Written by Michelle Kish
Late fall and winter can be one of the most productive seasons for South Texas growers, but it can also be one of the most unpredictable. Sometimes the weather does not even hit 32 degrees F throughout the entire year and you end up farming in shorts and a t-shirt on Christmas Day. On the other hand, sometimes you wake up to snow at the start of December. And then again, sometimes you experience two light-to-heavy freezes that move directly into the 70s or 80s in the same week. It’s all rather hard to keep up with. So, what’s a producer to do?
First, plant diversely. If you start planting early, you will surely be able to get some cucumbers, green beans and eggplant at the beginning of fall (you may even coax some tomatoes out before an early freeze). But don’t put all your eggs in that delicate basket! Make sure to also plant light-frost hardy plants like radishes and beets as well as heavy-frost hardy plants like peas, collards and turnips. This will ensure you will have something going despite any weather that is likely in South Texas.
Second, keep an eye on the forecasts. Look 5-10 days ahead so you are ready to prepare for a light or heavy freeze. Use this as a way of knowing when to harvest all plants that will not survive a coming Artic blast. If you see a freeze coming, grab all those beans, cucumbers and green tomatoes before it hits. You already put effort into growing them, no use in letting them go to waste!
And lastly, when you see a freeze coming, there are ways to prep your plants to help them better survive. Some of these require purchasing materials prior to the event, so if you have the means and the time, it is something you should plan for at the beginning of fall. Some freeze-warning tactics include:
- Do not overhead water before a freeze. If it is going to freeze at night, ground water at the base of the plants (by hand or with a drip line system) that morning to give it time to soak into the ground before the freeze.
- Mulch around established plants. Mulching can help keep the roots of your plants warm and alive during a freeze. Common mulches are straw, leaves or wood chips. Research which plants you should mulch before a freeze, as some young or delicate plants cannot handle the heat and weight of mulch and may do better with a row cover.
- Make cover – Row covers can help protect your plants during a freeze. The most common row covers are made with PVC pipe bent into archways and covered with burlap, plastic, or cloth covering, but there are many other ways to row cover. If no precipitation is expected, sheet coverings directly on plants can help. However, if the freeze is during rain or snow, coverings that absorb water (like sheets) directly on a plant will cause more harm than good. Plastic directly on plants is usually always damaging and should have a pipe or cloth barrier.
- Take cover – move potted plants into a greenhouse, cold box, or if you have room and the freeze is going to be short lived, indoors. But remember to keep vigilant on moving them back when the freeze is over. You don’t want them to overheat or be out of the sun too long.