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10 Easy Ways to Protect Plants from Frost

Updated on May 23, 2015

Simple tips for protecting your garden from killing frost

Watering before a cold snap will reduce the likelihood of frost damage.
Watering before a cold snap will reduce the likelihood of frost damage. | Source

One day it's 65 and sunny. The next, it's 32 with snow on the ground. Yep, that's spring—a magical time of year filled with burgeoning life and fluctuating thermometers.

For many of us, spring presents one of the year's greatest gardening challenges: protecting tender new growth from damage due to cold. Frost damage, freezing death, root damage and frost cracks on bark are four primary negative effects of severe drops in the temperature.

Monitor the weather so that you can prepare for frost.

How do you protect plants from frost?

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In early spring, when the threat of frost is especially great, closely monitoring weather conditions via weather radio, TV, and/or websites for reports of expected cold spells is imperative. That way, when frost is predicted, you can prepare for it.

Here are 10 easy, practical methods I've used to reduce frost's impact on my garden. One or more of them might easily work for you, too.

10 Easy Ways to Protect Plants from Frost

Sage in bloom against a background of Reemay over spring vegetables in our raised garden bed.
Sage in bloom against a background of Reemay over spring vegetables in our raised garden bed. | Source

Cover plants before nightfall.

Make sure plant covers extend down to the soil.

Covers don’t have to be elaborate or expensive in order to work. A row of sticks with newspaper, cardboard or sheets and towels tented over them will do just fine.

If you don’t have sticks, lay the covers directly over your plants. This too will prevent heat loss.

If you’re going to cover up your plants before a hard frost, do so before dusk. If you wait until darkness falls, most of the stored heat in your garden will have dissipated.

No matter what type of cover you use, make sure that it extends down to the soil on each side. In the morning, after the frost has thawed, remove the covers.

Reemay Garden Blanket - 67 Inches x 20 Feet
Reemay Garden Blanket - 67 Inches x 20 Feet

Good for garden rows or raised beds, a large fabric plant cover will protect tender spring flowers & vegetables from cold en masse, and it can be used year after year.

 

Warm plants with water jugs.

Fill plastic milk jugs with water and place them in the sun, allowing them to soak up heat during the day. Before dusk, set the jugs around your plants and throw a cover over them. The water in the jugs will lose heat more slowly than the soil and the air, and the warmth it emits will keep your plants warm.

Water before a frost.

It may sound crazy, but watering around plants the night before a spring frost can actually protect them from freezing. During the night, the wet soil will release moisture into the air, which will raise the temperature and keep plants warmer.

Large Bell Jar
Large Bell Jar

When not in use as protective covers outdoors, glass cloches make stylish covers for indoor plants.

 

Since cloches used for cold protection are temporary measures, you may opt to create your own makeshift versions. Flower pots, Mason jars, baskets, and milk jugs with the bottoms removed can all be placed over plants to shield them from freeze and frost.

Cover plants with cloches.

Strictly speaking, cloches are removable glass or plastic covers that protect plants from cold. Sometimes called bells or bell jars, most fit over individual plants, but some are large enough to cover a row.

Glass cloches are highly ornamental. When you're not using them outside for frost protection, you can use them indoors over humidity-loving houseplants like violets.

Stake lightweight cloches into the ground to prevent them from blowing over.

Plastic cloches are generally less expensive than glass ones. Because they are lightweight, they must be staked into the ground to prevent them from blowing away in high winds.

Like other covers, cloches should be placed over plants before the sun goes down and removed in the morning after the frost has thawed.

12 Ways to Repurpose Milk Jugs in the Garden (Including as Cloches)

Dianthus can serve as a beautiful flowering ground cover, but don't plant it in a frost pocket if you want pretty blooms!
Dianthus can serve as a beautiful flowering ground cover, but don't plant it in a frost pocket if you want pretty blooms! | Source

Place plants in frost-resistant spots.

It's as true for plants as it is for real estate: location, location, location. Set out seedlings and store-bought spring plants in areas that are less likely to experience damaging cold.

U.S. Frost & Freeze Maps

The last frost date in the spring and the first frost date in the fall indicate how long your growing season will be. You need to know these dates so that you can determine when to start seeds indoors, and when to purchase and plant nursery plants.

For freeze/frost dates in the U.S., visit the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). Freeze-date tables, as well as other frost/freeze information, are also available through your local state cooperative extension office. Click here to find the site of an office near you.

As cold air moves to lower ground, it will pass by plants located on high ground or slopes. That's why it's best to place seedlings and other plants that are susceptible to frost in these locations. Shrubbery also provides protection from light frosts.

