As the day lengths shorten and the darkness grows, as the sun climbs a little less higher in the skies each day, and as the winds shift northwards with that extra bit of chill, farmers and gardeners shiver in fear of the encroaching phenomenon that marks the bitter ending of the lush summer growing season—frost!
On the farm, we call it the “F”-word. Chilliness is one thing, as is a damp rainy day, but a frost is nothing to take lightly when tending over three acres of organic-style vegetable production. Frosts damage produce and kill sensitive plants, leaving a once teaming garden limp, black, and in every respect little more than a bone yard.
Farmers know well the fine line between 33 and 32 degrees Fahrenheit. Cranberry growers install temperature sensors to alert producers of encroaching freezes so that sprinkler systems can manually or automatically douse crops to keep away the damaging chill. There have been many, many hand-numbing nights, covering by flashlight, when such a system sounded rather appealing! Or, perhaps, some football stadium out there wouldn’t mind donating their old retractable dome to a farmer? That way, with one button, I could cover the whole place! …sounds like wishful thinking.
Well, if an adequate sprinkling system is not available, the next best line of defense against the frost is covering with fabric. In our early farm days, we consigned sheets, blankets, bedspreads, afghans, towels, and anything else of that likeness we could muster into service. Fabrics by the boxful would be hauled up from the farmhouse basement and trundled out to the rows of delicate produce, one sheet at a time. Tedious is a mild way to describe this process.
But the experience does not end here! Oh no! In the morning, once the frostiness melts, each blanket and sheet had to be laid out on clothes lines, on fences, on ropes strung between red pines and majestic maples. Each piece by morning would be laden—no soaked—with dew (which meant that we became equally soaked) and nearly freezing cold. Wearing gloves was almost hopeless, since they became so sopping that it was more of a hindrance than a help, so you just pressed on with blue-white hands that ached for hours afterwards.
Back in the days before we built Farmstead Creamery & Café, clients would drive past the garden on the way to pick up their CSA shares or other farm goods, notice all the frost covers draped over every available hanging surface, and ask, “Are you doing laundry today?”
But some advancements in technology are truly worthwhile. One of these is a product called “Agribon,” which is lightweight, comes in long rolls, and can cover several garden bed widths at a time. Cut the length of our rows, two people can completely cover 500 square feet in less than a minute—compared to an age of draping sheets and blankets down the length of the row. Needless to say, we have become supreme fans of Agribon!
But what to do with all these now obsolete sheets and blankets (other than keeping a few around just in case!)? Well, farmers are not in the habit of letting much of anything go to waste—waste not, want not. This past year I finally finished restoring a grand-sized rag rug loom. Weaving rag rugs has been a traditional way of giving old remnants, garments, and other unwanted fabrics a new and useful life. Aha! The good old washing machine has had quite a workout grinding through the multitude of colors and textures of former frost covers as I hand cut them into strips and weave them into artful yet functional rugs.
Agribon and rugs aside, there are just some parts of the garden that are too big to cover—places like the squash and pumpkin patch. On our farm, squashes, pumpkins, sweet corn, and potatoes commonly follow the previous year’s pig pens. Each season, these areas are uniquely shaped, heavily mulched, and farther from irrigation than our more managed, raised-bed produce areas. To say that these hog-powered patches grow a little squash would be modest…exceedingly modest.
When this season’s “F”-word becomes unavoidably imminent, we bring out one of our hay wagons and park it by the patch. Then commences what I have come to call “Easter Egg Hunting for Adults.” Prickly and spiny stems and vines await, with broad leaves to disguise the precious squashes below—this is a job for gloves, long sleeves, and hearty souls.
This year, my labors in the squash patch were accompanied by Gary, a vacationer and volunteer who was interested in learning more about our farming enterprise and willing to lend a hand. We bobbed up and town, filling our arms with blue Confections, orange Hubbards, and green Buttercups. We laughed at monstrous, warty gourds, hiding acorns, and curly-stemmed pumpkins. Gary’s Santa Clausian beard brushed the tops of the plants as he reached for the next golden nugget hidden below. “There’s more in here than I thought!”
“We must be making progress,” I offered cheerfully. “I’m having to walk farther for each trip.”
We sorted the squashes into piles by type, though the piles soon began to mingle as the hay wagon became so loaded that one group spilled over into the next. By evening, the patch was picked clean (or as clean as it was going to be at that point), and with the help of some strong volunteer backs, we managed to push the wagonload into a shed just as dark settled in for the night.
Yet despite the cold and the wet and the prickles, the flurry of work that precedes the first hard frost it still worth the effort. There is something heartbreaking about finally letting the peppers and eggplants succumb to oblivion, or watching the tomatoes turn to translucent balls of mush. And there is something particularly satisfying about tucking that load of squash into the shed and sneaking in weeks later to pick out a golden Butternut for supper.
Whether the fear of frost has reached your area yet this autumn or not, be warned that it is coming! Store it away, cover it well, and hope for the best. And, of course, take a moment to give thanks for the bounty summer has afforded each of us this year. See you down on the farm sometime.
Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. northstarhomestead.com