Protecting Your Garden From Frost

How to Prepare and Protect Plants from Frost

February 17, 2021
Row Covers Winter
Catherine Boeckmann

Frost injures many plants. When the weather report calls for freezing temperatures overnight, don’t stumble around in the dark covering your cold-sensitive plants. Prepare with our tips on how to protect your garden from frost and also design your garden to reduce frost damage—plus, a handy chart listing low-temperature tolerances for vegetables.

Frost Dates

Whether you’re waiting to plant in spring or those late fall days are getting frosty, it’s important to ensure that frosts will not hamper your efforts! First, you should learn when your area typically gets frost. See our Frost Dates Calculator for local average frost dates in spring and fall.

  • Note: On weather sites, many frost dates are based on a 50% chance of frost. However, as gardeners, we look at a 30% chance of frost. After all, do you want a 50% chance of your plant dying?

In addition, you’ll see on frost calendars that freeze severity is listed. Light freeze (29 to 32 degrees F) kills only tender plants, moderate freeze (25 to 28 degrees) will be widely destructive to plants and fruits, and severe freeze (24 degrees and colder) damages most plants.

  • As gardeners, our frost dates are based on 32 degrees to avoid the risk of any plant death.

Weather Forecast

Of course, frost dates are only a general guide. They are not predicting the upcoming year’s frost; rather, they are averages based on multiple years of historical data. Plus, frost dates are based on the nearest reporting weather station; they don’t reflect smaller “microclimates” in your yard such as a low spot or an area near water or pavement. 

So, keep a close eye on the daily weather forecast! If it looks like temperatures are going to drop, get ready to protect tender plants. Moisture also determines whether frost will nip your plants. Condensation warms and evaporation cools. When moisture in the air condenses on plants and soil, heat is produced, sometimes raising the temperature enough to save the plants. On the other hand, if the air is dry, moisture in the soil will evaporate, removing some heat. 

Also, the first frosts of the season usually happen on clear, calm nights.  

When to Protect Your Plants

As the chart below shows, plants are classified according to the minimum temperatures they normally tolerate. Some plants (“hardy”) tolerate some amount of short-term freezing, while other plants (“tender”) are killed or injured by freezing temperatures.

  • Frost protection is especially important for tender plants such as tropical houseplants, succulents, begonias, impatiens, peppers, and tomatoes.
  • Other tender crops that can’t withstand frost include eggplant, beans, cucumber, sweet corn, squash and melons.  
  • If you can’t protect sensitive crops like tomatoes, harvest them early.  Green tomatoes don’t need light to ripen, and in fact ripening can be slowed by light.  Keep fruit 55 and 65 degrees (F) for best ripening.  
  • Beets, carrots, lettuce, cauliflower, and potatoes will withstand a light frost.
  • Cool-season crops such as cabbage, broccoli, onions, parsley, peas, radish, spinach, turnips, and Brussels sprouts will withstand a hard frost.

What Temperatures Cause Frost Damage?

The temperatures shown in the graphic below will cause mild to moderate frost damage to the associated vegetables.

How to Protect Plants from Frost

Of course, the main way to protect plants from frosts is to cover them. 

Cover Your Plants: Generally, covering plants to create a temporary pocket of warmer air is the best way to protect them.  

  • Bed sheets, drop cloths, blankets and plastic sheets make suitable covers for vulnerable plants. 
  • Woven fabrics are better than solid ones such as plastic.  Garden stores will sell “row covers” o lighter weight or thickness, giving perhaps two degrees protection, a thicker one giving up to five degrees protection.
  • Drap loosely to allow for air circulation. Do not let the material rest on the plants. Secure to ground with rocks or bricks or stakes to keep the covering from touching the foliage beneath.
  • Keep sheets or row covers at the ready, stored somewhere dry, neatly rolled up and off the ground to keep them away from vermin. If you use polythene covers, hose them down if they’re dirty and dry them so they’re ready to use when frost threatens. It’s best to have all covers in place well before sunset. Before you cover the plants in late afternoon or early evening, water your plants lightly. 
  • Apply covers in early evening as winds die down, and remove the coverings when temperatures rise the next day (mid-morning) so that plants can get full exposure to the warming sunlight.
  • See how to make a row cover tunnel

For a few smaller plants you can make “hot caps” from recycled milk or soda bottles with the bottoms cut out, paper bags, or newspaper tents. For example, just cut a 2-liter clear plastic soda bottle in half.

