Autumn weather is a little like riding a roller coaster - delirious highs of warm, sunny days turning, quite suddenly, to shockingly chilly, breezy nights. With the days providing perfect growing temperatures and the nights potentially killing or seriously setting back plants, what's a gardener without a greenhouse to do? Protect your plants from the cold night, of course! Here are our recommended materials and methods for getting your plants through brief cold snaps and stretching your growing season.
Because cold weather can threaten so last minute, take the time this weekend to assemble some materials to make emergency protection easier. First, you'll need fabric to cover the plants. Even thin cotton sheets insulate the plants and more importantly, keep any frost or cold winds from direct contact with their cells. Old bed sheets are just fine, but you could also buy floating row cover, an agricultural textile made especially for protecting plants from not just cold but also insects, disease, and sunscald. It is reusable practically indefinitely, easy to cut to sizes that suit your garden configuration, and easy to fold up and store.
Whatever you're using, you'll need to secure it around the plants somehow - usually, when it's cold, the wind is blowing too and you won't want to sheepishly ask your neighbor if you might retrieve your floating row cover that wound up in his yard! Andrew keeps a big bag of clothespins handy to use when protecting plants. He uses them to clip his protective fabric to itself or to the plants and it helps ensure the plant is thoroughly enclosed in its jacket. You can also secure fabric with soil, rocks or specially designed "earth staples". These are "U" shaped metal rods that push directly into the soil through the cover. Like floating row cover, they are reusable, though they will punch holes in the fabric.
Sometimes, you'll need a support under the cover to keep the weight of the material from damaging the plants. You can use a simple tomato cage to make a framework over a container or special plant. You can also use stakes, hangers, scrap wire like chicken wire or hardware cloth, even chopsticks on smaller plants.
Plastic drink jugs, bubble wrap, styrofoam, plastic sheeting can all be potentially used to provide a measure of protection to plants overnight. This is a great opportunity to be creative and resourceful.
One last recommendation for getting the most out of your plants when weather threatens - simply harvest! This is especially useful with tender herbs and annual flowers. Just get out there and cut the whole lot and either dry or freeze herbs. With flowers, treat yourself to the huge, beautiful arrangement you hesitated to make all summer because you didn't want to cut too much from the garden. Consider it the garden's last hurrah.
Here's to enjoying your containers a few weeks longer!