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Frost Emergency in a Small Kitchen Garden

I planted tomatoes when it was clear there was no further danger of frost. That afternoon, the weather service issued a frost advisory, and we’re facing at least two more nights of unseasonal cold. My tomato babies are not happy with me.

Have you planted your small kitchen garden? More importantly, have you planted it earlier than you should have? Apparently, I have. I started setting my tomato seedlings in the garden during the past weekend; I’ve planted 34 seedlings in my small kitchen garden.

Then, guess what? Canada generously sent some fresh air this direction. My small kitchen garden found itself at the southern edge of a wall of cold air, and meteorologists warned that there would be “pockets of frost” in my area.

Frost kills tomato plants. So, despite having been planted at the average last frost date for my area (which varies, depending on who you ask), my tomatoes faced possible doom on the same day they first felt the touch of garden soil.

Frost Emergency Countermeasures

A late spring frost is usually very light. Because the ground has warmed well above freezing, a light frost isn’t likely to settle on it. However, leaves that hang free a few inches above the soil may become cold enough to freeze through. You can protect such leaves simply by surrounding them with heat captured from the soil.

I rigged a simple tent to protect my tomato plants. As the plants are in three adjacent rows of the garden, I pounded wooden uprights into the ground at regular intervals between the rows; eight uprights in all standing about 18 inches above the ground. Then I pulled our 20’ by 14’ camping tarp from the shed and draped it over the uprights. Finally, I weighted the tarp with bricks and pieces of broken cinder blocks in case a wind comes up. (Photos at end of this post.)

The tarp will hold in plenty of heat coming off the soil. Even if the air temperature drops below freezing my young tomato plants will stay warm. Aside from tomatoes, I have onions, peas, lettuce, spinach, and carrots already sprouted in my garden. None of those will mind a light frost; only the tomatoes needed cover.

If you’ve planted cold-sensitive plants during this period when so many regions are passing their last frost dates, pay attention to frost alerts in your newspapers, on TV, and in on-line weather reports. If the forecast is for temperatures of 40F degrees or lower, take your potted plants inside, and rig some kind of cover for the ones you’ve already set in the ground.

I’m fortunate to have a giant tarp that we bought on a camping trip where the rain never stopped. Supported by wooden uprights I installed between the rows, this tarp will trap in heat and keep my newly-planted tomato seedlings from freezing if frost descends on the garden. If you don’t have a tarp, you can drape annuals with bed sheets to protect them from frost. Remember to remove such covers after frost melts in the morning.


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