On clear, calm nights when the weather man calls for near- or below-freezing temperatures, you can pretty much count on frost. For gardeners hoping to get one more harvest out of their garden, it means hauling out the protective bed sheets, plastic and other covers.

Freezing temperatures don’t always spell disaster. Sometimes when the temperature dips a little below freezing, the air is moist enough for water vapor to condense (in the form of ice crystals) on the ground and on the plants. This can be a good thing, because when water condenses, it gives off heat and actually warms the air around plants. This warm microclimate protects plants from extensive damage. Fruit growers in California and Florida use this phenomenon to their advantage by spraying their orchards with a fine mist of water and thereby fending off crop damage.

When temperatures fall more than a few degrees below freezing, however, frost damage to leaves, shoots and flowers is likely to occur no matter how humid the conditions are.

Water expands when it freezes. We only have to look at ice cube trays that are overfilled to see that water spills over the compartment boundaries as it freezes. In the case of a plant, frost damage occurs when water in the plant’s cells freezes and ruptures the cell walls like a water balloon bursting under pressure.

Different plants and parts of plants have different freezing points. For example, the blossoms on a pansy might wilt at 31 degrees, while the leaves remain firm and undamaged.

Plants that are native to northern regions have built in mechanisms to survive the cold. One example would be perennials that die back each fall. The tops might shrivel, but the roots, buried in the insulating soil, remain alive to sprout again the next season. Some plants, like kale, have cold-tolerant leaves and stems that can survive unharmed under a blanket of snow, but not when exposed to dry, northwesterly winds.

Deciduous trees also have a protective plan. They drop their leaves each fall and form leaf and flower buds that stay tightly wrapped in many layers. These mini-mummies go dormant until spring comes again. Hardy plants like Sitka spruce and pines have a natural antifreeze in their sap that helps prevent them from cold injury.

So now that Jack Frost has made his appearance this fall, the best defense is to add mulch around the base of shrubs, trees and perennials. A layer of compost or the placement of spruce boughs goes a long way to protect your special plants.

Onion success

For many years I sang the praises of growing a variety of onion from seed which provided reliable harvests of baseball-sized, globe onions with narrow necks (a great attribute, believe me) that I braided into thick ropes and stored during the winter.

Then one day in 2005 or so, I couldn’t find Buffalo onion seeds in any catalogs, online or printed. It was as if they fell off the planet and disappeared. Calls to customer service folks yielded the same response: “No, we’re sorry, we dropped those from our catalog.”

Every year since receiving the sad, “made me weep like an onion” news, I’ve trialed dozens of varieties in my garden with marginal results. Either the necks were way too thick or the bulb too small. Finally, at the advice of a researcher in Fairbanks, I contacted a wholesale seed distributor who sent me samples of seeds, including a couple kinds that are grown commercially in Japan.

Long story short, the harvest is in and the winner is the “Highlander” onion, which came through our wet cool summer with flying colors. The average diameter was 3.5 to 4 inches. Runner up: Varsity onion.

This yellow, “long day” onion (suitable for our long days) is slow to bolt. The main drawback I can see is that Highlanders are not the best onion for long-term storage. So this winter I’ll conduct my own test to see how long they’ll keep. That is, if we don’t eat them all before spring.

What did I learn from this whole ordeal? To never grow too fond of, or attached to, a hybrid variety, be it a flower or veg (as they call vegetables in the U.K.), because they can be here today and gone tomorrow, and you cannot save hybrid seeds. This is because hybrid seeds don’t “breed true,” which means the seed from the first generation (crossing) of hybrid plants does not reliably produce true copies. Therefore, new seed must be purchased for each planting. Makes for improved seed sales, but it decreases the number of viable seeds on the earth.

Oh, yeah, there is one more drawback about the Highlander onion: It’s a hybrid variety. But at least it’s been around for quite a while, which tells me there is a demand for them. I’d like nothing more than to grow heirloom onions, but I have yet to find a medium-to-large onion that stores well.

The one source of Highlander onion seeds that I’ve been able to track down is from Stokes Seeds Ltd: www.stokeseeds.com.

Free compost

The City of Kodiak has completed a pilot project for composting biosolids from the Wastewater Treatment Plant and now has compost to give away. Yes, the compost has been thoroughly tested and found to be ideal for landscape applications, that is, for shrubs, trees, and other perennial plants. As a matter of fact — according to the city’s brochure — “nearly half of the biosolids produced in the country is used as compost to improve soil,” according to the Environmental Protection Agency.

The benefits of compost are many. It improves soil structure, reduces erosion and stabilizes water absorption and loss of nutrients. If you’d like to participate in the free compost offer, take your truck or five-gallon bucket to the Wastewater Treatment Plant at 2853 Spruce Cape Road, Monday through Friday, 1 to 4:30 p.m. For more information, contact Hap Heiberg at 486-8076.

Special presentation

From the Meadow to the Manuscript: How a lifelong passion for native flora and photography resulted in a self-published field guide.

Whether you enjoy taking pictures, looking at wildflowers or have a hankering to do some writing, mark your calendar for this Friday, Oct. 15. Stacy Studebaker will share her journey of self-publishing the popular field guide called “Wildflowers and other Plant Life of the Kodiak Archipelago.”

Since the book was published this spring, I’ve been blessed many times to have this valuable reference to refer to. Behind the book, however, are Stacy’s behind-the-scenes experiences which speak clearly and strongly of having a goal and seeing it through. The presentation and book signing which begins at 7 p.m., will be held at Kodiak College and is sponsored by Kodiak Audubon and the Kodiak College Professional Development Committee.

Marion Owen can be reached at mygarden@alaska.net.

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