The fall and the spring are particularly challenging times for gardeners. The weather can be warm and sunny during the day but temperatures can plummet overnight to freezing or below. These cold snaps result in frosts which can seriously damage vulnerable plants, if they are left exposed. It is vital that gardeners learn how to protect plants from frost.
There are many ways in which you can respond to the cold and keep your plants, vegetables and trees safe and healthy throughout the fall and winter months and into the spring. If you’re preparing your garden for winter and don’t want your plants to fall victim to frost and falling temperatures, this guide will help you. Read on to find out what you should know about protecting your plants from frost.
What is Frost and When Can You Expect It?
A frost occurs when the temperature at ground level falls to below 32℉. A thin layer of ice is formed when water vapor is cooled below the freezing point. If a plant is exposed to sub-zero temperatures, the water within it freezes and this impedes the circulation of fluids needed to sustain growth. As a consequence, the plant dries out and shrivels.
Obviously, temperature is the critical factor for frost creation. There are certain times in the year when this is more likely. For gardeners in the United States, the date of the expected first frost in the fall and last frost in the spring can be found at the Farmer’s Almanac.
Whilst local weather forecasts will often indicate the likelihood of a frost, the observant gardener will note that there are some climatic circumstances that consistently result in its formation. Cloud cover will generally provide insulation to retain heat. However, on a clear and calm night the daytime heat will soon be lost. The cold air will sink to low lying areas and a frost can occur.
Plan Your Garden Layout – Choose the High Ground
How to protect plants from frost should be part of the garden planning before you even start the planting process. When choosing where to plant trees, plants and vegetables, remember that those planted on higher or raised ground will receive better protection from frost during the colder months.
The lower the plants lie, the more vulnerable they will be when temperatures drop and the ground begins to freeze. So, if you’re about to plant anything and you’re already considering methods of frost protection for plants, it makes sense to choose higher spots in the garden.
Be aware of any frost pockets that may occur in the landscape. If there is a depression in the ground the colder air will fall into this dip and frost is more likely. These low-lying areas can often be improved by using raised beds to increase the height of the soil.
Take advantage of the protection afforded by structures such as fences and walls, especially those that are southerly facing. Planting near these will create an overall warmer environment and protect the plants from cold winds and other inclement weather.
Understand Which Plants Can Withstand the Cold Better
One of the things that’ll help you understand how to protect plants from frost is a knowledge of which plants are vulnerable to the cold and which aren’t. Generally, plants that are native to your area will more easily adapt to the variations in temperature.
Some plants withstand low temperatures and frost far better than others. For example, broccoli, carrots, chives, kale, leeks and peas, among many other vegetables are hardy and resistant to frost. In fact, many actually taste better after a few frosts, as the cold turns the starch into sugar.
That means you don’t need to spend as much time protecting those plants as winter begins. You can instead focus your efforts on protecting the plants and trees that are more frost tender. Gaining a little understanding and knowledge will go a long way when it comes to protecting your garden.
6 Ways How to Protect Plants from Frost
1. Safeguard Your Plants with Frost Cloths or Blankets
The simplest methods of protecting your plants from the frost are often the best. One example of this is covering your vegetables and other garden plants with frost cloths or blankets. This technique is particularly effective for the plants in your garden that are most vulnerable to frost and low temperatures.
You can buy specialized frost cloths if you want to get the maximum benefit from this protection strategy. These are designed to keep out the frost and properly protect your plants. The covering should be spread over hoops or some other supporting structure so that the cloth does not touch the plants. When closed the cloth should be firmly pinned to the ground to preserve heat and prevent ingress of colder air.
Many people cover their plants only during the night when the temperatures dip to their lowest levels. The sheets can be closed just before sunset and then peeled back the following morning, once the temperature rises. This allows the sun to warm the soil.
2. Soak the Soil – Wet Soil is Better at Holding Heat
Watering the soil in the afternoon is another great technique to consider when learning how to protect plants from frost. Wet soil holds and retains heat better than dry soil, so this small step makes a genuine difference when it comes to preventing frost damage. This practice greatly enhances the benefits of covering plants, described above.
You can also place jugs of heated water near particular plants you want to protect. As the warm water loses heat, the soil and air around the plant will be warmed, protecting the plant in a gentle and indirect way. It’s a technique that’s certainly worth trying out in your garden.
3. Wrap Your Fruit Trees
Wrapping your fruit trees is the best way to protect them from frost. Frost can damage the bark of your trees, and fruit trees, in particular, are vulnerable. That’s because the bark on fruit trees is relatively thin and this makes it easier to split and break when the temperatures change during winter. Citrus trees, such as lemons, are particularly susceptible to damage.
Tree wrap, multiple layers of paper, cloth or even weatherproof material can be used to wrap them up. That extra layer of insulation should prevent any trunk problems arising and your fruit trees will be protected through the winter. You can wrap any other trees in your garden too, but it’s fruit trees that need the most protection.
4. Use a Layer of Mulch to Protect Low-Growing Strawberries
If you’re growing strawberry plants in your garden, finding a frost protection solution is key. Strawberries plants often hang quite low to the ground and are therefore vulnerable to frost during the winter. There are steps you can take to prevent the frost damaging your strawberry plants though.
One of the best ways to deal with this problem is to add a new layer of straw mulch to the ground where the strawberries are growing. You probably already have mulch around the plants. Now just completely cover the plants with another insulating layer. This coating will provide your strawberries with a protective blanket over the winter. In the spring, after the last frost, the mulch can be pulled back and spread around the plants.
5. Use a Cold Frame
Cold frames are a simple concept, but they’re very useful for implementing frost protection for plants. The cold frame is essentially a wooden or metal frame that sits over the plants and has a glass or similar transparent top. The clear top allows sunlight to penetrate and reach the plants within.
All of this means that the cold frame protects the plants from the cold and the frost, while still allowing for the sun to get through and warm the plants, providing them with the sunlight they need during the day. In short, the frost is kept at bay while the plants benefit from the sunlight.
6. Take Your Pots Indoors
Container grown plants are more prone to frost than those grown in the open ground. They do not have the benefit of the insulation provided by the soil and therefore the roots can freeze.
Potted plants that might be vulnerable in your garden should be moved inside, if a frost is expected. Make sure that their new temporary home is not too warm as a temperature shock can damage a plant. A garage or a shed is ideal.
You can move them once the temperatures start to reach the point at which frost develops, usually late afternoon. If the temperature is warm enough, move them outside again the following morning. The pots are easy to move around and by doing this your plants will be protected from temperature fluctuations.
What to Do When There is Frost Damage
You wake up in the morning and despite your best efforts you note that some plants have succumbed to the frost. What do you do?
Start by letting the plants thaw out naturally. Some will be black and withered and beyond saving; these should be dug up and discarded. Other plants may only have minor damage to some of the more tender growth; cut off the damaged leaves and the plant will often recover.
If trees or bushes have suffered damage, the affected parts should be left and not pruned until the spring. The injured limbs and foliage will continue to provide protection and warmth for the canopy of the plant. Often the damage will not have been as serious as first thought and new growth may appear.
As you can see, there are many steps that can be taken to ensure your vegetables, plants and fruit trees are kept safe from the frost during the colder months. Now is the time to start planning how you’re going to make sure that frost doesn’t become a problem for you in your edible garden this fall and through the winter.
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