Mulch Low Plantings

For a short cold period, low plantings can be covered with mulch, such as straw or leaf mold. Remove once the danger of frost has passed.

Cold Frames: For the future, consider cold frames for your garden, either portable or permanent.  Here’s how to make cold frames.

Or, make a mini-hoop house by securing plastic onto homemade hoops of PVC water pipe, slid onto lengths of rebar hammered into the ground. Connect the hoops at the top with a central ridge of piping. It’s an effective way to keep winter hardy salads and vegetables safe from harsh weather. 

Irrigation:  Moist soil can hold up to four times more heat than a dry soil, conducting heat faster to the soil surface, and keeping the air above it about five degrees (F) warmer.  So water well before a frost.   A variation on this water theme is milk jugs, painted black, full of water in the garden.  These absorb heat during the day, releasing it at night.

Protect Root Crops: In milder regions, they root crops can be left in the ground. Some, like parsnips, actually become sweeter after a frost. Mulch your root vegetables with a thick layer of compost, straw, dried leaves or leaf mold, but if the ground is likely to freeze solid for a long period, dig them up and store them somewhere cool, dry and frost-free. 

Protect Containers: In winter the biggest enemy of crops in pots is persistently wet potting soil. Make sure there is adequate drainage by placing containers onto pot feet (or improvise with small rocks).  Some containers can crack in very cold conditions. To prevent this, wrap pots in bubble plastic or burlap. Move pots somewhere more sheltered if possible, for instance against a South-facing house wall, or into a greenhouse. 

Protect Soil in Winter: Don’t forget about the soil! Keep soil covered to protect beneficial soil life such as worm-, bug- and fungi-happy.  Before it gets too cold, add a thick layer of organic matter to the surface to keep soil life fed and protect the soil itself from erosion. 

VIDEO: How To Protect Plants

See how to protect your garden with some of these techniques.

Spring Frost Tips

Here are some extra tips for preventing frost damage in spring. It can be a real bummer to lose young plants to a late spring frost.

  • In early spring, warm up your soil faster by covering it over with row covers or garden fleece. This technique is particularly useful for heavy or clay soils that retain a lot of moisture. Lay the material over the ground at least one week before sowing and soil temperatures will rise by a couple of degrees, making all the difference for early sowings.
  • While frosts are still possible, plant cool-season crops that are more tolerant of colder temperatures. Crops like peas, spinach, kale, and cabbage can power through a light spring frost.
  • Start tender or warm-season crops—like tomatoes and peppers—indoors or after the threat of frost has passed. Consult our Planting Calendar to see recommended planting dates.

Fall Frost Tips

If you’re a gardener, it’s the first fall frost which is most concerning, as it can result in a lot of lost crops. Here are a few more fall frost damage prevention tips:

  • Water the soil thoroughly before frost. Water holds heat better than dry soil, protecting roots and warming air near the soil. However, avoid soaking the ground as this can lead to the water freezing within the soil and damaging the roots.
  • In the fall, the first frost is often followed by a prolonged period of frost-free weather. Cover tender flowers and vegetables on frosty nights, and you may be able to enjoy extra weeks of gardening. 
  • Mulch your garden beds. Mulching with materials like straw, pine needles and wood chips helps preserve heat and moisture and so prevents frosts forming.

In fall, protecting tender plants and harvesting crops before frost hits are most important. Before a light frost:

  • Bring houseplants (especially tropicals) and other tender plants indoors before the first light frost arrives. Keep them in a sunny window in a relatively moist room; the kitchen is often best.
  • Harvest basil and other tender herbs. Even if they survive the frost, they don’t do well in cold temperatures. The same is true for most annuals.
  • Harvest all tender vegetables and tender greens, including: tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, beans, cucumbers, watermelons, cantaloupe, okra, squash, and sweet corn. Here are a few tips for ripening green tomatoes specifically.

For plants that can survive a light frost, add a heavy layer of mulch to keep the ground around them from freezing. You can still harvest late into the fall as long as the ground isn’t frozen. These veggies include: beets, broccoli, cabbage, celery, lettuce, parsnips, arugula, swiss chard, and other leafy greens.

Wait to harvest plants that can survive a hard frost last, such as: carrots, garlic, horseradish, kale, rutabagas, leeks, parsnips, radishes, spinach, and turnips.

