They’s something kindo’ harty-like about the atmusfere

When the heat of summer’s over and the coolin’ fall is here-

Of course we miss the flowers, and the blossoms on the trees,

And the mumble of the hummin’-birds and buzzin’ of the bees;

But the air’s so appetizin’; and the landscape through the haze

Of a crisp and sunny morning of the airly autumn days

Is a pictur’ that no painter has the colorin’ to mock-

When the frost is on the punkin and the fodder’s in the shock.

That’s the second verse of James Whitcomb Riley’s well-loved poem, “When the Frost Is on the Punkin.” As gardeners in the Lakes Region, while we may not have any fodder in our shocks, we know that any time now, the frost will be on our punkins, bringing to an end the summer growing season here in Maine.

But there are a few things we can do to squeeze a bit more out of our gardens. It’s just a matter of being prepared.

Keeping a careful eye on the weather by listening to updated forecasts is crucial for winning the frost wars. If there is even a chance of frost, you must be prepared to act quickly either to protect crops and flowers or to harvest them.

To protect your bounty, cover with plastic or even blankets, being careful not to touch the plants themselves. You can also set up row covers, which, left in place, have the added benefit of extending the growing season.

As an alternative to covering, set up a mist system to apply about a tenth of an inch of water per hour, beginning when the temperature drops close to 32 degrees. Although it doesn’t seem logical (to me anyway), keeping the leaves moist protects them from the effects of a frost.

Another way to help your plants survive a frost is to remove any mulch you applied earlier in the season. Since bare soil absorbs more heat during the day than mulched soil, it is able to release that heat at night, warming the air next to the ground. If you can get your crops through an early frost, they may continue to grow for weeks in the mild weather that often follows.

If you’re not prepared to protect your crops and flowers from frost, try to harvest as many as possible when a frost is predicted. You can never have too many vases of cut flowers in the house. And as for vegetables, many will keep for a few weeks or even for months under the right conditions. Both sweet peppers and tomatoes will ripen if the entire plant is pulled and hung in a dry, 50-degree room. Or, harvest the green tomatoes. If they’re small and hard, you can fry or pickle them. If they are beginning to whiten and look translucent they will probably ripen. Try to leave a short stem on each so that it prevents the entry of organisms that can cause spoilage.

By the end of summer, many flowers are past their prime, but you can count on dahlias to make a bright display. Considered too gaudy by some, dahlias have been making quite a comeback in recent years. They are available in many forms, including pompom, water lily, cactus, and dinner plate (with blooms that can reach 10 to 12 inches in diameter). Their color selection is extensive, and they make excellent cut flowers, lasting a week or more in water.

Dahlias are grown from tubers planted in the spring after all danger of frost is past. They like full sun and rich soil, liberally amended with compost. Although the tubers must be dug and stored after the first frost, their beauty is worth the trouble. Besides, the tubers multiply; so one tuber can provide you with six or more for next spring’s planting.

As you continue to garden this season, be sure to enjoy the harty-like atmusfere and the appetizin’ air of this coolin’ fall!

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