—Thomas Hood“Those of us who are gardeners do not need to train ourselves to be aware of the seasons, intuitively or any other way, for the seasons have us by the throat.”
—Germaine Greer“All that is gold does not glitter, not all those who wander are lost; the old that is strong does not wither, deep roots are not reached by the frost."
“Some leaves hang late, some fall
before the first frost—so goes
the tale of winter branches and old bones.”
—William Carlos Williams
The wonder of wakening to a newly frosted world has long inspired writers and poets. I've never seen frost quite so thick and sparkling as this morning at 7:40 a.m. as the sun rose over Whidbey Island. Bridget and I were out for a walk, crunching over grass, marveling over a world transformed....
I was inspired by just such a frost when I wrote the article below for Garden Design magazine...I think it ran in the Dec/Jan issue 2012. The photos are from my garden, taken this morning as the sun first slanted in to illuminate what frost had wrought...and we can expect more of the same tomorrow morning, with a forecast of 25 degrees overnight in Seattle ...Frost is a beautiful assassin. We wake to a garden gilded with reflective ice crystals—the product of the simple chemistry of water vapor freezing onto things colder than the air. Shimmery white replaces autumnal browns and greens, at least for an hour or two. My kids used to vie to be first out the door to crunch their boots across the frosted lawn, leaving a trail of footprints. Tree branches glisten, conifers look as if flocked for Christmas, and the tall, swaying inflorescences on ornamental grasses sparkle and shine like diamonds. Frost transforms the world, then melts away as quickly as chocolate on the tongue.
The full onset of winter can be like a slap in the face after a warm, lingering autumn, but most years there’s plenty of warning. Chill fall mornings find roofs and evergreens delicately coated with sparkling white; then, as the day warms up, the garden rebounds, fluffs out, and continues to bloom and fruit as if never nipped.
These light, teasing frosts can go on for weeks, but the time will come, in September, October, or even November, depending on your latitude and altitude, when the temperature dips into the mid-20s and a hard, killing frost will have its way with your garden. After weeks of frosty flirtation, this time plants won’t recover. Anything without a stout woody stem will be reduced to compost, and as far as the garden is concerned, winter has arrived, no matter what the calendar says.
As soon as I’m pulling on warm gloves and a wooly hat before going out of doors, I’m on the lookout for hints of that first serious frost. And in anticipation of its inevitable arrival, I dig the dahlias and cart pots of aeoniums and fragrant-leafed geraniums indoors. I rush out to pick the last raspberries and ‘Sungold’ tomatoes, turned sweeter by their brush with the impending freeze. I pull pots close to the house for protection and spread a blanket of insulating mulch over beds and borders. When the frost still sits lightly on the pumpkin, it’s time to pick the last of the zucchinis, tender lettuces and herbs, grapes, and still-green tomatoes.
Still, no matter how much I’ve prepared myself mentally and practically for that first killing frost, it’s still a shock to wake up and find the entire scale and density of my garden dramatically changed overnight by the startling destruction. Nothing other than a deep snowfall so instantly alters the landscape. It’s as if frost turns the garden transparent, paring away summer biomass to reveal the underlying structure. New and unexpected sight lines are exposed, and more light penetrates the garden—the sunrays weak and slanting but welcome all the same. In most climates, frost comes and goes through the winter months, but its garden edit lasts until foliage rebounds in spring.
Though there are few more-dismal sights than a lovely clump of coleus withered down overnight, the arrival of frost brings pleasures, too. It turns conifers and ornamental grasses to tawny shades of bronze and russet. Hydrangea heads take on soul-stirring hues of burgundy, mauve, and mossy green. The subtle splendors of tree bark, dangling berries, pods, and cones come into their own once frost has done its work to expose them. Finally I can see the birds I’ve only heard rustling through the tree branches all summer. My terrier runs around the garden barking wildly at foraging squirrels she’s suspected were there but hadn’t been able to get a bead on before the garden died down.
