Living in a warm-winter climate means that you may try to push the boundaries of what can be grown throughout winter. Frost and cold weather can come on quickly, and knowing what to cover in a freeze can mean the difference between life and death for some of your plants. Be prepared by gathering needed items like frost cloth and burlap before a freeze hits. 

This article shares tips for protecting your warm-climate garden from freezing temperatures, such as knowing the most common times for frost, utilizing effective plant placement in your garden, and knowing what to have on hand to protect plants. These tips will give your garden the best chance of surviving freezing temperatures. 

What to Cover in a Freeze: Frost Protection in the Garden

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6 Tips for Protecting your Warm-Climate Garden from Freezing Temperatures

1. Learn when to expect freezing temperatures

An important tool in knowing when freezing temperatures are most likely is knowing your first and last frost dates. You can look them up here using your zip code. 

Frost is most likely on clear calm nights when there are few clouds and low humidity. Cold winds will also decrease the temperature.

During the day, the soil is warmed by the sun and that heat is radiated throughout the night. So the coldest temperatures of the night will occur just before dawn. 

Use a Minimum/Maximum thermometer to accurately measure your local temperature. A reading on the weather app on your phone may not be accurate for your yard. 

What to Cover in a Freeze: Frost Protection in the Garden
Frost-damaged squash plant

Light freeze: 29°F to 32°F – tender plants often killed.

Moderate freeze: 25°F to 28°F – causes damage to many plants.

Severe freeze: 24°F and colder – causes heavy damage to many plants.

What to Cover in a Freeze: Frost Protection in the Garden

2. Choose the best location in your yard for frost-tender plants

Cold air moves downslope and settles in the lowest spots. The cold spots in your yard are good choices for planting fruit trees that need chill hours and other cold-loving plants. 

Plant frost-tender trees and plants in the warmest areas of your yard. An area with a western or southern exposure with reflected heat from a block wall will be warmer than other areas in your landscape. The heat absorbed by a block wall throughout the day will radiate during the night. 

What to Cover in a Freeze: Frost Protection in the Garden

3. Understand what makes a plant have frost damage

Frost on a plant disrupts the movement of fluids within the plant and dries it out, leaving behind brown and crispy damage. 

Some factors that make plants more or less susceptible to damage from freezing temperatures, include:

  • Dormancy — A plant that is dormant will have less damage than a tree or plant that is actively growing. This is why a sudden frost early in the season will often do more damage than a frost later in the season after plants have adjusted to colder temperatures. 
  • Watering — Well-watered plants withstand freezing temperatures better than dehydrated plants. The water in the soil also helps to insulate the soil.
  • Pruning — Newly-pruned areas of the plant are more susceptible to frost damage.
  • Newly planted — Less-established root systems of new plants are more likely to be damaged by frost. 
  • Plants in containers — Container-grown plants are subject to higher fluctuations in temperature than in-ground plants. They are more likely to suffer damage in a freeze. 
  • Lower temperatures, longer exposure to freezing temperatures, and rapid drops in temperature cause more damage. 
What to Cover in a Freeze: Frost Protection in the Garden
Frost-damaged pepper plant

4. What to cover in a freeze and what not to cover during a freeze

Cold weather signals the end of the life-cycle for many annual plants. In warm-climate areas like the low desert of Arizona, providing protection from freezing temperatures may prolong the growing season. 

Peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, and basil are a few plants that if protected from a freeze may continue to produce and grow. Other tender plants will need to be replanted in the spring.

Tender — injured by a light frost (cover during a freeze or harvest before cold temperatures).

What to Cover in a Freeze: Frost Protection in the Garden
Frost-damaged tomatoes

Half-Hardy — withstand light and short term freeze (28°F – 32°F).

What to Cover in a Freeze: Frost Protection in the Garden

Cold-Hardy — withstand moderate freezing temps (24°F – 28°F).

