So there I was, home late from work and ready to check on the garden to see what I could harvest. See what had been growing while I was away. I didn’t get a chance to check it out before leaving in the morning like usual so with dinner time around the corner I was eager to dig into fresh basil and maybe even a ripe tomato for the mostly home-made margarita pizza that was on the menu.
As I crested the hill toward the garden I knew something wasn’t quite right.
photo: dead basil
There, where my basil once was, stood a weakened version of the same. The dozen or so tomato plants that were vibrant and full not a day earlier are now laid to waste. At this moment of need they barely stand – drooping and lost.
Nearby, the broad leaves of the zucchini plant, the watermelon and the cantaloupe droop just as drastically. It was an attack upon my garden that had no quarter, no preference.
photo above: my garden after the freeze
The weather is changing now, day by day getting colder and forcing less tolerant plants on the brink of death. I’d heard neighbors to the north having lost their gardens to overnight freeze and, frankly, I expected that I’d have more time.
As it turns out, I didn’t. My good intentions for the basil were shot and my dreams of dehydrated extras, and the potential for a few more weeks of melons and squash, were snuffed out in one silent night.
photo above: failed tomatoes
The death of a garden is something that preppers rarely consider and homesteaders dread – especially when it comes early. I’d been watching the weather as it hovered in the low 70s and 60s for the last few weeks. But what I failed to do was pay close attention to how significant the weather changed overnight.
We sometimes face weather shifts of 30 degrees Fahrenheit but the one night it dipped too close to freezing for too long of a duration I was not ready. I hadn’t harvested my basil or a half dozen other plants, or moved some to inside areas in time.
I thought I could go another week. I thought I could rely on a lax sense of urgency with the weatherman’s daily temps well above freezing. But where I miscalculated was the cold at dawn. It didn’t even register because the glass on my car hadn’t frosted over at all – the usual indicator I was accustomed to.
This mistake cost me the life in the garden I’d become accustomed to over the last few months and it blind-sided me to say the least. Standing in the midst of my failure, I realized the importance of time, weather and urgency of harvest and preservation.
photo: dead zucchini
Sure, there are grocery stores within driving distance and I can access food at all hours of the night if I need to. Today anyway. But if this were a real-life SHTF scenario I would have to explain to my family that as a result of my lax attitude, we’ll be forced to do without. To me, this was frightening and a detail that I’d miscalculated.
Using a flashlight and a milk crate, I started picking everything else that survived – mostly the peppers, one head of cabbage, onions, and a few beets and small zucchinis. This thought, circling in my head of having missed the opportunity, is something that struck me with each vegetable I was able to collect.
By the time I got back inside, the cold had gotten my attention and I realized my entire garden had been reduced to less than would fit inside a milk crate. I set it on the counter but didn’t have the heart to admit to anyone that this is all that’s left.
While this is only one scenario, it is as true-to-life as it gets. There are a few steps that you can take to avoid these same miscalculations on your own homestead or survival garden landscape. By being mindful of these end-of-season killers, you can extend your growing season just a little bit longer, or harvest while you still can.
When winter weather approaches in your zone, take the time to cover up. There’s generally enough moisture in the soil to avoid the need for extra watering, so one way to keep the heat in is to provide cover.
photos above: kale that survived
photo: covered kale
By installing a shield of clear polyethylene sheeting you can keep a significant amount of heat in, maybe 10-20 degrees, which will allow plants to ripen even after the first hard frost.
Most hardware stores sell sheeting in 4- or 6-mil thickness and in rolls of 100’ long by 10’ wide or 20’ wide. These rolls generally range in price from $70-150.00 depending on the store and material. One thing to keep in mind is that poly sheeting is a petroleum product so you’re at the mercy of oil prices and availability.
Most preppers are well advised to keep poly sheeting on hand for multiple scenarios. Don’t forget this critical use in your garden and be sure to keep some on hand.
photo above: beets covered
When covering crops, the best method is to place the sheeting directly on top of the plant system, supporting it only if required to prevent plants from snapping at the stem. Avoid stakes or punctures so you can reuse it in years to come.
Wind is a prominent concern where I live, so if your area is prone to wind be sure to weigh down the edges properly to prevent heavy storms from wreaking havoc on your supplies. Old tires, pallet sections, cinder blocks, even dirt mounds are options. Then, you can set the weights aside to access the insides as needed to collect and harvest.
photo: kale covered
In extreme cold, installing a simple light fixture or heat lamp available from most pet stores can sometimes keep plants alive in sub-zero climates if managed properly. But in general, the cover alone will buy you enough time to extend your growing season long enough for the last fruits to ripen and you can harvest during the day instead of hunting at night in fear of another hard morning frost.
