Much Ado about (early) Winter

Reader Contribution by Regina Hitchcock
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When I tell people around the country that I live and garden in Arizona, the first thing they say is, “it must be nice to be able to garden year-round. I don’t even know what I would do if I had 12 months to grow instead of 5!”Well, as you know from my first post, this area where I live is NOT typical “Arizona”. We have freezing temperatures longer than we don’t have freezing temperatures, and snow lasts into May at some of the higher elevations around us.

Here in St. Johns (zone 6), the average first frost of the season is between October 11 and October 20 (according to Plant Maps), which I have found to be true. Often, we have a small frost that can be protected against with row covers or blankets, then two more weeks of good weather to get the harvest in and let those last tomatoes finish up with their ripening. Because we know and usually rely on these averages, we have blankets by the doors come October 10. However, as sometimes happens in the White Mountains, the weather man predicts rain and cool temperatures but the weather delivers frost and snow.

Early snows, particularly heavy, wet snows like this area gets sometimes, damage plants and trees,and sometimes break power lines. The photo below, taken by Darlene Hitchcock, shows how a heavy, wet snow early in the season (October 7).

But early snows aren’t all bad, even for the garden. A thick blanket of “warm” snow helps to insulate plants from colder temperatures, allowing the gardener to have an extra day or two of harvest time.

In colder areas, like Vernon, when snow falls, temperature plummets. Paula Johnson, long-term resident of Vernon, took this picture at 8 a.m. when temperatures had already raised to a balmy 33º. The frost was light last night, but gardeners were discussing how many green tomatoes they pulled into garages and barns, to ripen there because of the cold.

 Photo by Paula Johnson

While hard freezes and even light frost often end the life of tomatoes, peppers, and corn, a light frost does great things for brussels sprouts, sweetens carrots and beets, tenderizes kale, and even adds a nice crispiness to salad greens like lettuce.

Photo by Hazel Wolf

Higher up in the mountains, gardeners have already put their gardens to bed. Eagar, Alpine, Nutrioso, and Greer have shorter gardening seasons than any map or almanac would be able to differentiate, but the picture above shows how much more snow falls higher up, even when unexpected. Hazel Wolfe, who is an avid hiker and local dinosaur expert, took the above picture in Eagar. It shows how much more snow fell there than in lower elevations even a few miles away.

To handle unexpected weather, seasoned gardeners have lots of tips and tricks. If tomatoes are picked before the water inside them freezes, they often will ripen in a cool garage or unheated laundry room over the next couple months. It is important to pick them as early as possible and assess damage right away. If the tomatoes did freeze, you may not be able to tell until they thaw and they will be mushy and gross.

Potatoes, carrots, beets, and parsnips can be left in the ground after an unexpected snow with little, if any damage. The same can be said for many of the cabbage family, and brussels sprouts in particular, benefit greatly from a nice little frost. It makes them sweeter and can help get rid of some late-season aphids.

Watching the weather patterns is very important to keeping your garden going until the last possible second, but here on the southern Colorado River Plateau and the White Mountains, mother nature tends to throw some curves that even seasoned veteran gardeners don’t see coming. In this case, we just take some gorgeous pictures of the snow, gather in what we can, and hope for the best.

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