Get Your Garden Ready for Frost

We have had a mild summer and fall this year on our farm in Cove, Oregon. The usual Labor Day frost didn’t touch us, but now it is the end of September and frost is inevitable–possibly tonight, September 27. Here are some tips on keeping your garden going a little longer this year.

Frost nipped the top of the pumpkin plants in early September.

Tip 1: Prioritize

Covering your garden every night and uncovering in the morning is tedious, so first prioritize what you really care about and what you can feasibly protect.

By September at latitude 45 north, no flowers will amount to mature vegetables–there just isn’t enough warmth or daylight left. Zucchini is the exception, but you might be tired of zucchini and glad to see it go anyway.

Photo by Pixabay on
Not all your crops need frost protection.

Anything in the Brassica family–kale, broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage–will make it. Lettuce and other leafy greens are also cold tolerant. Root vegetables are protected by stable ground heat. In my family, we dig carrots for Christmas dinner.

Many folks like to leave root crops in the ground and cover with straw for extra insulation. I tried this and even covered the straw with plastic. The mice ate 300 feet of carrots and were happy for their warm, dry home. I prefer to leave them in the ground without creating a mouse house, and have had no trouble with them freezing, especially once the snow falls and insulates them.

Basil can die above freezing–at 35F!
Crops that need protection.

Protect tomatoes, peppers, basil, flowers and any very young seedlings you planted for your fall garden. Remember–basil can die at 35 degrees or lower, so it needs extra protection.

If you bravely planted Dalias, rosemary or other crops that are marginally successful in my zone 5b, you need to come up with a plan to protect them over the winter.

And don’t forget about your potted plants. Above ground their roots will freeze, so bring them inside or dig a hole and put the pot in the ground.

Tip 2: Quicken Ripening

Our most beloved plants didn’t evolve in the northwest. They come from Mexico or Italy–Mediterranean climates. Give your plants more clues that it is time to ripen.

Your indeterminate tomatoes are probably flowering like there’s no tomorrow, but it is time to tell them the end is nigh. Hack off any flowering parts of the tomato. Pinch any flowers from peppers and keep the basil flowers pinched too. Cut way back on water so plants are “shocked” into ripening. Tomatoes need water 0-1 times per week at this point in the season.

If what you’re trying to ripen is flower seeds to save, cut off the water all together.

Photo by Richard Fletcher on

Tip 3: Watch the Weather

Every morning and late afternoon, I check the weather forecast. I want to know the nighttime low and weather the skies will be cloudy or clear. I don’t ready the NOAA forecast or anything fancy. User friendly weather sites for non-weather nerds are fine.

Frost is most likely to form on your garden if the nighttime low is near 32F and the skies are clear. Cloudy skies trap more heat and result in warmer nights. A weather forecast of a low of 35F and cloudy skies doesn’t alarm me as much as a forecast of 38F and clear skies. However, I always cover if the forecast is below 40F because I just sleep better.

We cover tomatoes outside the hoop houses with remay and boards keep the remay in place. We pull twine between the trellis posts to keep the remay above the tomatoes where it could get wet, touch, and freeze the plants. Photo by Evy Wallace.

Tip 4: Cover Up

Once you’ve prioritized which and how many plants you want to save, find covers you can use to keep frost off your plants at night. The idea with covering is to physically block dew from settling on your plants, freezing, bursting plant cells, and killing vegetative matter. The frost you can protect against is basically frozen dew.

Often the lowest temperatures will come after wind blows a storm through in the night. Your coverings must be able to withstand nightime breezes so you don’t have to get up at 3am to fix them.

What You Need
  • LIGHT WEIGHT, DRY coverings
    • Tarps or plastic sheeting
    • Remay, bedsheets or fabric
  • Weights or straps to keep covers in place.
    • Jugs or buckets of water
    • Boards or rocks
    • Bungees or ropes criss-crossed over covers

Testing out your frost protection system ahead of time is key. While their not pretty, I leave my coverings and weights right next to where they will be used so I can easily cover if the forecast unexpectedly changes.

uncover your plants & Keep covers dry

Especially if you use clear plastic, you can burn your plants up during the day if you leave the covers on. If you leave the covers on, the plants will get less light to ripen fruits. Also, keep the covers dry during the day. If you put wet covers on your plants, the covers themselves could freeze and freeze your plants.

