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What to do in the garden before the first frost arrives

Work in the garden doesn't end just because those long days of summer are over.

By Carole FeldmanAssociated Press Writer / September 30, 2009

The first frost is on its way. In the meantime, gardeners still have time to prepare.

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Jeana Myers is thinking about getting her garden in Raleigh, N.C., ready for the first frost, even though it's still likely weeks away.

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Work in the garden doesn't end just because those long days of summer are over.

Ms. Myers' peach, plum, and other fruit trees have stopped bearing fruit, and the tomatoes are ripening more slowly as the days get shorter and the temperatures cooler.

By mid-October, she'll begin to pull the green tomatoes off the vines, to eat or to let ripen. "If a freeze hits them, they're done," says Myers, a soil scientist for the North Carolina Department of Agriculture.

As the season ends for tomatoes, squash, and other summer vegetables, it's prime time for leafy green vegetables like spinach and arugula. "We can really grow vegetables year-round," Myers says. "Our challenge is that it's going to get really hot again." The green leafy vegetables don't like those warmer temperatures.

Historically, the first frost arrives in her area around Oct. 15. Some northern parts of the country already have been hit with frost advisories.

Most places still have a month or so of growing season left, says Charlie Nardozzi, senior horticulturist for the National Gardening Association.

Many gardeners will cover their plants to try to protect them from the cold and extend the growing season. Floating row covers, made of a cheesecloth-type material, let in light, air and water. "They protect the plant like a blanket," Mr. Nardozzi said.

Some people lay the row cover directly over the plants. Others build a frame. You also can use metal hoops and create a tunnel for the plants, Nardozzi says.

The covers provide a few extra degrees of protection when the temperature drops below freezing.

Myers puts bales of hay around special plants. "They have a lot of insulating value," she says. She'll also use a kelp spray, which she said improves the plant's resistance to cell damage under cold conditions.

Some plants do better than others as the weather turns cold.

"All the rooting vegetables like turnips and beets, they'll be fine," says Christopher Gunter, a vegetable production specialist and assistant professor at North Carolina State University. He said the soil has a "buffering heat" that will keep these vegetables warm even during a mild frost.

Besides trying to coax a few more ripe tomatoes out of your plants, fall is also a good time for garden cleanup.

"A lot of people are sort of tired of their garden," says Susan Barton, an extension specialist at the University of Delaware. "Once it stops producing they just want to forget about it. While you can do that, you allow all of those fungal spores to overwinter, and insects, too."

That can mean trouble for your garden come spring.

Annual plants should be pulled and composted — provided they are disease free.

Once the plants are out, compost or manure can be spread on the beds and worked into the soil. Any kind of organic matter will do, Nardozzi said.