The warnings of the first frost can send us gardeners into a frenzy to get everything in our gardens harvested before the cold hits. Here’s what you need to prioritize.
In preparation for the first frost, you should plan to harvest all squash (summer and winter), tomatoes, peppers, flowers, and basil. These plants are not cold-tolerant and will be damaged or killed by the cold.
Keep reading to learn more about how to protect your plants from the cold and how to put the rest of your garden to bed for the winter.
When is the first frost?
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the first frost will be and depends heavily on where you live. If you live in a colder climate, then you can expect your first frost to come earlier in the year. But if you live in a warmer climate, then you may not see your first frost until well into winter.
A simple google search can tell you roughly when you might receive your first frost. Here is a great resource that will tell you the first and last frost date for your location just by putting in your zip code.
Knowing these dates is crucial in figuring out when to plant or harvest crops. Many seed packets will tell you to sow your seeds a certain number of weeks before the first or last frost. If you don’t know your dates, you don’t know when to plant!
In general, I try to have my garden put to bed by the first week of November. But you might find that yours can go longer depending on where you live and what season extension techniques you utilize.
The difference between a frost and a freeze
The terms “frost” and “freeze” are often used interchangeably but actually mean two different things.
A frost can occur even if temperatures are over 32 degrees Fahrenheit and can be seen when you step outside. You might notice the shiny frost on your grass or maybe your car windshield is frosted over.
You might get a frost one night but by the next day, temperatures are back up in the 60s. One frost isn’t necessarily a death sentence for your garden as many plants can withstand a frost or two.
A freeze is a little bit more intense. If a hard freeze is coming, temperatures will definitely be 32 degrees Fahrenheit or lower. A freeze is likely to kill much of what is left in your garden and can potentially stick around for a long time if not the rest of winter.
What to harvest before the first frost
To ensure that nothing goes to waste, here are the crops that I harvest before the frost wipes them out. This is not an exhaustive list and there are plenty more worth harvesting before the frost, but these are the ones that I find particularly important and prioritize.
If you see frost coming in the weather forecast, then go ahead and start harvesting the rest of your summer squash.
Summer squash is not at all frost tolerant and will be damaged if not killed by the frost. You’ll know your summer squash was hit with a frost because the leaves will wilt and may even become brown or black around the edges.
Harvest any squash fruit before the first frost or as soon as possible afterward so that they don’t start to rot in the garden.
This one might come as a surprise to some of you but winter squash isn’t called winter squash because they’re grown in the winter. They’re called winter squash because they have an incredibly long shelf life, making them a great crop for storing over the winter.
Winter squash are planted and grown over the summer and into the fall and a frost will knock back or kill any of the foliage. Similar to summer squash, once frost has hit, the leaves will wilt and turn a brownish-black color.
Harvest your summer squash before the frost hits and leave it somewhere to cure so that it can be placed into storage over the winter.
It’s always sad to see the end of the beloved tomato season thanks to colder temps rolling in. Tomatoes don’t stand much of a chance when it comes to frost so it’s better to harvest what you can while you can.
Even if you still have a lot of green tomatoes on your plants, go ahead and harvest those anyway. After the frost comes, they will never ripen and will eventually rot. Green tomatoes are still edible and can be fried up (fried green tomatoes!) or processed into something like salsa verde.
Peppers will react to frost in much the same way as tomatoes, which makes sense since they’re in the same family.
Once a frost hits your pepper plants, the leaves will severely wilt and the fruit may even start to turn black. Eventually, the peppers will get squishy and turn into bags of brown pepper goo. Doesn’t sound too appealing, does it?
Luckily, peppers are edible at pretty much any stage before ripening. People eat green peppers all the time and even if they’re quite small, you should still harvest them.
This goes for hot peppers as well. Hot peppers may not be as spicy as they would be if they had a chance to completely ripen but they’re still completely edible.
Not everyone grows flowers in their gardens so this one might not be that big of a deal to you. But I like to have extra pollinator attractors and bursts of color in my garden so here we are.
Once a frost comes through, many common cut flowers like zinnias, sunflowers, and snapdragons will wilt and lose their vibrancy. Flower petals will turn brown and start to fall off making them significantly less appealing.
