Although many parts of the country are under a deep freeze during this time of year, other areas experience more temperate winter temperatures. Of course, that doesn’t mean that those areas can’t also experience a frost or frozen conditions every now and then. While on average, temperatures may not dip much below 40 degrees Fahrenheit in these regions, a cold snap can sometimes drive temperatures into the 20s — much to the surprise of your cold-sensitive plants. Some plants can handle cold temperatures with minimal stress. Unfortunately, others can be seriously impacted by the cold, whether it comes in the form of a light frost or a hard freeze. In general, hard freezes tend to cause the most damage. What can you do to help your plants repair themselves?
Much like overprotective parents, gardeners may panic when they notice a coat of frost on their plants. While it may be tempting to fuss over them right away, it's best to leave them alone for a bit — or at least until new growth appears and you can fully assess the damage.
Don’t Encourage the Plant to Grow Just Yet
While the plant will eventually grow on its own, you'll want to resist the urge to encourage new growth by applying more fertilizer. Sure, you may want to give it a nutrient boost to help it repair itself, but doing so will only prompt it to send out new growth, which could be even more negatively impacted in the event of another cold snap.
It may seem counterintuitive, but it’s actually best to water your cold-shocked plants. Water will help them recover from the trauma and stress. Give your damaged plants about an inch of water or so. When plants experience a freeze, moisture is removed from their tissues. Watering them afterwards allows them to rehydrate.
Put Away Those Clippers (For Now)
It can also be tempting to remove the damaged leaves and shoots from your plants. However, pruning may only stress them further. Wait until the weather warms up to cut the damaged parts off (or, if you brought the plants inside for the winter, wait about a month). If the plant is a woody variety, you'll want to assess the damage later in the winter. Simply scratch the bark and look at the color of the material underneath. If it’s green, the plant is still alive and will have a chance to grow again. For the time being, just clean up any dried or dead leaves that fall off your plants.
Bring Your Potted Plants Indoors
If any of your tropical plants were impacted by a frost, you should bring them inside and set them on an enclosed porch or deck (or put them in your garage). Avoid placing them in a room that's too warm, as that will also cause shock. Leave them indoors away from direct sunlight, and continue to water them periodically, assessing any damage you see as you go. Typically, the dead bits will fall off over time. If you have to leave your container plants outside, at least huddle them together so they can use one another for warmth.
If You Have Succulents, Handle Them With Care
Since succulents and cacti store water in their stems and bodies, they’re more susceptible to serious damage at the cellular level if they experience a freeze. The good news is that many of these plants are super hardy, so you may just need to remove damaged foliage from them. Wait a few days and assess the plants — if their interiors are mushy or black, they probably aren't salvageable. However, if you spot new growth, they'll most likely survive.
Assess the Damage
In the event of a light freeze, a plant’s foliage may be damaged or discolored. If this is the case with your plants, it’s best to wait for those damaged bits to fall off on their own. If the frost is more severe, it may impact the plants' roots and crowns. When this occurs, the damage has probably reached the cellular level, which means it might permanently affect the tissue. While the plants may recover in time, there’s also a chance that they may not. However, you should still give them several months just to be sure.
Over time, the impacted plants will recover, especially if they are native to your area. Since they are used to weather fluctuations in your area, they can typically withstand the occasional cold snap. Other plants will take more time to heal. Give them several months to recover, thoroughly assessing the damage and looking for new growth before throwing them in the compost bin.
How to Avoid Damage in the Future
Cover sensitive plants to protect them from the cold. If a frost is in the forecast, cover them with a special plastic plant cover, bedsheets, burlap sacks, or even inverted plastic containers. Place the covers over your plants overnight and remove them in the morning.
Move tropical plants indoors. If you live in an area that gets sporadic cold snaps during the winter, bring your plants inside, or at least put them under a covered porch/deck. If temperatures are expected to drop dramatically, place them indoors in a garage or sunroom.
Cultivate cold-hardy plants that can survive the temperature fluctuations in your area. Better yet, plant native plants that have evolved to grow in your region and have a better chance of surviving colder weather. If you’ve moved and you can’t bear to part with your warmer, more tropical plants, place them in a heated greenhouse or indoors near a window.