.  He was so busy scouring our broccoli blooms for nectar, he didn’t even notice us!

But why do plants die during a cold snap, anyway? 

Actually, not all do.  Our cabbage and broccoli thrive in the cooler weather much like our carrots.  See?  No problem here!  Other than weeds, of course. 🙂

But tomatoes and peppers?  Not so much.  The reason?   Like other living forms, plant cells contain water and water can freeze.  According to scientists, during a frost, if water in plant cells freezes, it can damage cell walls.  Why?  Because solid ice takes up more space than the liquid from which it was frozen.  The crystals then rupture the tough cell walls and when the ice melts, any liquid drains out, dehydrating the plant. Soil can also freeze, which threatens plants’ abilities to get nourishment.

The kids also learned that several factors can affect how damaging a cold spell will be, such as how long the temperature remains low, whether or not it’s a clear evening versus a nice warm “blanket” of cloud cover, are your plants located in low spots or high across your landscape—even the difference in heat retention between dark soil and light!  Amazing, yes.  But true?

I sure hope!  Our school garden is LOADED with rich dark dirt and it sure would help protect our plants against the cold.  For complete lesson, check the Kid Buzz section—and by all means, pay attention when the weatherman says we’re in for some chilly weather! 

See ya next week!

Until Next Year…

The school garden had a fabulous semester.  Not only did our wall of sunflowers work out beautifully, but so did our bean fort.  Pumpkin patch?

Not so much.  But we’re moving on to bigger things and brighter days as we move our garden’s location come spring.  However due to harvest times, some of our produce–like onions and carrots–will be left behind.  They need more time to mature.  But not our tomatoes–look at these beauties!

No freeze, no frost, it’s been a warm December here in Florida (thank goodness!).  A definite relief, as last year we lost our entire crop to an early freeze. 🙁 Not a happy day. Kids took it pretty hard.  Lost everything.

But what if your tomatoes are not ripening on the vine and a frost is headed your way?  Simple–you bring them indoors!  Yep. Just pluck them from the vine and haul the load indoors and set near a sunny window (a patio will do!) and allow to ripen fully.  So long as there is a hint of red on your fruit, you should be good to go. 

I “learned this by doing” last year after Mother Nature surprised me with a hard freeze first of December.  While tomatoes don’t like the cold, they can be covered during a night’s frost.  However, if you’re in for a hard freeze for more than several hours, your tomatoes are toast.  Or may as well be.  It’s not a pretty site.

And I have sauce to make!  In fact, tried my hand at it last week but apparently it tasted more like salsa than sauce–according to my Italian husband, anyway.  Personally, I thought it tasted “fresh and light” and utterly delightful.  I know you’re thinking:  like salsa!  But keep it to yourself, will you?  I thrive on positive reinforcement and salsa jokes simply don’t work for me.  How about instead going with something like:   “Almost, honey!  Just a little thicker next time, so it sticks to the pasta.”   And smile.  I do like smiles.

See?  I’m easy!  As to cooking the perfect sauce with your fresh tomatoes?  More on that in a future post.  Now the kids and are off to enjoy the season–

Merry Christmas!

Christmas in the Garden

It’s been a postcard-perfect day here in Central Florida (no, those aren’t Christmas trees).  The sun is shining, the temperature’s pleasant and the kids…well the kids are chomping at the bit for Santa’s arrival!

But aren’t we all?  Presents cascading in mounds from beneath the tree, candy canes poking from stockings stuffed fat with trinkets and sweets, the delicate aroma of pancakes drifting through the house (nice images though far from reality in our house!), the magic of Christmas morning lives.  And it’s not limited to the tree, oh, no —  I discovered it can also be found in the garden!

Wandering out to the garden for the first time since the hard freeze of last week (I’ve been suspended in a fog of green depression, mind you — and shopping and baking and mingling, all the while trying to keep up with my regular life), I learned something.  Yes, my plants are dead as scarecrows, but not all is lost. 

Well, the corn are toast, but the carrots and garlic and cabbage are not!  Neither are the onions and broccoli.  Hallelujah! 

If I could have, I would leaped for joy and clicked my heels, jingling bells included.  I don’t leap anymore (joints won’t allow such foolishness) and I have no bells (kids broke them), but I do have potatoes and that is cause for celebration.  Joyous celebration!

Look at these beauties!  Aren’t they gorgeous?  Planted back in October (as a fervent potato enthusiast, I like to chance the odds), these plants had enough time to produce some beautiful round potatoes. 

Some of these were the offspring of my spring potatoes and some were from grocery store purchased organic Yukon gold.  I can’t really tell the difference — I’m better at eating them than growing them — but they are in far better condition than what could have been their fate.   (Dry brown leaves don’t photosynthesize nearly as well and thus, produce, nothing.)

Needless to say, I’m pleased as a reindeer on his way home from Christmas.  Time to eat boys and girls!