Photo by FOX on

Tip 5: Melt Frost with Water

If the nighttime lows are forecasted to dip near 32F just before sunrise or you forgot to cover up, you can opt for spraying frost (frozen dew) off of plants before it has the chance to freeze plant cells.

In order to effectively melt the frost off and save your plants, you MUST spray it off BEFORE sunrise and continue to spray it off until AFTER sunrise.

The coldest temperatures occur after sunrise. Temperatures continue to drop until the sun is able to overcome the cooling of the earth. If you spray frost once but the temepratures are still below freezing, the water you added to your plants will freeze again. You have to use continuous water to keep the plants warmer and frost from forming. If sunlight hits tender vegetation with frost on it, it will blacken and die.

You can set up sprinklers around your garden and turn the sprinklers on in the morning or set them up on a timer to start before sunrise for frost protection. Just remember to drain your hoses every night so they are ready to use in the morning and not frozen themselves.

Photo by Anna Urlapova on

Tip 6: Observe Your Backyard Weather

Weather forecasts are general for your area, not specific to your garden. I have learned through the years that the forecast at my house is generally warmer by 5-9 degrees. That is to say if the forecast in Cove, Oregon is a low of 40F, it will be between 31-35F at our garden and may freeze. The forecast is perfectly accurate a quarter mile away at my friends’ house.

I have an indoor/outdoor thermometer and I keep mental track of the afternoon forecasted low versus the actual low at our house. Make sure you mount the outdoor thermometer near the ground where it is colder. Over the years, observation has allowed me to make the 39 degree rule–I will cover if the forecast is 39 or below. This rule just makes it easier to decide when to go to the enormous trouble of covering the farm.

I hope you are able to keep your gardens going through the nighttime temperature dips.

May we have a long, warm October.

Your Grateful Farmer,

Nella Mae

Fall planting and overwintering

August is usually a time when the mowing, weed eating, weeding and other garden chores ebb and the harvest peaks. A few yellow leaves off the cottonwoods are starting to fly, and the nights have that edge-of-fall chill. It may feel like harvest and canning time, but it is also time to start planting for fall and winter crops. Just think of this–for many years my dad and I have had the tradition of digging carrots for Christmas dinner. Wouldn’t you like to be eating the sweetest, brightest carrots too? If so, now is the time to plant.

Our overwintered Bolero carrots.
The Planting Season is the Whole Season

One of the biggest differences between a typical home garden and a market farm like mine is the frequency of planting. To extend the season, home gardeners can simply plant 1. small amounts, 2. more often, and 3. longer into the season.

As a market farmer, I start planting in the greenhouse in February. If it is dry enough, in April I start planting the February starts and seeds outside and in the hoop house. I consider my planting season weekly or bi-weekly from April through mid-September in my 6b hardiness zone.

Home gardeners will have less space than I have on the farm, but the concept is the same. Plant partial rows or plots weekly or bi-weekly throughout the season. Each week you can use a small hoe or hand hoe to prepare a small spot for a few feet of lettuce, beets or scallions. Spend 10 minutes planting a small space rather than putting in 20 feet of radishes. You cannot eat that many. I know the temptation once seeds get into your hand to plant until the packet is empty, but hold back!

How I Plant Season Long

As soon as one crop is pulled out of the ground, I prepare the soil for the next. I plan ahead and cut water to crops that I know only have one more picking so that I can harvest, pull, till and plant right away. I want the soil to dry out so I can till or hoe it into a proper seed bed. Make sure you remember to baby your seeds along with ample water (even if it is hand watering) through germination and into the true leave stage before you forget about them and treat them like the mature plants.

Scallions are a great fall and overwintering crop.
Pick the right varieties

If you want to expand your planting season, you need to buy the right seed. For spring you need “cold hardy” varieties. For spring you need “main crop” varieties or those that don’t seem too picky about heat or cold. For summer you need “heat tolerant” or “slow-bolting” varieties. In the fall, you return to your spring varieties. For winter you look for “overwintering” varieties or cold tolerant crops that have 120 or more days to maturity. Also, anything called “Russian” is a good indicator it is cold hardy.

If you buy your seed from companies with good seed descriptions, you will be better off. I like Johnny’s Select Seed for the very specific growing information and High Mowing and Baker Creek Heirlooms for the variety.

