Frost covers Oakleaf hydrangea leaves.

Frost covers Oakleaf hydrangea leaves.

Soon, the weather will transition from one season to the next. It’s too hot outside to be enjoying your fall garden, but it is time to start counting the days — counting backward that is.

The successful fall gardener starts with the date of the first predicted freeze, calculating backwards from there. Research the plants you wish to grow and determine if there’s time to raise them to maturity before a killing freeze is likely to occur.

While many factors impact when it will freeze in your garden, a good place to start is the past. The North Carolina Climate Office in Raleigh keeps track and reports data for each county.

Continually revising their predictions, forecasters project the first date likely to drop below freezing based on a five-year average. You can find the projected date for first fall freeze for your county at climate.ncsu.edu/climate/thresholds.

Note the location and surrounding topography of the recording station in your county as these conditions could be different from your site. Here’s where those gardeners keeping records of their weather have an edge.

When you experience the season’s first killing freeze in your garden, write it down. Do the same thing on the back side of winter, recording the last killing freeze. The weeks between spring’s last freeze and fall’s first frost define the growing season for your patch of ground. The longer you track this information the more confident you can be making plans for your garden.

There are other strategies you can employ to eke out a few more weeks from the growing season. First: Pick the right plants. While this seems obvious, who among us hasn’t tried to grow something that we know, in our hearts, isn’t right for our location.

It’s a trap I’ve fallen into browsing garden centers as they discount the last of their summer plants. I won’t admit in writing how many times I’ve picked up a plant I know is too tender to endure the coming weather and told myself I’m a good enough gardener to keep it alive. There are plenty of cold-weather crops that won’t disappoint: flirting with disaster often doesn’t end well.

Next, look for places in your garden where you can borrow a bit of warmth. Hard surfaces such as rock or brick walls, sidewalks or driveways can absorb heat during the day and slowly release that heat overnight. While these locations can work against you during the summer months by overheating and drying out your planting beds, they can provide a bit of extra warmth to help your plants make it through a cold night.

As you search for potential locations, keep in mind some shady spots may offer more sunlight once the trees put their leaves down and the winter sun traces a lower pathway through the sky. Warmth, sunlight and protection from the winter winds top my list as I evaluate fall planting locations.

Finally, consider keeping your plants under cover through the cold months. I’m not suggesting you build a greenhouse, but something as simple as a fabric cover can keep the frost off your plants. There are many options for purchase or as DIY projects. Just be sure to remove any protective covers during warm days to avoid overheating your plants.

The thermometer outside my window has inched upward — I’ve been lost in my thoughts about protecting tender plants from cold weather. Soon enough I’ll start planting my fall garden: all I have to do is count backward.

Absent from their gardens, Kit and Lise enjoy roaming our region exploring the intersection of horticulture and suburban living. More on Instagram @AbsenteeGardener or email info@absentee-gardener.com.

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