If you see a frost forecasted, go ahead and pick the remainder of your flowers and make one last fall flower bouquet (or several) to place around your home. This has come to be a favorite end-of-season ritual of mine.
Basil is one of the least cold-hardy plants that I know of. So much so that you can’t even place it in the fridge after harvesting for fear of it turning completely brown overnight.
Harvest the rest of your basil and put the trimmed stems in a glass of water to help keep the basil fresh until you get a chance to use it.
You can also process the basil into something like pesto which can be stored long-term in the freezer and added to dishes throughout the winter.
You can also check out these articles for more information on herb hardiness:
Do root vegetables need to be harvested before a frost?
Root vegetables are awesome because they can handle the cold much better than some of our favorite summer vegetables.
Carrots, beets, and daikon radishes can all be overwintered in the garden and don’t need to be harvested before a frost. This means that they can be left in the ground all winter and harvested in early spring.
Many people argue that root veggies like carrots don’t even get any sweetness until they’ve been hit by a good frost first.
You can also keep your root veggies in the ground as a sort of winter storage method as opposed to keeping them in a root cellar. The only downside to this method is that if the ground freezes completely, it will be difficult to dig anything up until spring.
When you overwinter your root veggies, you may notice that the greens die back. This is okay! Your root veggie should be just fine underground. Just make sure you’ve labeled your garden well or you may not be able to find them again in the spring.
If you live in a location that gets significantly colder over the winter, it doesn’t hurt to cover your root veggies with a good layer of straw mulch to help keep them a bit more insulated.
How to protect plants from frost
If you have lots of cold-tolerant plants in your garden, like brassicas, or you’re just not quite ready to harvest everything yet, then you need to protect your plants from the frost.
The easiest way to do this is to cover your plants. Using frost cloth or reemay can keep your plants up to 6 degrees warmer than they would be without it.
To set up the frost cloth you’ll also need some metal hoops to hold it up. Place your hoops directly over the rows of plants that you want to cover. Your hoops should be about 4 feet apart but you can use more as you see necessary.
The important thing is that the cloth is not touching the plants as it can damage them. Adding more hoops in spots that are sagging can help with this.
To hold your fabric in place, you’ll need some weight. You can use things like sandbags or bricks if you have them. Pretty much anything heavy will work. You can even use scoops of dirt along the edges to keep it down.
If the weather is warm enough during the day, you should uncover your plants so that they can still take in that sunlight. Then, when the temperatures start to drop again in the evening, go ahead and cover everything back up.
For plants that you may have in hanging baskets or individual containers, your best bet is simply to bring them inside to keep them warm.
Putting your garden to bed
Everyone has a different method to clean up their garden at the end of the season. There’s really no wrong way to do it but here are the steps that I take in my garden.
First, I pull out all the plants that are done for the season. I try to fit as many as I can in my compost but it fills up pretty quickly with plant waste. The rest I take to my local composting facility.
Next, if I haven’t already done this, I’ll plant my garlic. Garlic takes about 8 to 9 months to reach maturity, so by planting it in the fall, I can ensure a summer garlic harvest.
Then, I top off all of my beds with a good layer of compost. After a full season of growing fresh food for me, the garden deserves some food too! This layer of compost helps to return some nutrients to the soil so that they’re ready to be planted again come springtime.
Finally, I cover all of the beds with a good thick layer of straw. This helps keep the soil warm and insulated over the winter. I’m a no-till gardener myself so come springtime, I just plant directly into the straw-covered beds again.
Doing this year after year builds up layers of organic matter and continues to make the soil healthier and healthier.
The end of the season can be a bittersweet time as we watch all of our hard work be put to a close. But until the frost comes, there’s still work to be done! Make sure to harvest the rest of your squashes, tomatoes, flowers, and basil.
Cover any crops that you want to protect from the cold and put the rest of your garden to bed for the winter.
Each year the garden teaches me an important lesson on the cyclicality of life. It sounds cliche but with each ending, there is always the promise of a new beginning. Spring will come again and we gardeners get to do this whole thing all over again.