Use row cover & plastic

Row cover (aka cloche or remay) is a wonderful way to protect your fall and overwinter crops from cold and pests. I use Agribon 30 weight because it is the most durable. You can make hoops from number 9 fencing wire or 1 inch schedule 40 PVC thick wall pipe (don’t buy thin walled PVC.) You can make short “feet” and pound them into the ground and bend your PVC hoops over them. If you leave your row cover on all season, make sure to cover with clear plastic too. The weight of snow will damage your row cover.

Many folks use straw to protect the roots of crops they overwinter such as carrots. Some folks cover the straw with plastic too. I tried this on a 60×60 bed and made a perfectly warm, dry mouse house. They ate all my carrots. Now I just leave my carrots uncovered in the wilds of winter and they do just fine.

Photo by on
Crops for fall

Think about fall crops as those you eat the leaves or roots of as a guide. No tomatoes, zucchini, cucumbers or basil. Think about eating things from norther latitudes, not from the Mediterranean or Mexico.

  • Carrots
  • Onions
  • Scallions
  • Arugula
  • Kale
  • Peas
  • Cilantro
  • Spinach
  • Lettuce
  • Cover crops

You can plant any of these crops now (mid-August) in zone 6b, but you can use the Johnny’s Selected Seed fall-harvest planting calculator to get more precise. The calculator is based on the last day of 10 hours of daylight at your latitude. In Cove, Oregon on the 45th parallel north, it is November 4th. Count backwards from there for planting dates by crop.

Here is my fall planting plan for our latitude and based on November 4th. Keep in mind, these are possible crops for each date–you don’t have to plant everything every week. One thing not on my list here are radishes. They can be planted pretty much any time after the heat abates.

Overwintering Crops

As I mentioned, carrots are great for overwintering. Look for “storage” or “overwintering” varieties like Johnny’s Bolero or Napoli. I had great luck with Bolero.

Other crops that are fun to try overwintering are kale, chard, broccoli, greens like mache & Claytonia, leeks, parsnips, and onions. Remember to pick the right variety and get all the info for best planting dates and practices. I really recommend overwintering chard.

Seeds that spring up

At the end of the season, I generally throw out a lot of pea, dill, and cilantro seed. It overwinters in the ground and comes up very early in the spring when conditions are right. It you can eat the pea shoots and young herbs in delightful spring meals you will appreciate after a long winter.

I hope this was helpful to you! Happy planting!

Your grateful farmer,

Nella Mae

Tips for Growing Tomatoes

I have been getting a lot of questions from new gardeners at the farmers market about tomatoes lately. Can I plant them now (May)? What’s the best way to plant them? Why are the plants I started so spindly? I want to give my best tomato growing tips for northeast Oregon to help you have a bountiful season.

Tomatoes are funny in that they are not very hardy (not resistant to frost) but in all the other ways, they aren’t too picky or difficult to grow in northeast Oregon (zone 5b.) Here are my tips.

1. Rotate your tomato bed

It is a good always a good idea to change up the places you put crops in the same family each year or every few years. This helps prevent crop-specific pests and disease from establishing in the soil. With tomatoes it is important to rotate because they are also “heavy feeders.” They can deplete the soil and if you don’t give the soil time and other plants to help it recover, you won’t have vigorous tomatoes in that place.

2. Wait until after Father’s Day

I think the safest thing to do is wait to plant your tomatoes until after Father’s Day in northeast Oregon. My poor husband has woken up to me cursing like a sailor on Father’s Day when I walked outside at 4:30am to find that the weather forecast was off by 10 degrees–it was 30 and freezing my tomatoes, not a safe 40. He spent the first three hours of Father’s Day rushing around with me in a continual circuit spraying frost off tomatoes, then returning to spray again before the water froze until after sunrise.

If your plants are screaming to get out of their tiny pots now, get some potting soil and pot them up into larger containers. You can also prune them smaller when you pot them up. If you just can’t wait until Father’s Day to plant, either get some wall-o’-water at the gardening store or cover them with plastic or sheets nightly for awhile–it is easy to get surprised by frost. Either way, you’ll have to keep a close eye on the weather forecast and subtract 5 degrees from the estimated low to be safe.

We used Wall-o’-Waters in my first adult garden. Shown on right.

3. Plant deep or horizontally

Tomato plants need lots of roots to keep them upright and mine the soil. If you have tall plants, first take off most of the lower leaves with scissors or pruners. We plant them so 60-80 percent of the plant is in the ground, and 20-40 percent is above ground. You can either: 1. Dig deep holes or 2. plant them horizontally.

