As the nights begin to draw in, and colder weather arrives, it is important to ready yourself and your garden for the first frost. There are a number of jobs to consider, whether you already have a polytunnel, or are considering one for your garden.
One of the things that it is important to know as a gardener is when you should expect the first frost in your area. There are maps denoting the average first frost in given areas of the UK, and information on a number of gardening sites. But it is important to understand that this should only be taken as a rough guide.
It is a good idea to make note of the first and last frost dates in your garden each year, so as to try to discern a pattern for your specific location. A number of different very local factors will have a bearing, as well as the topography and climate of your bioregion. For example, if you live up a hill, at a higher elevation, your first frost may be much earlier than somewhere only a mile or so away, that is much lower down, or by the coast. Your growing areas may also be located in a frost pocket, where much colder temperatures could be experienced much sooner. You could also have a more sheltered garden, and so have a later first frost even than relatively close neighbours.
Consider Creating New Undercover Growing Areas
First off, if you do not already have a polytunnel in your garden, now could be the perfect time to consider getting one. Before the first frost, creating a new undercover growing area could allow you to more successfully overwinter crops like broad beans, garlic and onions. It could also allow you to grow quick, hardy salad crops to eat over the coldest months. Even now, it is not too late in the year to consider starting a grow-your-own garden.
Even if you do not have the space in your garden for a full-sized polytunnel, you could still consider investing in a mini-polytunnel to protect growing areas or raised beds in your garden.
Add Additional Protection for Polytunnel Plants
Even if you do have a polytunnel already, a mini polytunnel could also come in handy to provide an extra layer of winter protection for more tender or exotic crops. With a double layer of protection, you might be amazed by the range of crops that you could grow, even in the depths of winter.
But polytunnels are not the only form of protection that you can provide for polytunnel plants. You could also simply consider making mini cloches from food packaging or other items that you have to hand. These mini cloches will not only provide a little extra protection from cold, they could also be used to protect individual plants from winter pests – like rodents for example.
Mulch Plants To Protect Their Roots From Frost
In addition to covering your plants, another way to keep them safe from frost is to add a thick, organic mulch around them. A thick mulch can help protect plant roots from frost. A mulch will also help to form a barrier to prevent erosion and nutrient depletion over the coldest months.
Using a mulch around the plants will not only protect them, and the soil on which they rely. It can also help to add fertility to a growing area, so that your plants stay healthy and well fed all winter long.
Consider Winter Heating for Your Polytunnel
A polytunnel will offer plants protection from a mild frost. But if you experience colder weather in your area, and hard frosts can be expected, then you may wish to consider heating your polytunnel in some way over winter. You may also want to heat your polytunnel over winter if you would like to grow more tender or exotic crops.
Another thing to consider is heating your polytunnel sustainably using renewable energy – for example, from solar panels or a wind turbine. You might also be able to consider creating a hot water heating or space heating system using an outside wood-fired or biomass boiler.
In order to reduce heating needs you could consider:
- Making hot beds to heat plants/ growing areas gently from beneath.
- Adding thermal mass in the form of stones, or stored water, for example.
- Partitioning the polytunnel and heating only one portion of the space.
- Incorporating chickens, rabbits or other pets or livestock into the winter polytunnel system.
Tidy Your Polytunnel & Growing Areas Before First Frost
It is a good idea, once summer crops have largely been cleared out and before winter crops are all in, to spend some time tidying your polytunnel and other growing areas. Making sure that everything is in order before the worst of the winter weather arrives will help to ensure that your polytunnel is not damaged. It can also help to reduce the incidence of pests and disease.
If you leave piles of debris and rubbish around, there is a greater likelihood that you will encounter problems over the winter months. So spend some time before it gets too cold making sure that everything is in order. You should:
- Clean the plastic cover on your polytunnel.
- Organise and wash all the pots and containers that are not currently in use.
- Clear paths and growing areas of all unwanted plant debris (and add it to your compost heap or use it to make liquid feeds).
- Clear weeds from the edges of the polytunnel.
- Cut back foliage from around the polytunnel.
- Gather any old plant labels you have used and order them. Make sure that labels in your growing areas are all where they should be, and all places where seeds have been sown are marked clearly.
Bring Tender Plants Under Cover
Another thing that it is important to do before the first frost is making sure that tender plants are brought under cover. From citrus trees to tender flowering plants, there are a wide range of plants that will do well when brought into an unheated polytunnel over the winter months.
Make sure that you do this before the first frost strikes in order to make sure that you do not have any problems with frost damage.
Reduce Watering Before the First Frost
Before the first frost, you should also be thinking about reducing the amount of watering that you do in your polytunnel and elsewhere in your garden. Overwatering as the days get shorter and the nights get colder can easily lead to problems with waterlogging or disease.
Harvest and Store Summer and Autumn Crops
Some plants will happily stay in the ground in winter, and some even taste better after the first frost. But many others should be harvested before the cold weather arrives. Before the first frost strikes where you live, make sure that you have taken the time to harvest and store all your summer and autumn crops.
There are plenty of ways to make sure that you can make the most of the food that you grow. To ensure that you can enjoy the tastes of all the seasons well into winter, you should consider:
- Creating a cold store/ root cellar to store crops securely.
- Freezing excess produce for later use.
- Canning some of your fresh fruits and vegetables using hot water canning methods.
- Making jams, jellies, chutneys, pickles and other preserves.
- Drying/ dehydrating fruits and vegetables.
Save and Store Seeds From Your Plants
One final job that it is a good idea to consider before the first frost is saving and storing seeds from your garden to sow next year. Some seeds are easier to save than others, and of course you should remember that only heritage varieties will come true from seed. However, saving seeds is easier than you might imagine, and is something that everyone should consider doing.
Saving seeds will not only save you money, it can also help you save rare varietals, and do your part to help conserve food stock diversity. What is more, saving your own seed will also help you create plants that are perfectly suited to the environment and conditions where you live.
Are you prepared and ready for what the winter months may bring? Let us know the jobs that are on your list in the comments below.
Elizabeth Waddington is a writer and green living consultant living in Scotland. Permaculture and sustainability are at the heart of everything she does, from designing gardens and farms around the world, to inspiring and facilitating positive change for small companies and individuals.
She also works on her own property, where she grows fruit and vegetables, keeps chickens and is working on the eco-renovation of an old stone barn.