What to Cover in a Freeze: Frost Protection in the Garden

Protecting citrus during a freeze

What to Cover in a Freeze: Frost Protection in the Garden
Frost-damaged citrus

Freezing weather can cause severe damage to citrus trees. 

  • Young trees are more susceptible to frost damage. Cover citrus during a freeze for the first 3-5 years after planting. 
  • Fruit damage may occur after several hours of temperatures below 27°F. Frost-damaged fruit will have a dry interior. 
  • Wait until after danger of frost has passed in the spring to prune frost-damaged limbs and branches. 

Some citrus trees are more cold-hardy than others. 

  • Kumquat and mandarin trees are most cold-hardy (18°F – 20℉). 
  • Grapefruit and orange trees (tolerate to Mid 20’s℉). 
  • Lemon and especially lime trees are the most frost-sensitive, often suffering damage at 32℉. They are extremely frost-sensitive; choose the warmest areas of your yard for planting. Lemon and lime trees often do not go into dormancy, so frost affects them more than other types of citrus.
What to Cover in a Freeze: Frost Protection in the Garden
Frost-damaged coral vine

Frost-tender landscape plants

Many tender landscape plants will recover from light frosts but have unsightly damage if you don’t cover them. Covering tender landscape plants during a freeze may prevent damage. Don’t prune frost-damaged plants until after danger of frost has passed in the spring. 

Frost-tender landscape plants include (but are not limited to): bougainvillea, some cacti, cape honeysuckle, coral vine, fairy dusters, ficus, hibiscus, lantana, natal plum, myoporum, pygmy date palms, succulents, tropical plants (avocado, banana, guava, etc.), yellow bells.

Cover these plants during a freeze to prevent damage. 

Frost-damaged nasturtium

Frost-tender annual flowers include (but are not limited to): aster, ageratum, gazania, geranium, lobelia, marigold, nasturtium, verbenas, zinnia.

Cover these plants during a freeze or remove plants before weather cools. 

What to Cover in a Freeze: Frost Protection in the Garden
Frost-damaged cucamelon vines

5. How to protect plants during a freeze

  • Water plants well before a frost event. Moist soil may absorb more heat and radiate it throughout the night. 
  • Cover plants before sundown to trap the stored heat from during the day. If you wait to cover it until after nightfall, the heat may have dissipated. 
  • Use frost clothburlapdrop cloths, sheets, blankets, or even newspapers to cover plants. Do not use plastic. 
  • Cover the plant completely, allowing the cover to drape down to the soil all around the plant. This traps the warmth inside. Don’t gather the cover around the trunk; it won’t trap radiated heat from around the plant. 
  • Wrap trunks of frost-sensitive trees and young trees loosely with multiple layers of cloth. This can be left in place all winter. 
  • Use styrofoam cups to protect the growing tips of cactus.
  • Add heat by wrapping heat-generating light bulbs (not LED) below the foliage of the covered plants. Take care not to have bulbs burn the bark or branches. 
  • Remove sheets or blankets in the morning after frost thaws. Dormant plants can be brought out of dormancy by keeping the plant covers on and trapping the heat during the day. Actively-growing plants are more likely to suffer frost damage than dormant plants. 
  • Frost cloth can be left in place for several days without harming the plant.
What to Cover in a Freeze: Frost Protection in the Garden
Cover newly-planted citrus during a freeze
What to Cover in a Freeze: Frost Protection in the Garden
I put burlap on my newly-planted citrus

6. What to do after a frost

Did your perennial plants suffer frost damage? Don’t prune them right away. The damaged limbs and branches protect the plant from further frost damage. 

Before pruning, wait until after the danger of frost is past in the spring, and you begin to see new growth. Prune back to just before where the new growth begins.

Severely damaged tomatoes, peppers, and other plants grown as annuals may need to be removed. 

What to Cover in a Freeze: Frost Protection in the Garden
What to Cover in a Freeze: Frost Protection in the Garden
What to Cover in a Freeze: Frost Protection in the Garden
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