Frost Watch

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CHICAGO, Illinois– The frost watch is on as the fall weather alternates between warm and sunny and cool and rainy.

To get the most out of the last blooms from annuals and a few more leaves from delicate herbs, we’re on alert to cover less-hardy plants when frost threatens. Typically, Chicago gets a burst of chilly weather and a frosty night or two in October, but it’s often followed by a couple of weeks of warmer Indian summer.

We keep a supply of old sheets ready for covering the flower beds and front-yard herb garden. It’s a pain to put them on at dusk and remove them in the morning, but it’s usually worth the trouble.

Back in the vegetable garden, though, we use a covering of garden fabric (such as Reemay) that lets light and moisture through and can be left on all the time. We just stake it down well so the wind can’t whip it off. These fabrics warm the plants up by 10 degrees or so, enough to keep the tomatoes ripening well into autumn.

When the temperature drops below freezing, if we still have green tomatoes, the most effective method I’ve tried for ripening them indoors is to pull the plants up, roots and all, and hang them, root-end-up in a cool, bright spot inside. The fruit continues to ripen and tastes nearly as good as sun-ripened crops, and even some of the hard, green tomatoes that won’t ripen off the vine will redden. I’ve kept tomatoes going well into December this way.

If you don’t have an appropriate spot for this admittedly messy method, the next best technique is to pick the tomatoes and bring them in to ripen in a cool, dim spot out of direct sunlight. If you need to pile them up, wrap them individually in newspaper first.

Only those tomatoes that already have started to ripen, changed from dark green to pale green at least, will redden with this method. I use the hard, dark ones for salsa or breading and frying.

Other garden chores on our autumn list include:

• Till our vegetable plot and any new plots we want to plant in spring, then mulch. This lightens spring chores and allows planting of early crops, such as arugula, without waiting for the soil to dry out enough to be worked. We don’t always win on timing here, catching the right moment between trying to stretch the season and getting an early start on next year — sometimes the snow flies first.

• Clean up dead foliage that’s apt to harbor troublesome pests. This waits until after a killing frost or two to make the job easier. I take a passive approach to composting, so I dispose of diseased or pest-laden plant material with the trash pickup rather than counting on the heat of the compost to kill them off, as my pile never gets very hot.

I tend not to cut back healthy perennials, which is another touchy timing problem. Cutting them too soon may cause the plants to try to regrow, and this tender new growth will be subject to winterkill. Except for disease-prone plants, I haven’t had any problem with leaving dead stalks until spring.

Edible varieties of sumac are easily distinguished from poison sumac by their fuzzy red fruit.

It doesn’t pay to be too assiduous in raking up leaves in fall, either. We usually leave some in the flower and herb beds to serve as winter mulch, protecting the plants if we don’t get enough snow cover, and we clean them up in the spring.

• After the leaves are done falling, clean out the gutters and put the debris on the compost pile. One of these days, we’re really going to have to get gutter caps.

• Repair and maintain tools to have them ready for spring. We clean metal parts with a wire brush or steel wool, sharpen them and rub with an oily cloth. Fall’s a good time to straighten out the tool shed, take inventory and start our wish list for winter sales. Our shed’s going to need organizing this year because our battle with the wasps who decided to nest there has been, at best, a draw, and we’ve been making only fast forays into the shed this summer, re-stowing tools in all sorts of odd places.

• Drain hoses and watering equipment and store them in a dry location. If we’re really good, we take the time to untangle the hoses and coil them up without kinks, which, if left all winter, may become permanent.

• Drain the fuel from gasoline-powered tools, change the oil and put a few drops of oil in the cylinder. Put them away in that good old dry place.

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