Here’s What to Do if Unseasonably Warm Weather Messed Up Your Plants

published Mar 6, 2024
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A village cottage scene in the hamlet of Siasconset, Nantucket Island, MA
Credit: John Santoro / Shutterstock

When I was growing up in Pennsylvania, I remember the spring weather being totally unpredictable. And it’s not so different where I live in Virginia now, where in March you might find yourself either sunbathing or bundling up from head to toe.

This year has an added complication: Due to higher-than-average temperatures in February, plants are popping up earlier than usual, which means that many plants are susceptible to cold snaps that they’d ordinarily still be dormant for. So, what should you do to protect your plants if they’ve happily popped up before their time? Here’s what the experts say about protecting premature plants from temperature changes.

What happens to plants if they sprout prematurely?

Plants that emerge too early risk frost damage during chilly temperatures — especially if new growth has already sprouted. “A cold snap can stunt their growth, weaken their overall health, and potentially lead to the death of the plant,” reveals Susan Brandt, a plant expert at Blooming Secrets. Premature sprouting can also tax the plant’s natural energy reserves as it tries to survive, which can impact crop yields.

If you have fruit-bearing plants, rising early can also impact the ecosystem. “If pollinators like bees and butterflies haven’t emerged yet or are not as active during this time, it can result in reduced pollination and decreased fruit set for certain plants,” Brandt says. The lack of insects available to pollinate can significantly decrease yields.

However, Brandt also revealed a more severe consequence for the plant itself: Early sprouting makes plants more susceptible to diseases and pests. “When plants emerge before natural predators of pests are active, there is a higher chance of infestation or disease outbreak occurring,” she says.

How should you protect plants if they emerge early?

According to Jessica Mercer, PhD, of Plant Addicts, keeping an eye on the forecast is critical. “If a hard frost is expected, you can cover the shrub or tree with landscape fabric, a frost blanket, or even an old sheet,” she advises. Mercer also notes choosing a breathable material to allow air to flow freely, as plastic and non-porous substances will smother your plants. 

Another option is to apply organic mulch earlier and thicker than usual, which also helps plants maintain warmth. “Mulch acts as a temperature regulator, keeping the soil warmer on cold nights and cooler on hot days, which can help reduce the stress on plants that have sprouted too early,” Andrew Connolly of Little Flower Cottage recommends.

Justin Hancock, a horticulturist with Costa Farms, has also seen folks get a little creative when needed. “I’ve heard of people generating a little extra heat underneath the covering by wrapping a plant in string lights of incandescent holiday bulbs,” he says. Although this will only increase the temperature by a few degrees, any amount will help. Hancock also cautions against using LED lights, which won’t generate enough heat to make a difference for your plants, so it’s best to use traditional old-school lights.

If you only have tiny plants or bulbs you’re concerned about, you can also use this ingenious hack from Peggy Anne Montgomery, a horticulturist with “If it’s just a few plants, an inverted plastic pot with a weight on top, such as a rock, can keep plants safe during a cold snap,” she advises. Just ensure the pot — you could even use a trash can or storage bin — is big enough to allow the plant to breathe.

How do you choose frost-tolerant plants?

Choosing the right plants for your region is part of setting your spring garden up for success. “With the recent shift in USDA zones, it’s important to choose plants that are hardy to your new zone and consider your ecoregion,” advises Mary Phillips, a native plant expert at the National Wildlife Federation

Additionally, gardening with native species can help ensure your plantings survive varying temperatures. “Native plants are adapted to deal with various environmental stressors, unlike other plantings that may be more tender,” says Phillips. When purchasing plants, check the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to see what will survive and thrive best in the future.