Home & Garden

Pick tomatoes and flowers while you can

On a visit to Botanica one fair day in the middle of the week, my eyes were momentarily blinded when the sun hit a bed of white mums named Wilma.

It was like old-fashioned flashbulbs going off. (I had watched "Rear Window" a few nights before, and Jimmy Stewart's life-saving ploy of blinding the killer with flashes was still fresh.) I froze the image of the white mums in my mind as a hedge against impending winter whiteness.

Then I proceeded to bask in my trip around the gardens, past heavy rose blooms and billowy grasses, jotting down the names of Furman's Red salvia greggii and Crocodile ivy geranium to try at home, and taking pictures of my favorite bend in the gardens — over the wall from Sim Golf Course, gazing back toward the stream running under the Pavilion, catching sight of purple mums against the sparkling water, a green weeping willow, a blue spruce and gold-turning trees in the distance — a lush, varied, full view that I had to capture before it vanished in the cold.

Botanica is now open year-round on Saturdays, and I recommend a pre-frost trip today, if you can fit it in around your chores at home. And you should. Today should be dedicated to getting your fill of natural growth, as the first mention of fall's first frost has crept into the forecast, occurring possibly Sunday night.

Now luckily the first frost does not equal the first killing frost, which I hope is still a ways off. The average first killing frost for Wichita is Oct. 28, but the relative coolness of this summer does not hold out much hope that we'll make it that far this year.

Here's a review: A frost advisory is issued if the temperature is forecast to drop to between 29 and 36 degrees and stay there for three to four hours. A freeze warning is issued if the temperatures is forecast to drop to 28 degrees or lower for three to four hours. Some annuals will die at a frost, and others will hang on until a freeze.

"Many plants will tolerate temperatures of 31, 32 degrees with little injury," extension agent Rebecca McMahon says. If you have plants whose flowers you want to protect from frost, covering them is a good idea, she says. Picking the flowers and putting them in vases in the house is another option.

Rebecca also advises not dragging your feet in bringing in the houseplants —"the cooler nights are not doing them any favors" — or picking your tomatoes.

"Tomato plants aren't going to do much once temperatures are below 40," Rebecca says. "You've probably already noticed how slowly tomatoes are ripening. You certainly can cover the plants with an old sheet or some plastic, but the easier option is to pick any tomatoes that are starting to turn or are green but mature size. They will probably ripen faster on the counter at this point."

If you have too many for the windowsill, Ward Upham of K-State recommends placing the tomatoes on cardboard or in cartons, using layers of newspaper to separate any that are stacked.

"Occasionally a tomato may start to rot and leak juice," he says. "The newspaper will keep the juice from contacting nearby or underlying fruit. Store groups of tomatoes at as close to 55 degrees as possible until needed."

For other summer vegetables, "you can cover them, but it's unlikely you'll get much more of a crop," Rebecca says. "Let them freeze then add them to the compost bin."

(Need some compost education? Botanica is having a Composting 101 seminar from 2 to 3:30 p.m. Sunday. The fee is $8, or $6 for members. You can also visit with master composters at the Extension Education Center demo garden at 21st and Ridge Road from 8 to 10 a.m. Saturdays this month while you're shopping the farmer's market.)

For cool-season vegetables — lettuces, carrots, beets, broccoli, other salad greens — a few hours at 31 to 32 degrees won't hurt, Rebecca says. "They will keep growing as the temperatures warm up in the midday."

You can keep those vegetables growing longer by putting a row cover on them now, she says. The edges can be secured with bricks, rocks or heavy boards.

"If you are planning to keep some salad greens and root vegetables growing into the late fall and early winter, you can start putting on some row covers now. You can just put out a floating row cover and secure the edges with bricks, rocks, or heavy boards.

"You can also use plastic hoops and stretch the row cover over the hoops. A good row cover fabric is a perforated plastic or a very lightweight polypropylene fabric." You can find them at garden centers.

It will take a while before the soil actually freezes. We normally don't mulch until that happens — maybe around the first of December — to hold the temperature steady and help hold in moisture.

And put this on your calendar, too: The average date of the last killing frost is April 9. That's about five months away.