The first frost, and sudden-death overtime


These sweet potato vines are in ruins after an early frost, but the tubers are fine. (Adrian Higgins/The Washington Post)
Adrian Higgins
Gardening columnist November 6, 2013

I was chatting with some vegetable growers recently — one near the Chesapeake Bay, the other west of Winchester — and both had crossed that dark threshold, fall’s first killing frost.

“Oh, here in the city,” I said, smugly, “we typically dodge the first frost bullet and keep going another month.”

Adrian Higgins has been writing about the intersection of gardening and life for more than 25 years, and joined the Post in 1994. He is the author of several books, including the "Washington Post Garden Book" and "Chanticleer, a Pleasure Garden." View Archive

The next morning, I sauntered down to the community garden plot well inside the Beltway and surveyed the shambles: The zinnias were darkened and done, the sweet potato foliage looked burned, the black-eyed susan vines had black eyes, and the dahlias were ready for Halloween.

Pride goeth before destruction, and all that. The frosting did confirm what I had suspected, that the low-lying garden was in a pocket where the air pooled and grew stagnant — humidly so in summer, frigidly so now. Friends in other urban neighborhoods reported gardens that were unscathed.

In Washington, we have a much longer growing season than most, a solid seven months compared with, say, Madison, Wis., where it is less than five. We should count our blessings. The first frost, nevertheless, is the umpire’s final whistle in a game you don’t want to end.

We are in an uneasy overtime — the trees are still in leaf, the hydrangea mopheads, dried to indigo and mauve, look great — and yet we know in our hearts that the season is over. Clearing a bed of tender things, I looked up to see a garden neighbor haul away the carcass of a full-grown basil plant.

On paper, I still have a garden of flowers: the saffron crocus, the violas in pots, a few roses in bloom. I have what must be the last flowering hosta, Hosta tardiflora, now improbably in full flower. Clusters of violet trumpets decorate this narrow-leafed, dainty hosta.

Elsewhere, the hollylike osmanthus is bursting into flower, tiny white pearls along the stem with penetratingly sweet fragrance. This is a classic but underused evergreen — mine are about nine feet tall and, though not used in this way, would make a wonderful screening hedge for a patio. If you surrounded a terrace with osmanthus and fall-blooming camellias, now in full flower, you would have a stunning place to observe the autumn colors and the manic chickadees and Carolina wrens, which seem to appear just when we need them the most.

Still, there are no illusions. The plants in bloom now are outliers in a natural world in retreat.

Gardening exists in two universes. The first involves the enjoyment of the garden, of connecting to a beauty that can touch all of the senses. The second involves the task of gardening, which sounds burdensome but is actually the more satisfying because the real joy of gardening is the process of it, not the product.

Still, it helps during the toil to be surrounded by the tangible fruits of your earlier efforts. Now, the digging and dividing of perennials, the general autumn cleanup and the planting of spring bulbs are all an act of faith. One carries on before the altar of delayed gratification, until the ground freezes and you can’t do any more other than refill the bird feeder and gaze through the window, waiting for the snow.

Defiantly, I am still sowing hardy greens. The salad mixes will be still at baby stage by the end of the year. I am trying to talk myself into covering them with row covers or even hoops and plastic for a harvest through the winter. Such musings and projects keep the gardener going in the weeks ahead. If I had the space, I would be planting garlic and shallots. I dug and cleared the sweet potatoes, and planted some fava beans in their place. If the winter is mild, the bean plants will make it through for a robust and early harvest in May. If not, I’ll pull them in February and sow afresh for a June crop.

Similarly, I am putting in early-season sweet peas against the garden fence. With some luck they will grow four or five feet and cover themselves in fragrant flowers in May.

If you were wealthy and leisured, you could have a garden in New Zealand to go to after Thanksgiving, and have another growing season. I’m not sure I’d do that, if only because I’d fret about it in my absence. I’d rather confront the fall and winter here and attend to dormant pruning, turning compost, replacing decayed shoring, pulling the winter weeds. The pleasures of gardening from November to February (spring starts March 1 in my book) are fewer and unpredictable, but intensified as a result.

Meanwhile, it helps to think of yourself as a pear tree or a tulip. You will blossom spectacularly in the spring, but only after the required period of chilling.

@adrian_higgins on Twitter

Also at washingtonpost.com
Read past columns by Higgins at
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