A list of things to do after the fall freeze
Each October, Midwestern gardeners live with the looming knowledge of the inevitable freeze. Just like death and taxes, we know we can't escape, but we would sure enjoy a delay. This year it arrived pretty much on schedule; however, it still makes me sad to see the limp sodden skeletons of my once beautiful plants.
All that is left now is the cleanup. You may find a few tomatoes or peppers that appear free of cold damage, even though their mother plant hangs like cooked spinach. Go ahead and harvest. Green tomatoes will ripen indoors and do not need sunlight to ripen.
I often get the question about whether it is safe to eat vegetables after a freeze. It is really more of a quality issue than a safety issue. If the tomatoes and peppers appear just fine with no squishy areas, go right ahead and eat them fresh or use in cooking. However, we do not recommend processing them such as for canning because of the concern that freeze damaged tissue may allow bacteria entry. Only vegetables in their prime should be processed.
Pumpkins and squash also can be harvested, but if they were not completely ripe, they may not store or hang out on your porch as long.
Some vegetables shrug off the cold with hardly a shiver. Chard, carrot, kale, turnip, mustard greens, parsnip, radish, salsify, spinach and rutabagas do fine in cold weather, and their flavor is better after a frost.
We saw a bounty of apples this year. Apples left on a tree during a frost are just fine for eating and cooking.
If temperatures got in the mid- to lower 20s, then again it is a quality issue and not a safety issue. Apples that have gone through a severe freeze may not store as long but are perfectly tasty.
Probably the concern over eating produce after a freeze goes back to one plant — rhubarb. We don't harvest rhubarb in the fall anyway, but in the spring, a late frost can cause concern. We eat the rhubarb stalks and should never eat the large leaves any time of year. The leaves are inedible because of oxalic acid and oxalate content, which can cause poisoning.
In response to low temperatures, oxalic acid increases in rhubarb stalks as leaf tissues begin to freeze.
Frozen plants will have water-soaked limp leaves. Do not eat wilted or limp stalks from obviously frostbitten rhubarb plants.
A few things you can do in the garden after a fall freeze:
It is not too late to dig tender bulbs such as dahlia, caladium and canna, even if the top part of the plants have been singed from cold. Store in sawdust or peat moss at 55 F.
Plant garlic cloves and spring flowering bulbs such as tulips, daffodils, crocus and lesser-known winter aconite and snowdrops.
Clean limp plant remnants from the garden. Start a compost pile with all the leaves and garden debris.
Strawberries should be mulched before temperatures go below 20 F. Use a loose mulch of clean wheat straw to a depth of 3 to 4 inches. I have had good luck using pine needles for mulch in strawberry beds.
Master Gardener program
Apply to the Master Gardener program today. Training for Master Gardeners in Champaign, Ford, Iroquois and Vermilion counties starts at the end of January in three locations — Champaign, Danville and Onarga — but applications are due Dec. 6. For more information or to apply, visit http://web.extension.illinois.edu/cfiv/.
Questions about gardening?
Our great horticulture team is here to help. In Champaign, call Ava Heap at 333-7672 or contact email@example.com. In Danville, call 442-8615 or contact Jenney Hanrahan at firstname.lastname@example.org or Leah Brennan at email@example.com. You also can contact our new horticulture educator, Diane Plewa, at firstname.lastname@example.org or me at email@example.com.
Check with your local University of Illinois Extension for opportunities: http://web.extension.illinois.edu/state.
Sandra Mason is unit educator, horticulture and environment, for the UI Extension, Champaign County. Contact her with questions or comments at 801 N. Country Fair Drive, Champaign, IL 61821, call 333-7672, email firstname.lastname@example.org or fax 333-7683.