Frost and flavour

Sunday Tasmanian - Tassie Living - - FRONT PAGE - Peter Cun­dall

ICOULDN’T be­lieve my eyes a few morn­ings ago when I woke up and glanced out the win­dow. It had been an un­ex­pect­edly cool night. Our bat­tered lawn was spot­ted with wor­ry­ingly white patches.

The frost lay­ers were even thicker over the straw mulches around our cab­bages, kale, parsnips and swedes.

Ac­tu­ally, that made me happy be­cause th­ese are veg­eta­bles which de­velop greatly im­proved flavours and be­come much sweeter af­ter be­ing frosted a few times.

I’ve al­ways no­ticed how frost seems to form more heav­ily on grass or where straw and sim­i­lar mulching ma­te­ri­als are used.

It rarely ap­pears on bare, dry ground. This clearly re­veals the rea­son frost forms. It hap­pens when mois­ture given off by plants or from mulches in late af­ter­noon be­gins to set­tle again dur­ing cold nights, freez­ing as it does so.

In fact, it ex­plodes the per­sis­tently re­peated myth that mulches “keep the soil warm” as though act­ing like elec­tric blan­kets.

Just the op­po­site hap­pens be­cause mulches in­su­late the sur­face of the soil, seal­ing it off from the warm­ing ef­fects of sun­light.

This is the real rea­son why dur­ing the colder months, heav­ily mulched soil is al­ways much colder than ex­posed, bare soil.

For­tu­nately, last week’s rel­a­tively light frosts did lit­tle dam­age.

I had all our har­vested pump­kins spread out in the open to harden off af­ter be­ing cut free.

And I was care­ful enough to cover them the pre­vi­ous evening with a big sheet of fairly dense shade­cloth.

When pump­kin skins be­come even slightly burned by frost you can be sure that rot will im­me­di­ately spread from the point of dam­age. All were saved and have now been carted un­der cover for long stor­age.

The SnoGold sweet­corn seedlings that ger­mi­nated last Novem­ber have been steadily reach­ing full ma­tu­rity over the past cou­ple of weeks.

Heavy rains in March came at a per­fect time, just as the ker­nels were form­ing and swelling.

The re­sults were in the won­der­ful size of the sweet­corn cobs.

All are sweet and juicy with beau­ti­ful cream- gold colours.

The ex­tra wa­ter at a cru­cial time en­sured there were no miss­ing ker­nels or “bald­headed” cobs a com­mon prob­lem af­ter long, dry sum­mers.

Luck­ily, even heavy frosts around har­vest­ing time will not dam­age cobs be­cause they are se­curely en­closed and to­tally pro­tected by leafy sheaths.

In fact, sweet­corn leaves can be bleached white af­ter be­ing killed by frosts, yet cobs re­main per­fectly safe and still taste just as de­li­cious.

Tomato plants are dif­fer­ent. Most of ours with­ered away a cou­ple of weeks ago.

How­ever, I de­cided to ex­tend the lives of three good pro­duc­ers and also some cap­sicum plants still bear­ing good crops.

That meant pro­tec­tion from frost. A sheet of clear plas­tic film was roughly strung over the tops of th­ese plants, sup­ported by few gar­den stakes rammed into the ground.

Not a pretty sight, but this cover is now prov­ing valu­able and will give us ex­tra sup­plies of toma­toes and cap­sicums, even un­til midMay.

All sur­pluses are cooked to a puree and deep- frozen for ex­cel­lent win­ter and spring eat­ing mainly as sauces, casseroles and soups.

About five weeks ago I planted a good se­lec­tion of win­ter bras­sica seedlings in­clud­ing savoy cab­bage, broc­coli, cot­tager’s kale ( Two Peters) and mini- caulies.

They went into en­riched soil, spurred along with weak ap­pli­ca­tions of fish emulsion, sea­weed con­cen­trate and com­post wa­ter. They are now do­ing beau­ti­fully and need only an oc­ca­sional Dipel spray with to keep late cater­pil­lars un­der con­trol.

Savoy and Su­gar­loaf cab­bages de­velop mag­nif­i­cent flavours dur­ing Tas­ma­nia’s cool win­ters but, un­for­tu­nately, have a ten­dency to burst their heads as they ma­ture.

Many keen grow­ers de­spair about this un­sightly head- split­ting, but all it does is make ex­posed, dam­aged hearts turn darker green.

This is no big deal be­cause it en­sures burst­ing cab­bage heads are even more nu­tri­tious. Even so, I still planted a se­lec­tion of mini- ball­head cab­bages, four to the square me­tre. They will be ready to har­vest from late July through to late Septem­ber.

Weak, heav­ily di­luted doses of fish emulsion over the past few weeks have en­sured all bras­si­cas have now formed good rosettes of big leaves.

That’s all they need to be able to eas­ily cope with the in­evitable cold, wet soils and chilly win­ter con­di­tions, typ­i­cal of Tas­ma­nia.

This elim­i­nates the com­mon prob­lem of pre­ma­ture bolt­ing into flower in the mid­dle of win­ter.

A- MAIZE- ING: Corn is one of the few crops not ad­versely af­fected by frost.

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