You can save your poly sheeting for next year if properly wrapped, stored and, hopefully, puncture-free. When the harvest is complete, work with a friend to fold long sections like you would a flag into a compacted triangle instead of a wadded mess.
LISTEN TO THOSE UP NORTH
Building a network of fellow farmers is a critical avenue for success in preventing loss from an early winter freeze. I remember hearing a week before my own disaster – maybe even two weeks – that an unexpected overnight freeze ruined an entire community’s gardens not far from my own home.
Everyone lost out at the same time and without warning. As a result of micro-climates, they were the only ones in the region who were affected. My network of fellow gardeners knew that winter was rearing its frosty head.
I had been warned through the loss suffered by those who caught the first sudden freeze of the season. But not acting upon that warning was my first failure. The weather report looked fine and daily temperatures were still in a healthy range. I thought I had more time.
What’s more, I heard this information second hand through a friend at work who had ties in the community up north. Without this chance meeting in a passing conversation I would have been completely without warning.
Without a network of other farmers communicating on the actual conditions, I had only news reports to clue in on. This was my second failure. My inability to rely on regional weather reports became obvious compared to real people in neighboring communities with gardens of their own.
Being prepared and owning a survival garden is a far more difficult task than it comes across. The earth will provide, but it will also take away in an instant if you’re not prepared. Most every county extension office has master gardener programs and experienced personnel on hand who keep a steady pulse on everything from diseases to weather problems and trends among other farmers in your region.
In some cases, regional farmers are united on social media where you can get information in real time for all those early warning signs. This was my third and fatal failure: assuming that I could do well enough on my own. Gardening for sustainability is not easy. Don’t trust how easy people make it look on social media – trust the other gardeners around you who have a few more years under their belt.
SETTLE FOR THE SEEDS
While surveying the damage, now irreversible, I came to realize that many of the plants I let go to seed are now ready to collect. Lettuce, onions, radishes, beans, and the like have some on the vine or have bulbed on the top that I can collect. While I am unable to return for fresh basil from the outside garden, their seeds give me a momentary pause of hope.
photo above: onion seed
Just like the end of one season marks the beginning of next season, the last stage of nature is to produce seed and, hopefully, additional plants. The sunflowers haven’t ripened, but they did survive the freeze, and with luck will be ready to harvest in the next few months. These valuable seeds will not only help for next season, but also will go over well as a seasonal roast very soon.
photo: sad sunflower
Sunflowers are a reminder that, while I have missed out on a chunk of produce and garden booty from this atypical early freeze, I’ve got access to thousands of seeds, of which I can easily collect, package, label and store for next year. In some cases, like lettuce, basil and garlic, I’ll start replanting immediately.
Garlic planted this fall will do much better for next spring. Basil in the window sills may still provide a few plants throughout winter. Lettuce, properly grown in a winter garden box, can still be harvested well after the first snowfall. The rest can be set aside with the intention of a bigger, more robust garden next year.
TILL AND COVER
By the time you come to grips with the loss, you’ll likely realize that there’s still work to be done. Whether your plan is to cover, harvest what’s left, or collect what seeds you can, the final step will be critical in the success of your garden next year.
With more freezing weather and longer durations of cold, the onset of frozen ground is drive enough to make sure it is worked early on. The first freeze is the main indicator that the areas and plants affected need to be tilled and the ground covered for next season. Doing so now will help to recharge the soil for next year.
If you have working compost, you can mix it in, along with cuttings, soil and vegetables that didn’t survive the freeze. I generally cover with fallen leaves to be tilled in next spring. Another option is to take advantage of the new compost by placing it above rows of potatoes by cutting a trough and burying them. You can work the soil now while it is still soft and trench out 6-10” deep, then cover with as much compost as you can muster.
The compost will generate enough heat to keep the ground from freezing in the trough. In the dark of winter, you will see signs of potato growth and will be able to brush off the snow to expose fresh vegetables just beneath the surface.
The death of a garden is a typical part of life. It is a dismal sight that comes with a fair amount of loss and regret for not doing more to prevent it. But, as embarrassing as it is, losing my own garden opened my eyes to the threats of weather when we are not watching closely enough, and not listening to the warning signs around us. Being mindful of these pitfalls is how we learn and grow.
As preppers seeking to live on a survival garden, it’s easy to plant a few seeds and think you’ve got it made. And it is just as easy to drop your guard and realize that a fatal mistake could have been avoided if someone had only given you a little bit of fair warning. The dark days of winter are fast approaching. Harvest what you can, serve what you can, save what you can. Hedge against the loss of your garden while you are still able, and take heed of this warning if it is not too late.