As the days of early spring grow warmer, you’ll be rewarded by new plant growth peeking through the mulch. Or perhaps you can’t resist the first annuals at the garden center. But more often than not, those first much-enjoyed warm days will be interrupted by a few season-transitioning frosty nights. And unfortunately, a dip in temperature will put your tender new growth in jeopardy.

Protecting plant with bucket

Save old pots and plastic containers – they’re great for protecting plants on frosty nights.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Manning

Sheet over plants

Old bed linens come in handy for covering up plants and protecting them from frost.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Manning

Remove protection

Don’t forget to remove your plant protection in the morning when the sun hits.

Photo Credit: Jennifer Manning

Luckily, protecting plants from cold damage can be accomplished in a variety of quick and easy ways. The key is to have your plants covered during the hours when frost develops. This critical period is from late night to early morning, when moisture on the plants can freeze. A good rule of thumb is to cover plants by 8 p.m. the night before a forecasted frost and uncover them by 8 a.m. the next morning. If a plant is injured by frost, damage will be noticeable within a few days. The plant growth will turn black, drop off or turn into “mush.” Sometimes new growth will reappear after a week or two, but in a lot of cases, you’ll just have to start over.

Buckets and plastic plant pots are great for covering tender plants. Simply turn the bucket or container upside down and place it over the plant. (It’s a good idea to put a rock or brick on top of the container to keep it in place.) Next time you get a large plant or shrub in a black plastic pot, save it. These large containers come in handy for those frosty nights. So do large cat litter containers.

Save your old bed linens, too: They’re great for cover use, since they’re lightweight and won’t crush the plant. Place sheets loosely over plants, and use a stone or brick along the edges to keep the sheet from blowing off. (Sheets are also great for draping over blooming shrubs.) Newspaper and burlap work well, too, but obviously newspaper has a size limitation, and burlap may not be as readily available as old linens.

Have you ever driven by a house and seen sheets covering plants in the middle of the day? Here’s the thing: Don’t make the mistake of thinking that a plant can remain covered for a few days when the weather calls for more than one night of frost. The protection needs to be taken off every morning when the sun comes out. Plants can’t breathe under a heavy container, a layer of plastic or fabric. It’s important to remove any protective cover to avoid creating another plant stress.

It’s easy to protect your plants with simple materials that you have around the house. The best way to avoid having to cover your plants at all, though, is to wait until after the last expected frost in your area before planting anything new in your garden. To help us out, “frost-free” dates have been determined for various regions. Based on accumulated temperature data, planting after a region’s designated frost-free date will significantly reduce the likelihood of frost-inducing temperatures damaging your young plants. While this date is not 100 percent foolproof, it will give you a pretty good idea of when you can plant safely and avoid having to continually cover your young plants to protect them.

But many gardeners consider the bragging rights to growing that first tomato on the block enough incentive to plant early and cover if needed. Plus, waiting can be hard – especially when it’s unseasonably warm in early spring and we all get planting fever! Many of our existing perennials will also pop up and may need some protection. My peonies have been covered many nights early in the season because I certainly couldn’t face a spring without their glorious blooms! So if you’re like me and always anxious to plant in early spring, it’s nice to know that we can protect our plants with minimal effort and still have that thriving spring garden!