Placing plants by walls and fences can provide additional protection, particularly if the structures are dark in color. During the day, the structures absorb heat. Throughout the night, they radiate it, keeping plants warmer than they'd otherwise be.

Avoid frost pockets.

Frost pockets are depressions in the ground. Cold air drains into these "pockets," and it can't get out. When this happens, plants located in the depressed areas can suffer frost damage. Avoid sowing seeds and bedding new plants in these low places.

To harden them off before transplanting, seedlings like these four o'clocks are set outside in a warm, shady spot.
To harden them off before transplanting, seedlings like these four o'clocks are set outside in a warm, shady spot. | Source

Harden off seedlings.

Before setting out seedlings, acclimate them to the outdoors by gradually exposing them to conditions outside. This process, called hardening off, will help you grow stronger plants that are more likely to withstand the vicissitudes of early spring.

Begin the hardening off process about 14 days before transplanting. When the weather's mild and above 45 degrees F, place the seedlings outside during the day in a warm, shady spot that's protected from the wind. At night, bring them indoors.

After two weeks, the seedlings will be stronger, sturdier plants, ready for transplanting.

Place hanging baskets on the ground before covering them.

Frost Protek Plant Cover: Bag, Green
Frost Protek Plant Cover: Bag, Green

Place hanging baskets on the ground, and then cover them. They'll absorb some of the ground's warmth and be less likely to sustain frost damage.

 

Protect potted plants.

When frost is predicted, bring planters and hanging baskets inside.

The roots of potted plants experience more severe temperature fluctuations than those planted in the ground. They'll reach lower temperatures, too. That's why potted plants are especially susceptible to root damage due to cold. It can cause their roots, particularly those near the edge of the pot, to turn spongy and black. Although root damage may not kill the plant, it will stunt its growth.

If you opt to cover a hanging basket rather than bring it inside, place it on the ground first, and then place the cover over it in order to take advantage of the ground's relative warmth.

Wrap fruit trees.

If you grow fruit trees, be sure to wrap the trunks in the fall with burlap strips or tree wrap. Most fruit trees have thin barks that are susceptible to splitting when temperatures fluctuate dramatically. Tree wrap will prevent this splitting, which is known as frost crack.

In general, spring bulbs like daffodils, tulips and anemones (pictured)  which are planted in autumn, are cold-hardy plants that don't require frost protection.
In general, spring bulbs like daffodils, tulips and anemones (pictured) which are planted in autumn, are cold-hardy plants that don't require frost protection. | Source
Many varieties of pansy are cold hardy.
Many varieties of pansy are cold hardy. | Source

Choose cold-hardy plants.

Some vegetables and flowers are hardy souls that thrive in spite of (or sometimes because of) the cold. Crocuses often push their way through snow to bloom, and a spring storm rarely gives narcissus, tulips, grape hyacinths, or pansies pause.

Like pansies, calendula (also called pot geranium) is an edible flower that's frost resistant. Other cold-hardy edibles include broccoli, cabbage, carrots, chives, leeks, lettuce, peas, radish, spinach, and Swiss chard.

Experts at your local nursery are great sources of information about hardy plants appropriate to your zone. Most likely, native plants, particularly native perennials, will be the best choices.



Source

About the Author

The Dirt Farmer has been an active gardener for over 30 years.

She first began gardening as a child alongside her grandfather on her parents' farm.

Today, The Dirt Farmer gardens at home, volunteers at community gardens and continues to learn about gardening through the MD Master Gardener program.

© 2011 Jill Spencer

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    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 3 months ago from United States

      Yes, I've heard of people who have orchards using those. Thanks for the suggestion! --Jill

    • profile image

      Jerry 3 months ago

      What about using propane heaters, like the old 'smudge pots'?

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 10 months ago from United States

      Hi Tina. I don't know! Are you going to protect them from the frost? Try one of the strategies above. The easiest is probably to throw something over them before night falls. Good luck to you!

    • profile image

      Tina Whitt 10 months ago

      We have a freeze warning...will my poppies be okay they are pretty big...thanks

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 11 months ago from United States

      Hi eugbug! Thanks for your comments and for sharing the article. The bubble wrap method sounds like a great way to repurpose, and the hot water bottles sound a lot like the milk jug idea. Use what you have, huh? I'm so glad we have not had extended freezes here. I'm sure you were heartsick over the losses, esp. the orange tree. Even our native plants, I think, would be hard pressed to survive a long period of temps that low. Thanks again for stopping by! Jill

    • eugbug profile image

      Eugene Brennan 11 months ago from Ireland

      This is very useful Jill, so I'll tweet it! Bubblewrap is supposed to be good for wrapping plants but anything fleecy that doesn't soak up water and lose its insulating properties is equally good. I've used some hot water bottles on occasions for keeping plants warm on cold nights!

