Plants love warm, sunny places, but not everywhere is warm and sunny. If you live somewhere colder, you may find yourself worrying over what to grow that won’t immediately wilt. Here are the basics for keeping your plants alive through the frost.
Evergreens are known for their ability to survive winter, but they aren’t the only cold-tolerant, frost-resistant plants out there! Leafy vegetables like cabbage, lettuce, kale, collards, and chard can tolerate some frost. Early-spring blooming flowers like crocus, snowdrop, and primrose can all survive the winter, and pansies are particularly resilient. Violas, hostas, heuchera, iris, lily of the valley, cyclamen, and phlox also tolerate frost and provide some visual interest, as do catmint, baptista, sedum, and peonies.
As a general rule of thumb, mature plants that are perennial and have numerous, thick leaves and thick or deep roots survive frost better than other plants. However, most mature plants can survive frosts if they’re properly prepared.
If you have young plants or plants that don’t tolerate the cold, then yes, they should be protected from frost. Plants that tolerate cold technically don’t need protection, but they may benefit from it anyways. Protecting your plants from frost helps them survive the winter, which means less replanting in the spring.
Protecting your plants from the cold may seem unnecessary, since wild plants don’t get protection, but this isn’t entirely true. Plants in the wild may be protected by leaf litter, other nearby plants, or may simply grow somewhere with a mild winter.
In general, plants that are not cold-resistant start to become damaged when temperatures dip below freezing. Leaves contain a lot of water, which can freeze, essentially causing frostbite. However, the younger your plant is, the sooner it starts to experience cold-related problems. Seedlings that have recently sprouted, for example, need temperatures that are above 50 F. This is especially true of seedlings that began inside. However, if your seedlings were started indoors, you can increase your seedling’s resistance to the elements by hardening them.
Hardening is the process of exposing your seedlings to the outdoors a little at a time. Set them in the shade for a few hours each day and move them slowly from the shade to the sun. Gradually increase the amount of time they’re outside, and, on warm nights, you can even leave them outside overnight. This is most effective in early spring, but it can be done anytime. Hardening your seedlings gives them a better chance of surviving outdoors, so if you need to plant seedlings in the fall, hardening is essential.
For many plants, a thick layer of leaf mulch will do just fine to keep them warm. It insulates the roots and nourishes the plant as it breaks down. If the cold weather is only expected to last a short time, like an unexpected last frost before spring, you can cover smaller plants over with leaf mulch entirely. Just be sure to uncover them once the cold has passed, or else they may suffocate. However, if you have plants that are more cold-sensitive, leaf mulch may not be enough.
A sheet of plastic or fabric secured over your garden helps keep heat in and cold out. Secure the sheet on the edges so it doesn’t blow away, but make sure it isn’t touching the plants. You can prop it up in the middle with stakes for larger plants, or large rocks for smaller ones. This is essentially a blanket fort for your garden! Any material will do, but if it is going to rain or snow, keep in mind that most fabrics will absorb water, freeze, and become stiff.
During the day, uncover your garden so your plants can get some sun, and you can water them. Water your plants on warm, sunny days if you can. This reduces the risk of the water becoming too cold and damaging the plant or even freezing.
Hopefully, this helps set you at ease and makes your cold-weather gardening just a bit easier. No matter where you live, gardening can adapt to fit your home and way of life. It may be getting chilly for you, but now you can keep your plants nice and comfy.
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