“What’s for dinner, Mom!”

Why, it’s funny you should ask…  Sloppy Joes and healthy potato fries!  

“YUM!”  came their choir of response.

Kids love this kind of food.   And my husband?  Well, there’s always leftovers, right?  Sure he doesn’t prefer last night’s meal, but it’s not like I’m starving him or anything.  It’s hard to please everyone all of the time.

Which is why I quit trying.  We all must compromise.  It’s the way of the family dinner table. 

At least in our house.  “Have another serving, kids.  There’s plenty to go around!”

Potato or Potata?

Frittata, masha o potata fritta, it doesn’t matter.   Potatoes are THE crop to grow.   Especially for all you first timers.   It’s really hard to mess up this crop — believe me — I’ve come close, several times. 

But they still come up daisies, even when they’re pushing daisies.   As I mentioned before, my potato princesses died during the long hard freeze of January 2010.  A sad day, but salvation came in the form of their babies.  They survived! 

Amazing, but true.  I planted these at the end of October.   (the green you see are my chickpea companions which ultimately perished as well)  It was a risk, I knew, but I’m a risk taker at heart and figured potatoes in Florida?   How cold can it get?   Twenties, sure, for a night, maybe two.   I can hold off Mother Nature for that long, no problem.   Really?

Try four, maybe five and yep, you guessed it.   She kicked my fanny.   Like I always say (now, anyway), don’t go messing with Mother Nature.   You do NOT want her on your bad side because she WILL show you who’s boss.   Hint:  it isn’t you.

So back to my success story.  Yes, I went ahead, against the advice of my potato seed supplier and planted my crop of potatoes.  I love potatoes and haven’t had fresh papas since summer.   I missed “swimming” for the little guys, you know what I mean?    And yes, as forewarned, I lost them.   But tilling the soil for the next rotation – onions, in this instance – lo and behold, what do you know…potatoes!   Some nice sized ones, too.

Talk about thrill.  Well I looked down a few rows at my newest up and coming crop of these pups and thought, good job.  You planted them after the freezing cold, they should do fine.

Wrong.   Well on their way – poof — another wind blows down from Canada and we have near disaster.   Near disaster, because like I said, I know how to protect them.   With a quick glance upward, I first check with the lady upstairs.   Then breathe a sigh of relief. 

With some warm hay mulch and frost blanket, we can hang on for a few days. 

Thankfully, that’s all it was this time, though I did “miss the memo” regarding the last two nights.  I only happened to catch the late evening weather anchor mention the chance of frost — even freezing — but my husband waved it off. 

“It’s not going to freeze tonight.”  Translated: I’m not going out there at this hour to cover the plants and neither are you.  Then he rolled over and went to sleep. 

Hmph.  Lucky for me, the girls only incurred a few brown tipped leaves during their shivery nights, but now seem no worse for the wear.  A good thing, because I have several new potato recipes I can’t wait to try!

So, if you’ve always wanted to garden but felt your thumb was a bit too brown, trust me.   Potatoes are the answer.   Short on space?   I recently discovered a great solution.   The Lutovsky Potato box!   Produce 100 lbs. of potatoes using only 4 sq. ft. of space. 

No, I’m not kidding.   Visit the link and see for yourself.   Whether you have limited outdoor space or live in an apartment, you can grow and store a TON of potatoes.   They are generous producers and very forgiving.

Fabulous Red

With the frigid temps solidly behind us (I think), we can clear the beds, fear not the weeds, and look forward to spring!   It’s the border season here in Florida, a time to enjoy stored veggies and plan for our next planting — unless of course you are a “Brassicas” fan and I for one, say “on with it!”   There’s always fun to be had and for the moment, it’s found in the Brassicas section.  These kids love the cold, actually seem to thrive in it.  My red cabbage sustained no damage from the Florida freeze and that’s a wonderful thing — especially since I discovered so many wonderful recipes for red cabbage!  Forget that old German favorite grandma serves during the holidays with the turkey – this baby has evolved!   I found a great recipe in the Real Simple magazine and discovered it’s only one of the many ways you can serve this gem. 

But don’t forget those broccoli and brussel sprouts!   They also love the winter weather and this frosty photo shows quite clearly they “ain’t afraid of no cold.”   It’s proof positive you can still enjoy these sweets throughout the season.   I hear brussel sprouts actually become “sweeter” after a cold snap.   As I haven’t had a chance to bite in, can’t tell for sure.  

With all the excitement and reward going on with my reds and greens, I wonder:  Dare I put those potatoes in the ground…?  Glancing over at the vacant beds where my princess potatoes once blossomed, I hesitate.  And as much as I’d like to rely on the Farmer’s Almanac, I realize it’s not always accurate, exactly.

Hmmm…  Once again, I find myself “winging it.”   Aw, why not.   Now that I know how to protect them from frost, I should be good to go, right?

Stay tuned!