      I lost several shrubs including a fig, olive and camelia during the winter of 2010 when temperatures dropped to -15 C (5F) during an extended snowy period. My biggest loss was a 25 year old orange tree which I had grown from a pip. Citrus trees usually withstand some frost damage, but if temperatures are sub-zero day and night for weeks on end (which was the case here in 2010) even plants under cover will probably freeze. Maybe those heating cables which are used for frost protection of pipes would be worth trying out?

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 2 years ago from United States

      Hi S.M. Thanks for leaving a comment. An old aquarium would make a great makeshift cloche. What a wonderful way to repurpose! All the best,

      Jill

    • profile image

      S.M. 2 years ago

      You can throw an empty aquarium over the plants too. A lot of gardeners are fish addicts too! We have a few tanks around as emergency spares. Lucky people that have a 33gal. or bigger, it's 36 inches long and 16-18" deep. :)

      There are often second hand tanks that go for cheap at lawn sales, especially if they have a crack. :)

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Thanks, kikalina! I need to get out and take some new pics now. Our crocuses are blooming and the daffodils are just about to open. Can't wait! All the best, Jill

    • kikalina profile image

      kikalina 4 years ago from Europe

      Amazing photos. Great hub.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Hi purl3agony! Don't fret about the snow too much. Unless it was so heavy that it broke down your plants, snow will keep the ground warm and protect plants. (Scrape it away, and you might see green underneath!) It's hard frosts and thaws that do the real damage.

      Hi John! Doh! I should have mentioned leaves. I use them in our herb garden, which is away from the house, but not in the surrounding flowerbeds as they attract mice and, subsequently, ticks. Nice to hear from you, John! Think I'll add your idea to the hub. Thanks! --Jill

    • johnr54 profile image

      Joanie Ruppel 4 years ago from Texas

      We also use leaves to cover our plants. I have purchased old sheets at garage sales and use them as covers in case an early frost is in the air.

    • purl3agony profile image

      Donna Herron 4 years ago from USA

      Pinning this now, but wish I had studied this before our first snow last week :( I'll be ready for next year :)

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Appreciate the support, Prasetio. Thanks!

    • prasetio30 profile image

      prasetio30 4 years ago from malang-indonesia

      Very informative hub. I love gardening and you have wonderful tips here. Thanks for writing and share with us. Voted up!

      Prasetio

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Hi ytsenoh. Good timing, huh? Stay warm--and thanks for reading! --Jill

    • ytsenoh profile image

      Cathy 4 years ago from Louisiana, Idaho, Kauai, Nebraska, South Dakota, Missouri

      In light of the snow we just had (!!!), I love this hub. You do such a great job with your images and always well-written. Thank you.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Thanks, Peggy! I well remember how warm it was all year long when I lived in Texas. I actually missed the cold weather and would have given anything for a good snow. Still, sometimes I'd like to be able to grow tropical plants outside. (: Take care, Jill

    • Peggy W profile image

      Peggy Woods 4 years ago from Houston, Texas

      I well remember those snowbound days when living in Wisconsin. In Houston we only had to cover our more tropical plants less than 10 times for predicted frosts this past winter and our average last day is generally the end of February. We just use old sheets. I'll be able to wash them up soon and store them in our shed for next winter. Your tip of watering before a freeze is valid. Even fruit grove owners do that to help protect their crops. Good hub! Up, useful, interesting and will share. Beautiful photos!

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 4 years ago from United States

      Thanks for your comments, Glimmer Twin Fan! I updated this to improve the layout and add a few new pictures. Covering, uncovering, racing around--whew! Spring can be a wild ride for gardeners! --Jill (:

    • Glimmer Twin Fan profile image

      Glimmer Twin Fan 4 years ago

      Saw this on pinterest and had to read. Written before I joined hubpages. This is great for me. Last spring we covered and uncovered a dozen times. Especially my peonies. This is really useful. Taking my daughter to the busstop this am I saw my snowdrops poking through the ice. Gave me hope that spring is on it's way.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
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      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Oh, no! Another snowbound gardener. I'm sure you are sick of the cold. Thanks for reading! --DF

    • moonlake profile image

      moonlake 5 years ago from America

      Enjoyed your hub. We still have to much snow will be awhile before we can start planting. Please no more snow storms we're sick of winter.

    • The Dirt Farmer profile image
      Author

      Jill Spencer 5 years ago from United States

      Wow, and I thought we had it bad here in MD, where a snowstorm is supposed to hit us again on April 1. Hope you see green soon!

    • Bob Ewing profile image

      Bob Ewing 5 years ago from New Brunswick

      Still a foot of snow in the backyard, nothing peeping out yet, good tips here, though.

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