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December 2006
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February 2007

Frost Arrived Last Night

In our back garden on the north side of a hill and in the shade of a house, frost painted the ground white last night. A thermometer registered 31 degrees. In front, there was ice on the cars, but the front garden showed no frost. I suspect the difference is that the back yard is protected by houses and fences from light winds, while the front is open to the street. Where air can circulate a bit, even circulation caused by the passage of cars on a still night, this will often be enough to mix warmer air with the coldest air near the ground. And with the temperature just below freezing, maybe that was enough.

I looked out the front window, while I was fixing the blinds, and there was a young woman looking at the garden, probably as surprised as I am to see the Erysimium 'Apricot Twist', the Convolvulus tricolor, the yellow and red violas, and the Gaillardias still in bloom. She looked up and smiled; I smiled back. Flowers on a frosty morning are special.

Frost on the Way

As I write this the temperature is dropping, with frost predicted tonight and tomorrow night. Gardeners in cold-winter parts of the country have a different relationship to frost than we do, I think. In Indiana, where I grew up, frost happened, and then we had several months in which the only green outside was the dull, dark green of wintering needleleaf evergreens--the spruces and the pines and the like. If you wanted to see a flower, you could go to the florist's. (And I often did, to get even a single rosebud and bring it home to draw or paint.)

In Indiana, where the temperature was generally well below freezing for several winter months, you might try to save some annuals if the frost was early in the fall, but once winter was underway, plants lived or they didn't. I suppose there might have been horticulturists somewhere who wrapped slightly too-tender plants in burlap and tried to get them through the winter, but no one we knew did any such thing. We grew plants we knew were hardy enough to survive, even if they died back to roots each winter, we let the frost do its work, and we waited for spring.

But here in the Bay Area, our average winter low hovers a few degrees above freezing or a few degrees below freezing. We dabble in plants that can take just a few degrees more cold than we get in most winters, but not as much as we get some winters, and then, when a big frost is predicted, we worry over them. Which makes sense, considering that if we can get them through these very few nights, we will probably have them for years to come.

So if you have planted stuff that can't take frost, tonight will probably find you out there with bedsheets or floating row cover, draping your plants. It is a good idea to use plant stakes to prop cloth covers away from plants. Cardboard boxes make good covers too, since they form a firm chamber that doesn't touch a plant.

Should plants frost over, and they are important to you, preventing morning sun from hitting them until the day warms them a bit will help them thaw more safely. Don't prune plants that are damaged for awhile. You may find that parts you thought would die will return to health in a few weeks.

The Plants Say The Winter's Mild So Far

We are launched into the new year. So far I have written 2008 accidentally once, rather than 2006. A forward-looking error, at least.

Last night my husband asked me if the winter is unusually cold so far, and I said that the plants were telling me that it was not. I think what I am reading from the plants is that the fall was not very cold, or possibly that the fall cooled so slowly that they had plenty of time to adapt. I have annual mallow (Lavatera trimestris) fully green, 3 feet tall, and blooming. It should be dead by this time of year, not looking pretty. In the front garden I have an annual Convolvulus tricolor that is still blooming. Should also be dead. A gaillardia looks really good, still blooming well, but it should have quit blooming. Sure, we had a couple of frosty nights, and we had a couple of days of tremendous wind, but we haven't had a long cold period. I think it has been in the 50s or above in the daytime more often than in the 40s. I haven't been taking temperatures, but this is what the plants say.

My husband says: You always get back to plants. Yep, I guess that's so, but they have so much to say.