Effects of Freezing Temperatures on Plants
For all but the most tender plants, it doesn’t matter whether the conditions produced a frost or a freeze. What’s important is how cold it got and for how long.
When temperatures near freezing, a few degrees can make a big difference.
To advise gardeners so they can take proper precautions, different terms are used to describe the severity of a freeze. This chart explains the various terms:
|Temperature||Type||Effect on Plants|
|Down to 28° F for a couple of hours||Light Frost,|
|Usually only harms very tender plants. Ice forms only on the outside of the plant.|
|25-28° F for several hours||Hard Frost,|
|Damages foliage and blossoms. Ice forms inside the plant, causing plant cells to burst. Will kill back root-hardy perennials and damage crops.|
|Below 25° F for several hours||Severe freeze||Extremely cold weather causes damage to many plants, mostly through desiccation (drying).|
The average first and last frost dates for a given area usually refer to the occurrence of killing frosts. These are most often caused by fronts of arctic air moving in and are more indicative of seasonal change.
Research has shown that most crops and plants can recover from brief dips below freezing, but when the temperature reaches 28° F it begins to cause extensive cellular damage and crop loss.
How to Protect Tender Plants from Frost or Freezing Damage
Cold weather is one thing, but if frost is predicted, you may want to take steps to protect vulnerable plants such as:
- Houseplants and tropicals
- Spring-blooming shrubs and trees such as azalea, rhododendron, and cherry
- Citrus trees
- Tender bulbs such as dahlia and elephant ear
- Warm-season vegetables such as tomato, corn and pepper
- Warm-season annuals such as impatiens, petunia, and geranium
Steps to take when frost or freezing temperatures threaten tender plants:
- Bring Indoors: Frost-tender plants in containers should be brought inside during cold weather. Dig up tender bulbs and store them in a cool dry place.
- Water Plants: Water plants thoroughly before a freeze to prevent desiccation and to add insulating water to the soil and plant cells.
- Protect Tender Sprouts: Cover tender plants overnight with an inverted bucket or flower pot, or with a layer of mulch. Be sure to uncover them in the morning when the temperature rises above freezing.
- Cover Shrubs and Trees: Larger plants can be covered with fabric, old bedsheets, burlap, or commercial frost cloths (avoid using plastic). For best results, drape the cover over a frame to keep it from touching the foliage. Fabric covers help to trap heat from the soil, so make sure your cover drapes to the ground. Uncover them in the morning when the temperature rises above freezing.
- Assess Losses: Hardy perennials, trees, and shrubs may recover from a late spring freeze, even if visibly damaged. Their blooms and fruit may be lost for the year, but once they begin actively growing you’ll be able to determine and remove any permanent damage to stems and branches. Frost-tender plants will not recover at all, so avoid planting them until you’re confident that extreme cold weather has passed.
- Practice Prevention: Choose plants that are hardy for your climate zone, or plant tender plants in containers that can be brought indoors. Avoid applying fertilizer until after the last frost, to prevent a flush of tender growth that can be damaged by the cold.
To find the average frost dates for your area, check out:
- Spring Planting Time
- Old Farmer’s Almanac U.S. City Frost Chart
- Hardiness and Heat Tolerance – Understanding Your Zone
- Pushing the Limits of Your Planting Zone