Saturday night, October 9th, while I was enjoying myself at a friend’s party around a bonfire, my garden experienced it’s first autumn frost. Temperatures plummeted to about 28 degrees F. The frost was not unexpected, so basil and pepper plants had been draped with old blankets and other pieces of cloth, the two pressure regulators and filters for drip irrigation lines had been swaddled in additional scraps of cloth, and any tender houseplants had been brought indoors or moved to protected places.
My low lying patch of ground in the Wallkill River Valley is a particularly cold spot. Still, twenty-eight degrees was colder than I expected; many nearby gardens didn’t even experience light frost. Despite the covers, peppers and basil were blackened by frost.
Yet I wasn’t disappointed. On average, the first killing frost of fall strikes even earlier than October 9th around here. (The date for Albany, NY, for which temperature records have been compiled for decades, is around September 19th; adding a degree or two for my more southerly garden still puts the average first frost date back more than a week.) So my garden got an extra couple of weeks or so of frost-free weather.
Also, with cooler weather and lowering sun, peppers, tomatoes, basil, and other summer vegetables have been petering out anyway. I’ve had my fill of summer vegetables, helped along by knowing about 40 quarts of canned tomatoes, half a dozen quart jars stuffed with dried tomatoes, and the few quarts of canned salsa on shelves in the basement.
The garden is far from over. I’m now reaping what I sowed, beginning back in July and continuing into September, of lettuce, endive, radishes, turnips, spinach, and other vegetables that enjoy this cool, even frosty, weather. Last night we enjoyed a delicious stir fry including kale and leeks, and a salad overflowing with lettuces, arugula, radishes, parsley, and carrots.
The now sad-looking tomato vines, the result of the October 9th freeze, and another one on the 12th, just have to go. Not only do they cast a funereal pall on the otherwise lush scene, but also could provide inoculum for tomato diseases next year. Not the blackened vines per se, but any old tomato vines, leaves, and fruits.
So one one by one I cut the vines free of their bamboo or metal stakes and toss every bit of tomato debris into the garden cart. The ground is littered with fallen and rotting fruits; they also get gathered up. Even any dried, old leaves that catch my eye.
The leaf spotting diseases, septoria and early blight, wait out winter on tomato debris -- not tomato roots, though -- and then awaken in spring to lob spores of these infections onto new plants. Besides a thorough cleanup, blanketing the ground each fall, after cleanup, with a 1 inch depth of compost also limits new infections by putting a barrier between spores and next year’s plant. And next year, as I do each year, I’ll plant tomatoes where tomatoes haven’t grown for the previous two years.
All these machinations do nothing for late blight disease, which devastated tomato plants throughout the Northeast last year. Spores of late blight hitchhike up here from overwintering sites in the South when winds, temperatures, and humidity are just right.
A new bad boy has turned up “on the block:” Japanese stiltgrass (Microstegium vimineum). It’s been slowly invading the Eastern half of the country for awhile, first documented in Tennessee in 1919, probably after arriving from Asia in some packing material for porcelain.
You don’t have to search far to find this bad boy. Just look for a sprawling grass that typically grows on the edges of and within the woods. It would grow a couple of feet or more high if it didn’t sprawl. Look more closely and you’ll see that the 3-inch-long leaf blades each has a distinct, silvery midrib. Flower spikes rise in late summer, which is also when the whole plants begin to develop a purple tinge.
Stiltgrass is an annual (like beloved crabgrass, native to Europe) so one way to control it is by mowing in late summer, just when it flowers, to prevent its re-seeding. Mowing earlier in the season just lets it regrow and flower -- and make seed -- more quickly. In small patches, the plant is easy to just grab and rip out of the ground, especially later in summer.