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Why Are Some Plants Killed By Frost But Not Others?

Broccoli in Frost


Every fall since I began gardening, I work to dispel the myth that the growing season is over, and that frosts will kill anything remaining in the garden.

Not all plants are the same.  Tomatoes, peppers, squash, corn, and other crops that thrive on hot temperatures are from hot climates.  They didn’t need to survive the cold – instead, they needed to protect from heat.  However, broccoli, carrots, garlic, rhubarb, and many other crops came from cool climates.  Their systems work differently in the cold – not only do they survive cold temperatures, but they taste better when they get cool in the fall and winter!

It’s Not Frost That Kills, It’s Freeze

The night the first frost comes around in the fall, many people rush out to yank their tomato plants and bring them inside.  After that night, it often gets warmer and sometimes there isn’t another frost for several weeks!  It’s highly likely all those tomatoes hanging from rafters after that first frost would have been just fine outside through the first frost.  The reason is that the first frost is often not a killing frost.

What kills the plants is not frost specifically, but is the internal temperature of plant tissue – once it freezes, the plant dies.  Have you ever put a bottle of beer or soda in the freezer to cool it down quickly, and then forgot about it, until you heard a loud crash in the freezer several hours later?  The loud crash is the glass breaking because the liquid inside the bottle expanded as it cooled.  This is essentially what happens to the cells in a tomato plant when it gets cold.

Generally the first frost doesn’t quite freeze the plant because it happens at just barely 32F, and doesn’t stay long.  However, the first freeze – or hard frost – often rolls in with much lower temperatures and stays cold much longer, usually killing the cells of tropical plants.


However, many plants do not have the fragile cellular structure of these tropical plants.

Frost-Tolerant Plants


Deciduous trees, bushes, and vines go dormant in the winter by losing their soft tissue (leaves), and waiting until spring before producing them again. 

Root crops (beets, carrots, radishes, parsnips, daikon, rutabagas) store all of the energy from their leaves into their roots as it gets cooler, and the ground gives them protection against the freezes.

Cole crops (broccoli, brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, kohlrabi, mustards, turnips, watercress) can often survive temperatures below 20F.  That means those of us in temperate climates can generally grow them throughout the winter (they don’t grow a whole lot in the winter, but they don’t die and you can continue to pick fresh crop), where others can often grow them with a row cover for protection.  These biennial plants are made to last through the winter, so that they can bloom and produce seed in the spring.

Alliums (leeks, onions, garlic, shallots, scallions, chives) can survive very low temperatures (-30F).  These perennials are generally planted 2-3 weeks before first frost, and rely on the spring warmth to start putting their energy into bulbs.  Garlic in particular can benefit from a layer of mulch over the winter, to keep them protected through cooler temperatures.

Other perennials (asparagus, rhubarb, oregano, rosemary, sage, jerusalem artichokes, citrus) – there are many perennials that either continue to produce over the winter, or that go dormant over the winter to produce in early spring.  I highly recommend checking out some of these, as they are incredibly rewarding when the rest of the garden is sparse.


Other crops I’ve had success growing in winter (parsley, cilantro, dill, spinach, endive, sorrel, lettuces, fennel, fava beans) – the key for many of these is to get them growing before it gets cold, as most plants don’t grow very much in cold weather.  Thus, plant them 4-6 weeks before frost, and then harvest throughout the winter.


For More Information


There are many other plants you can continue to grow or store in the garden with often just a bit of protection.  Check out “How To Grow A Four-Season Garden” for many tips on how to do this effectively!


Anything To Add?


Avid gardeners, what else would you add here?  Other crops you’ve had success growing in winter?


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9 comments to Why Are Some Plants Killed By Frost But Not Others?

  • I’ve had a species of purple sprouting broccoli (thats meant to overwinter in warmer climates) shrug off snowfall.

    Mache is a winter lettuce that loves the cold.

  • What about peas? I’ve had a lot of luck with peas – both for a late fall harvest and planting in late fall to harvest in the spring. Or is that just a Northern California thing?

  • Peas are our favorite winter crop….tho like Green Bean we are in California (Central Valley). We plant more varieties of veggies in the fall than we do in our miserable summers. I actually have photos of lettuce sitting in snow (once every 10 years or so we get a bit of snow) that we picked and ate that evening.

    We love our winter garden, no watering, no bugs, and less weeds:)

  • You Californians! You’re making me jealous now. Peas are good fall and spring crops, but not great in the winter here – it’s too cold and, worse, it’s too wet. :( I haven’t grown mache yet – I’ll try it out! I’ve read about it – Eliot Coleman seems to love it – but I’ve never eaten it. Kory, what does it taste like?

  • I haven’t had good luck with peas either (little farther north of Melinda). I’m mad at myself, never got around to planting spinach this year and I think it’s too late. If it grew through last winter I think it could take anything around here! Might try anyway. Purple sprouting broccoli is awesome!

  • I’ve already noticed that dark-leaved lettuces cope brilliantly with the cold.

    We had lettuces outside on the deck all through winter and through the snow and frost, well below zero, and they coped just fine – the dark-leaved lettuces, that is. The green leaved lettuces couldn’t cope, and keeled over.

    I think the reason is that dark leaved lettuces soak up more warmth from the sun, just like black clothes keep you warmer than white do.

    So when choosing lettuces and other plants, choose darker varieties, if you live in a cool climate.

    Leanne (living in Dunedin, NZ – 46 degrees south)

  • Pea plants are fairly frost-hardy, but pea blossoms are not. And I never knew dill was frost hardy! That helps explain why dill and beets are so often served together, I assume. Both would survive admirably in a harsh winter climate.

  • Peas peas peas
    Don’t forget the citrus that really takes off now. January is an overload of lemons. My mandarins are turning orange. Citrus is so great in the winter (anytime really).

  • Here in the UK this winter we had -17C at 1pm for days plus 2ft of snow. My Purple Sprouting Broccoli looked fine at first, but after 2 weeks of thaw, it hasn’t survived. The thick main stems have gone to mush. This is the first winter that I have lost the crop and I was so looking forward to my first taste.
    On the other hand, the Arucola, whose seeds I brought back from a rainwater harvesting trip to Southern Italy, has survived magnificently and is growing back vigorously from the base. My Italian friend told me that the UK was too cold for it.

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