At the farm, we dig little trenches with a hoe and lay the plant horizontally in the hole. Since tomatoes can make roots from any part of the buried stem, this gives the plant a solid root base as they grow. The same happens if you plant them deep.

4. Pick off flowers & fruit

If your tomato transplants (starts) have fruit or flowers on them when you buy them or are ready to plant, pinch them off. Your plant needs to focus energy on making shoots and leaves, not flowers and fruits to begin with. Many tomatoes are indeterminate, which means they will continuously flower up until the day the frost takes them. If you pinch flowers now, you will still get plenty later.

5. Trellising

Home gardeners usually use tomato cages to keep the vine-y plant upright so the fruit is off the ground and easy to pick. Cages work fine, but are kind of expensive. At the farm, we use the “Florida Weave” to trellis our tomatoes using posts and twine. (We actually just use old irrigation tape instead of twine now, but twine works great.) Please do yourself a favor and watch this great video on how to do the Florida Weave.

These are our tomatoes trellised in our hoop house.

6. Pruning

Tomatoes are so easy to prune and pruning is worth the effort! You just have to get comfortable taking a lot of vegetative matter off the plant and learn what suckers look like. Suckers always come out of the main stem at a 45 degree angle. This is a really great, quick video that will help you learn to prune. At the very least, prune the lower leaves and branches so that none are touching the ground and picking up disease.

7. Deep, long watering

Transplanted tomatoes need frequent watering to get them over the transplant shock. After they are recovered and putting on growth, it it is time for deep, long waterings. At the farm we water every three or four days for three hours. Daily watering can cause the fruit to split. Long waterings help encourage deeper root growth which helps with stability and resilience. Think about deisingin your irrigation set up so you can water the tomatoes separately from crops that don’t want that much water.

8. Freeze them!

I will never miss a chance to encourage folks to roast and freeze their tomato bounty. You don’t need to spend every weekend canning tomato sauce. Just roast tomatoes in the oven and bag or jar them in the freezer. You can make sauce, salsa, etc all winter long. Check out my recipe here.

Thanks for reading!

Your grateful farmer, Nella Mae.


Demystifying the Seed Catalog

Nella Mae’s Tips for Choosing and Ordering Seed

December 30, 2019

Just when I think the days can get any shorter or darker, a small blessing arrives—seed catalogs in a rainbow of colors and significant heft. They brighten the dreary days and are excellent paired with tea and bed. Seed catalogs are the endosperm to my dormant germ of ambition. In other words, they feed my excitement and allow me to start dreaming about the coming growing season—which will always be bigger and better than last year! 😉

As I studied my seed catalogs this year and made my first order ($401 worth), I noticed how much information is packed in to each seed description. With this blog post, I want to help explain some of the terminology as well as give some suggestions for how and where to choose seed.

seed catalogs.JPGSeed Companies

At Nella Mae’s Farm, we primarily buy seed and tools from Johnny’s Selected Seed. That said, there are many other great seed companies we like.

  • Johnny’s Selected Seed is a large company with an extensive organic and conventional seed options. Lots of growing information and great customer service. Winslow, Maine.
  • Territorial Seed is great for the home and northwest gardeners. Cottage Gove, Oregon.
    Baker Creek’s vibrant catalog!

    Baker Creek Seed specializes in rare, weird, and heirloom varieties from around the world. Their catalog is a work of art. Mansfield, Missouri.

  • High Mowing Organic Seed specializes in 100% organic and non-GMO seed from independent seed producers. The website has a great blog and growing information! Wolcott, Vermont.
  • Wild Garden Seed specializes in open-pollinated varieties lovingly selected. Philomath, Oregon.
  • Fedco Seed is an organic growers’ cooperative with good options. Clinton, Maine.
  • Seeds From Italy is the US distributor of Franchi Seeds, which is Italy’s oldest family-run seed company. They specialize in heirlooms and have interesting things to try. Lawrence, Kansas.

Reading a Seed Catalog

Each catalog has its own format, abbreviations, and symbols, so follow these tips for better understanding:

  1. Look for the legend at the front of your catalog. It is the “decoder ring” for fully understanding seed descriptions.

    pull out box.jpg
    Pull out box with helpful info on starting cauliflower.
  2. Don’t skip the first few pages of the catalog—they have important information about seeding rates, disease resistance codes, etc.
  3. Look for other pull out boxes and notes about culture, growing, harvesting, starting seed, etc. as you go along. Some seeds need special soaking or cold storage for best germination.
  4. After reading the catalog, check out the seed description on the website if you need more information. They can fit more growing tips and taste descriptions online.