Before meteorological forecasts, people predicted weather by careful observation and memories of seasons past, much as gardeners tend to do now. My mother, who taught me to garden, believed that her naked ladies, a.k.a. Belladonna lilies, foretold frost dates. She swore by the old wives’ tale that first frost hits six weeks from the date these pink lilies drop their blooms. I wish I could prove her right or wrong, but in the middle of August, when the naked ladies bloom, the last thing on my mind is frost. I’ve never yet remembered to mark my calendar with the date their flowers fall.
As far as I’m concerned, feeling the weather “in your bones” is as good a way to anticipate frost as any chart or map of averages. So is stepping outside on an autumn evening to sniff the air—in many parts of the country, a cold, clear night, with glittering stars and a brilliant moon, is a sign that frost is on its way. Will tomorrow be the day?
There are myriad types of frost, their quality and appearance dependant on temperature and the amount of moisture in the air. When the air is dry and the temperature barely freezing, frost can look as ephemeral as the lightest dusting of powdered sugar. At the other extreme is hoarfrost, which on cold, clear nights encrusts surfaces with a thick, white fuzz of feathery ice crystals.
Because our air in the Pacific Northwest is usually moist, hoarfrost is rare. But one morning late last November my garden was coated in what looked like a dense albino pelt—could it be frozen fog? Each ice crystal was so long and thick that the frost looked pettable, as if my patio table had sprouted a corduroy-like nap. A little urn holding sedum became an object of strange beauty when kissed with hoarfrost, and I was sorry to look out at noon and see it melted away, my garden back to its plain old self.
Then there is black frost (worrisome for drivers), glazed frost, ground frost, and air frost. The rapscallion Jack Frost, an elfish creature of English and Scandinavian folktales, was held responsible for fern frost, the glittery crystal patterns etched across windowpanes on cold mornings. When I was little, it was a treat to help my dad scrape the intricate frost patterns off the car windshield; sometimes the ice lay in fine swirls on the glass, and other mornings it was more of a thick fur. It was always thrillingly cold on little gloved fingers and sufficiently persistent to delay our departure from home.
Beware especially the frost pocket, which can damage even hardy plants. Since cold air sinks, it tends to pool in low-lying areas, creating spots where frost hits earlier and lingers longer. When a frost is brief, plants can bounce back, but if it lasts several hours or more it ruptures cell membranes by freezing the moisture inside the leaves and stems. Plants then blacken and seem to melt, or in the case of perennials, die down and go dormant until the warmth of spring coaxes them out of the ground again.
Frost also works constructive magic. Without a period of serious cold, tulips won’t bloom, and lilacs and peonies won’t set flower buds. Instead of killing parsnips and collards, frost sweetens them up and perhaps even boosts their nutritional content. The garden also gets a break from slugs, snails, aphids, Japanese beetles, and weeds. (Don’t you just wish that frost killed slug eggs as surely as it does the slimy mollusks themselves?)
And isn’t the first hard frost something of a relief as well? For it signals an end to dragging hoses about, pulling weeds, fussing over outdoor plants. In fact, what most appreciate about frost isn’t its fleeting beauty, or its transformative effect on my garden. What I love best is how frost clears my calendar of routine garden chores as surely as it winnows out the plants in my garden. Only after a killing frost puts the garden decidedly to bed do I have guilt-free time to read a novel or go to the movies. The garden is at rest, and we are too, for a few months anyway.
The Old Farmer’s Almanac categorizes frost by its effect on plants: A light freeze is when the temperature dips just below freezing, to 29 degrees Fahrenheit, killing only the most tender of plants, including tomatoes. A moderate freeze, between 25 and 28 degrees, causes destruction of blossoms, fruit, and semi-hardy plants. A heavy or killing frost means the temperature has dropped below 24 degrees Fahrenheit, bringing an end to herbaceous plants and the gardening season.