Fall Frost

Frost on a Hairy Leaf
Copyright © 2012 Andrea Liberatore

Frost on a Leaf
Copyright © 2012 Andrea Liberatore

Frost Damage on a Tomato
Copyright © 2012 Andrea Liberatore

Evergreens take hardiness
to the Extreme
Two-needle Pinion Pine
Copyright © 2009 Linda Kervin

Fall has descended in earnest across Utah. Leaves have flashed their colors and dropped to the ground. Juncos have replaced the flycatchers on my backyard’s best perches, and my garden has been cleaned up and tilled under. As I watched the fall weather affect plants in my vegetable garden, I began to wonder about the different reactions they had to the changing temperatures. My tomatoes and squash turned brown and wilted at the merest suggestion of cold temperatures. Other plants, like kale, carrots and onions are still bright and fresh, even after an early snowfall. What is it about some plants that allow them to withstand frost, while others succumb right away?

Frost occurs when the temperature of an object – in this case a plant leaf – falls below the dew point of the air. Moisture from the atmosphere collects on the surface of the leaf and freezes when temperatures drop below 32 degrees. Just seeing frost on a plant doesn’t necessarily mean it will die – it’s the internal tissue temperature that counts. Like humans, plants are made mostly of water – upwards of 80-90% in an herbaceous plant like lettuce. When temperatures drop, the water inside plant cells expands as it freezes, tearing cell walls and causing irreparable damage.

The amount of harm done to a plant depends on many different factors and is generally referred to as a plant’s hardiness. Species or individuals that are more compact will incur damage at a lower temperature than others due to their reduced surface area. Those growing close to the ground are more protected by their proximity to the warm earth. Plants with darker colored leaves such as the deep greens of spinach and chard may be hardier because their leaves absorb and retain heat better than lighter-colored leaves. Fuzzy or hairy leaves also fend off cold temperatures better than their smooth counterparts.

Perhaps the best defense of all is found in plants that protect themselves with natural antifreeze. When frost hits these plants, the relatively pure water in the space between leaf cells freezes first, which in turn draws more water out of the surrounding cells. The remaining cellular fluid contains a high concentration of sugars and other molecules, which reduces the fluid’s freezing point and protects the cell’s contents from ice.

Evergreens, of course, take hardiness to the extreme, utilizing a number of different tactics to remain alive and photosynthesizing throughout the winter. These tactics include compact leaf size, a thick leathery consistency, and a waxy coating that both insulates and prevents water from escaping into the dry winter air.

Frost damage to less hardy plants can be postponed by human interventions such as covering with blankets, but as the cold spells get longer and more frequent, damage is inevitable. Everything has its season, and now is the time to harvest the last of those hardy fall greens and tuck the garden in for the coming winter.

For the Stokes Nature Center and Wild About Utah, this is Andrea Liberatore.

Images: Courtesy &
            Copyright 2012 Andrea Liberatore
            Copyright 2009 Jim Cane
Text:     Andrea Liberatore,
            Stokes Nature Center in Logan Canyon.

Additional Reading:

Savonen, Carol (2012) Some plants make natural antifreeze to cope with winter’s wrath. Oregon State University Extension Service. Available online at: https://extension.oregonstate.edu/gardening/node/847

Frost And Your Plants: What You Need To Know, Farmer’s Almanac, November 17, 2021, https://www.farmersalmanac.com/frost-temperature-outdoor-plants-9788

Huber, Kathy (Feb 16, 2002) What Happens When a Plant Freezes. The Houston Chronicle. Available online at: https://www.chron.com/life/gardening/article/What-happens-when-a-plant-freezes-1635570.php