When you are reading a seed description look disease resistance; whether the crop should be trellised; if they are greenhouse growing varieties; if it is treated, conventional or organic, hybrid or heirloom seed; if it is cold/heat tolerance; when to plant, and more.

How to pick seeds for YOUR garden

Days to Maturity: This is the (very imprecise) estimate of how long it will take for your crop to mature. (Do children come with DTM? That would be really useful.) If this crop is transplanted as a plant like tomatoes rather than direct seeded like carrots, the DTM is from the time of transplanting.

Choose varieties that match your hardiness zone and that fit comfortably into your window of frost free days. For example, our Cove, Oregon farm is in USDA hardiness zone 6b and enjoys 100-130 frost free days. I haven’t been able to reliably grow crops with a long DTM, so I generally pick varieties with a DTM of less than 100. For more on determining your garden’s hardiness and frost-free days, read on!

Frost-free days: You can find your location’s average number of frost free days quickly at the Old Farmer’s Almanac site. Just remember to plus or minus the average based on your lived gardening experience. For example, I know it is always colder at my house than the rest of Cove, and I have fewer frost-free days.

Hardiness: Click here to find out your USDA hardiness zone by zip code. Hardiness determines whether things will overwinter. It is a life-long devastation, but I will never have perennial rosemary, wisteria, or artichokes. Never. While these lovely plants are perennial in California, Georgia, and the Willamette Valley of Oregon, they will not overwinter at our zone 6b, 3,100 ft high farm. They can live only in the Mediterranean climate of my mind.

Key Words in Catalogs

  • Early- Yes, this means you’ll get an early crop. It also means this seed is probably more suitable for short season places like mine.
  • Heat-tolerant- This seed can grow outside its normal season. For example, heat-tolerant spinach will do alright in the summer at our farm without bolting.
  • Resistance- Many hybrid varieties are bred for their resistance to plant diseases. Check out the codes and descriptions if you have had specific disease problems like powdery mildew on cucumbers. If you have had mysterious, un-diagnosed diseases, consult your local master gardener program next time!
  • Widely Adapted- A variety that grows well in various climates.

Organic vs Conventional Seed

This is a matter of preference. Certified organic seed is sometimes more expensive, but in my experience, usually not by much. It won’t break the bank of a home gardener. If you do break the bank buying seed, call me. We can start a support group. 🙂

If you want to support organic seed growers, help reduce pesticide and herbicide use in agriculture, or you like the idea of eating something that is 100% organic from seed to table, buy organic seed.

Open-Pollinated vs Hybrid

At our farm, we use both open-pollinated and hybrid seed. Open-pollinated seed is the oldest way of breeding seed, and it was started to create seed (and plants) that are more uniform. In open pollination, a single variety is grown in isolation from other varieties so the resulting seeds are “true to form.” The new seeds should look, taste, and grow similarly to their parents and not have the characteristics of milkmen or interlopers.

Hybrid seed is an old, although more modern type of seed. Plant breeders choose plants from specific, different varieties and allow them to cross. The resulting seed is a mix of characteristics from both varietal parents. Hybridization allows breeders to choose flavor from one variety and disease resistance from another and create uniform seed (and plants.) Hybridization is not the same as genetic modification (GMO), which often adds genes from different species.


Baker Creek’s wacky heirlooms.

Old, open-pollinated varieties that are basically unaltered since their original breeding are called heirloom. Many people prefer their taste over hybrids. They can have less disease resistance.

Treated Seed

When you open your seed packet, you might find some strange colored seed—often red or blue. Some seed is treated with antimicrobial or fungicidal chemicals to protect from pests and disease. Treated seed is not organic.

Your seed catalog will note whether seed is treated or not. If you decide to buy treated seed, do some research. Some treatments are in the neonicotinoid family of insecticides, which are very hard on pollinators.

Seeds have arrived!

Make sure you don’t lose all that precious knowledge! I write directly on packages important notes like “trellis” or “soak.” I also separate seeds into fall, spring and summer planting groups so they go in at the right time, even when I’m in a hurry.

I hope this post helps explain a few things about buying seed. If you have specific questions or topics you want me to write about, contact me at

Best to you all!

Your grateful farmer,

Nella Mae