Posted in Behind the Scenes, Oh noes!

Last Frost Date Lessons, Part One

For newbie gardeners, some hard lessons can be learned when you work on your garden sooner than was wise due to your local climate.  In the three years we’ve been here, we’ve had some spectacular wishful thinking failures.  This was due to a combination of things, but one prevalent factor was our last frost date.

If you’re not familiar with what a last frost date is, and why it matters, there are loads of sites out there that explain it.  I tend to favor this almanac for finding ours, but feel free to search for other sources. (I do want to point out the zip code based variant on that site gives a more accurate date for us than the ballpark area chart in the dead wood pulp version, though I still buy the latter every year for other reasons.)

The image at the top is the weather forecast for here from today until Sunday.  I thought it a pretty straightforward way to show why there’s only so much that wishful thinking can do when it comes to the reality of weather in your area, especially when you’re on a tight budget for your garden like we are.

Frost is just one indicator of when it’s “safer” to garden with success, but frost tends to visit hand in hand with other inhibitors, which I’ve found makes them a good rough date to plan around.

I’ve got a few topics in mind related to last frost dates and why they matter.  This is partly to help remind us why we shouldn’t repeat past failures, but it also might help some other folks too.  As I add on to the series, I’ll also add links at the bottom of the other parts’ posts.

This post is specific to frost and our rain barrels.  Later parts’ posts will be about various other last frost related lessons, which will be available as time allows me to write them.

I had mentioned not long ago that my partner wanted to get the rain barrels out, partly based on our prior set out dates of April 18, 2019 and April 24, 2018.  I wanted to hold off.  My logic was based on now knowing a more exact last frost date to go by, as well as the fact that one of the barrels’ overflow hoses broke by the end of the season.  Frost itself isn’t a threat to our rain barrels, but the cold temperatures that are close companions to it can cause water to freeze.  That can shorten the usefulness of your barrels if they get damaged from the water inside them expanding more than the barrel portion can handle.

As you can see in the image to the right, our barrels are primarily plastic overall, which is one of the main reasons why we empty them and bring them in every winter.  These were what was available through our city’s program, Maybe if I make it tiny, no one will notice.and they definitely fit our budget.  If yours are made of more forgiving materials, freezing may not be as big a concern.  I’ve heard some locals leave theirs out year round here, but I have yet to see any outside during winter.  I have definitely seen other plastic rain barrel systems busted from frozen water in other places we’ve lived, and I’d much rather spend funds on other additions for the garden rather than a replacement.

I’m still not certain if the hose breakage was due to cold fluctuations and it being a brittle plastic; or perhaps during transit in and out of the cellar to the spot out front the hose might have been stressed/squished; or even because we’d been putting it out in mid-late April and especially last year didn’t bring it in until after Halloween (November 8th!  What was I thinking?–Finally found the draft post of that, which I’ll link when I polish it up.)  So the near to freezing and below nights might have done it in early if there was water sitting in the upper chamber where the discharge opening is, as the breakage was right near the metal clip that keeps it attached to the discharge outlet.  So even the metal clip might have made things worse with temperature fluctuations too.

We’d only had that barrel since 2017, but given the thin brittle plastic, I can’t say I was surprised the hose broke. We’re going to replace it with a rubber hose to try to avoid another short lifespan even if it will cost a bit more.  The other barrel’s overflow hose is fine so far *fingers crossed*.   At worst, we’ll put out just the newer one to start after this weekend unless the predicted weather is warning us to wait until after the 20th while we go about getting a replacement for the broken one.  It’s too early in the season to need the water from both at this point.  So fortunately, there’s no rush on that.

Another reason I didn’t think it was time?  Only days before he had asked me if it was time, this is what our backyard looked like:

Early morning, natural light.

So, what was he thinking? Same thing I was, really.  Compared to this time last year, we had already done so much indoors to try to get a jump start given how short our growing season is.  (Our growing season is likely only 122 days, since the last frost date is May 20th and the first frost is September 20th.  If we get lucky, it could extend to as much as to 136 days—but we lost on the odds with that last year.)

One of the reasons, by the by, that I take my office window view images is it’s a visual reminder of what was going on when outside.  This has been especially helpful given how I am still failing at daily garden notes.  I honestly never thought of how useful they would be to compare the actual weather quickly from year to year.  It’s one thing to looks at a chart of what the weather records were for any given year, and it’s a much more useful (in my opinion) way to know with much more detail.  Yes, if you only had a heavy frost that morning or dusting, it might be melted by the time you  took a shot on a given day (or days later).  But I honestly did not recall how late we had so much snow off the top of my head just this year until I went looking through my image folders.

Speaking of forms of records–do whatever works for you so you can start to get a confident sense over time of when it’s best to do whatever in your garden.  For some folks, they just pay attention to what their neighbors are doing.  Others keep amazingly detailed journals.  Some, like me, are hodgepodge record keepers but even those can be helpful too.

One last thing I want to mention about frost and rain barrels: if you empty yours into containers each year to use for house plants over winter and indoor started seeds come the following spring, also keep an eye on your first frost date and the weather leading up to it.  Last year, I waited too long and it was a miserable experience to be rushing to empty them.  I had to take breaks because even with gloves on, my hands were getting stiff from the cold.  You also really don’t want to be caught having to store yours (whether you turn them upside down or stash them in garage/shed/cellar) surrounded by icy terrain where you’re now dealing with a safety risk of a fall.

The next post in the last frost series will be about starting seeds indoors.  I’ll get into both successes and failures, as well as plans moving forward based on former last frost lessons with that aspect.

If you have rain barrels, do you empty them in winter, or do you keep them out year round?  What materials make up yours?  Let me know in the comments below, and please state your hardiness zone for comparison for other folks that are trying to figure out if it’s worth keeping theirs out or not in winter.



Care to share thoughts on this?