Minimize the risk of frost damage when shooting for earliness

Editor’s note: This article is from the archives of the MSU Crop Advisory Team Alerts. Check the label of any pesticide referenced to ensure your use is included.    

The expression “the early bird catches the worm” is well known by most vegetable growers. This is particularly important in regions like Michigan where climatic conditions restrict the growing season to a very short window for most vegetables. Because of the potential of frost damage in Michigan, most vegetable crops are usually planted within a narrow window of time. For most of the growers, the crops reach maturity at the same time and the harvest time is synchronized. Ultimately, all growers hit the market simultaneously. The peak in produce supply is normally followed by a significant drop in the price paid to growers. Growers who get in the market earlier (early birds) or later (late birds?) may take advantage of a better price. This note deals mainly with season extension strategies for earliness. Earliness usually involves planting the crop earlier than the rest of the industry. Therefore, growers who shoot for earliness take the risk of crop damage from late frost.

Here are a few tips that could help minimize the risk of frost damage.

1. Avoid planting in low spots of the field.

Frost damage usually occurs first in the low spots of the field. Because cold air is heavier than hot air, cold air settles down and flows like water, while the hot air rises.

2. Plant frost tolerant species

Plant frost tolerant species when the risk of frost is highest.

3. Use transplants.

Transplants grown in the greenhouse will give a head start when planted in the field. Transplants should be hardened off adequately to minimize transplant shock in the field.

4. Use short season varieties.

Early varieties could mature a few days (or weeks) earlier than a conventional one. A better price could offset other aspects like reduced yield.

5. Use black plastic mulch.

Raised beds covered with black plastic mulch will warm the soil and speed up plant growth and maturity. Growers could gain a couple of days in earliness and also benefit from better quality of produce with plastic mulch.

6. Use row covers.

Row covers increase air temperature around the crop. It is important to know that row covers do not provide full protection against frost damage.

7. Avoid spots with poor drainage.

Since water normally flows downward, chances are that field spots that are usually flooded are also low spots where cold air will settle.

8. Be ready for irrigation.

Use overhead irrigation to prevent the formation of ice on plant tissue.

9. Follow weather advisory reports.

Frost advisory information is available at local and regional weather stations.

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