Frosted kale

Designing Your Garden to Reduce Frost Damage

A garden designed with frost in mind can help to mitigate the extent of cold damage experienced by your plants. Here are a selection of different ways that you can reduce the amount of cooling in and around your garden:

Consider Garden Placement

  • Your garden will warm up more during the day if it slopes toward the sun. Residual heat in plants and soil may determine whether your garden sustains frost damage during the night. Cold air, which is dense and heavy, will flow away from plants growing on a slope—what the experts call “drainage.” 
  • A garden on a south-facing slope offers two advantages: more exposure to the Sun, and better drainage of cold air. In deep valleys, nighttime temperatures may be as much as 18°F lower than the temperature on the surrounding hills.
  • Avoid planting tender species in open, exposed areas or in low spots where cold air settles. Better to put them near a south or west-facing wall, which absorbs heat during the day and radiates it at night.

Use Nearby Structures as Heat Sinks and Natural Covers

  • Fences, boulders and shrubs can serve as protective function for nearby plantings.
  • Trees surrounding your garden can act like a blanket and reduce the amount of heat radiating from the soil, potentially keeping the temperature high enough to protect your plants from early fall frosts. Plants themselves can modify cooling, too. Place plants close together to create a canopy that entraps heat from the soil (though the tops can still suffer frost damage).
  • A garden positioned in front of a rock or brick wall benefits from the warmth absorbed by the wall during the day. At night, it will radiate heat slowly.
  • A body of water (if it is one acre or larger) will also act as a heat sink. Similarly, a cold frame can be heated with an improvised heat sink: a dozen 1-gallon jugs of water. They absorb heat during the day and radiate it at night.

Other Design Considerations

  • Raised beds will warm up more quickly than in-ground gardens, but may need some extra attention if plants (such as garlic) are left to overwinter.
  • Use good soil that’s full of organic matter retains moisture more easily, reducing the rate of evaporation. Mulch also helps to prevent evaporation.

Design your garden with the Almanac Garden Planner, which uses averaged frost data from nearly 5,000 weather stations across the U.S. and Canada. Try it out for free here!

Learn How to Predict Frost

When the sky seems very full of stars, expect frost. –Weather lore

If it has been a glorious day, with a clear sky and low humidity, chances are that temperatures will drop enough at night to cause frost. Read more about how to predict a frost!

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Reader Comments

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Soften Edges of Plastic Bottles

I soften the edges of the 20 oz water bottles and 2 liter bottles that I've cut in half by carefully and slowly running my lighter over the edge. I'm careful not to inhale any smoke. I quickly blow out any small flames. I thoroughly cool the bottle before touching it. Once you've softened the edge it is completely touchable and easy on your fingers.

Late blooming strawberries

My strawberries are planted in a large bowl/pot. They spent their 1st winter in the garage last year. This spring they didn't seem to plan on coming to life but finally, after I had given up, the began growing. They became a bowl full of lovely lush plants with many runners but no blossoms....until September! They are blooming well now, but I'm in Northern Minnesota....and the growing season is about over. I've been covering them on cool nights and put them in the sunniest spot in my yard. Is there any hope of getting those strawberries? It's kind of large to bring in the house and I don't have any sunny windows they could sit in front of.... Help!

strawberries in October?

The Editors's picture

It sounds like you’re doing the best you can, Paula. Just continue and see what happens. 

Overwintering in the garage again is a good idea. Maybe you can bring the pot out sooner, or even, in early spring bring it indoors where it can warm up, then give it some sunlight outdoors on good days, and so helping it to be really ready get growing when the warmth of spring seems here–er, there–to stay.

When to bring in Potted Herbs

Not sure when and how to bring in my potted herbs, rosemary, mint, thyme, oregano and sage All in clay pots.

Henry Lauder Walking Stick (Corylus avellana "Contorta")

bought last Fall - in a pot - 2 feet tall - kept indoors - now budding (leaves) - should I repot plant and keep indoors or plant outside? What exposure and other care????? Know it will get tall and wide. LOVE IT.

What a fantastic plant. You

The Editors's picture

What a fantastic plant. You can keep it as an excellent container plant for many years. It sounds as if your plant is at its mature height (two feet) and you’ll contain its size by leaving in the container pot. If the roots begin escaping from the drainage holes (an indication it is pot-bound), you can transplant it into a larger, more decorative pot. You can start with a 5-gallon sized pot and move it to a larger one in 4 to 5 years. Use a 50-50 mixture of garden soil and potting soil; garden soil for weight and potting soil for fast drainage. Make sure the soil never dries out.