Five Ways to Protect the Tender Plants You Put Outdoors Too Early

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Photo Attribution Below

Photo Attribution Below

You know you should have waited to put out tender plants or seedlings, but you got anxious and planted them outdoors anyways.  Whether in a container garden or a garden of the ground, they are now subject to the upcoming chills expected during the overnight hours this week as predicted by our local forecasters.

It’s not too difficult to understand why you tried to cheat the planting dates – after all, we had temperatures in the 70’s last weekend here in Connecticut.  It got our gardening juices flowing, and you may have impulsively planted tender seedlings in your gardens, such as tomatoes or peppers, or have potted up some summer like annuals in your mixed container gardens and patio pots.  Perhaps you even put a few of your houseplants outdoors for some fresh air and sun exposure for the first time this season.

But as of today, we have rain, strong winds, and a drop in temperatures coming.  It is expected to be in the low 30’ for the next three evenings.

So, you may be wondering what you should do now to protect the tender plants you put outdoors too early.

Here are five suggestions you can try – some may be better than others – due to the rainfall and winds occurring today:

#1 Cover them with a light-weight bed sheet

Protect the plants by carefully placing a light-weight bed sheet over the garden bed where you put them in or over the container garden or patio pot.  Use some stakes to tent the cloth up so the now wet tender plants will not get bent or be pushed down by the weight of the sheet or blanket.  Use rocks or bricks to hold the sheet down if necessary.  However, this may be difficult to do tonight especially because we will have rain overnight, and some areas in Connecticut may get sleet (Litchfield).  Ugh, but this trick does work well to protect tender plants from late spring frosts – so take note, or avoid the situation next time by doing Option #2, setting up temporary plastic tunnels.

#2 Use temporary plastic tunnels

If you planned ahead and ordered, you can use low tunnels made specifically for plant protection like those available from  They are easy to use, expand like an accordion over your plants, and come with curved hoops made of bamboo used to brace the tunnel in the ground.  Push the hoops into the soil and you should be all set.  This is a great way to protect plants, but you are not going to be enjoying doing this now with the downpours.  Another reminder of why we should wait for the tender plants, or plan ahead.

#3 Roll out floating fabric row covers

Similar to temporary tunnels noted above, fabric cloths or frost blankets specially made to protect plants are available from many garden supply manufacturers or at your local nursery.  They will hold in the warmth and protect any new plants without damaging them.  As with a light blanket, you may need to pin down the edges so it won’t be blown away by the wind.  Again, there’s wind tonight – Sorry!  Such is the way of gardening in the Northeast.  But these are handy in other situations, such as use for the last spring frost.

Photo by C. Testa

Photo by C. Testa

#4 Move the container garden back inside

Move your patio pot or container garden potted up with tender plants inside to a warmer place or sheltered location, such as your garage or shed, for the cold evenings.  A hand-truck works great for this process.  Also, if you put any small seedlings or your houseplants that were kept inside during the winter out on tables because you thought the plants should enjoy the warm weather last weekend, you should have moved those back indoors, especially now with the overnight low temperatures coming.  As noted in my Spring e:Pub, tropical plants, cacti like plants, and many houseplants must wait to go outdoors when things have warmed up after the last spring frost date.

#5 Be patient and wait a little longer

Most reputable nurseries put out only those plants which can take the cooler temperatures of the early spring, while tender plants are kept inside their large greenhouses for warmth and protection until warmer temperatures arrive.  Just watch out for stores that don’t follow the rules – and we tend to know which they are.  Usually their plants look injured a day or two following exposures to low or freezing overnight temperatures.  Wait a bit longer to put out the tender plants, and remember to watch for our last frost date of the spring season.  Otherwise, you risk damaging the plants’ foliage and flowers, or the plant will die and ruin your ambition and expenses.  Be patient and wait a tad bit longer.

Other Interesting Ideas

Christmas Lights on Fruit trees – I’ve heard you can string large styled Christmas lights around apple trees limbs near the buds to help keep them warm.  Buds can get damaged or killed if they freeze, so this is one holiday styled technique. Interesting!

Make a Camp Fire – Just kidding!  But some nursery growers of fruit trees actually light small fires under fruit trees.  Hey, anything to save those buds from frost, right?  However, not recommended or needed in home garden environments typically.

Water Fruit Trees – This may sound contradictory – but growers will water fruit and citrus trees, and some nurseries will water (sprinkle) specific plants, as a shield from the morning’s sun following a frost or freeze.  It serves an insulator for the growing buds and foliage – but it gets more technical which I will not expand on this topic here because of “timing” of this post.  However, if you’re interested, check out the “frost protection fundamentals” by FOA Corporate Document Repository where they explain it isn’t the cold temperatures per say that affect the plants, but how the plant tissue are injured via dehydration.

Water the Soil – Your outdoor plants (including the trees and perennials) are being watered right now by the natural rainfall, which is good for the plant’s roots because dry soil tends to pull moisture from the roots during frost or freeze periods.  Wet foliage however is not a good thing; when the foliage and stems of tender plants get wet and cold, this may lead to rot, flopping over, and general damage.  Antidessicants may be used on evergreens (rhododendrons, azaleas, hollies, boxwood, etc.) to help reduce dehydration of the foliage.  A commonly type is called Wilt Pruf, and it is organic and biodegradable and primarily applied in the fall.

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First and Last Freeze/Frost Dates by Zip Codes

Go to Dave’s Garden website to enter your zip code for a first and last freeze/frost dates for your area based on averages.  For Broad Brook, here are the results received via this site:

  • Each winter, on average, your risk of frost is from October 9 through April 26.
  • Almost certainly, however, you will receive frost from October 22 through April 11.
  • You are almost guaranteed that you will not get frost from May 10 through September 26.
  • Your frost-free growing season is around 166 days.

Overall, it is best to plant the cold-tolerant veggies, plants like pansies, and your typical spring bulbs like hyacinths, tulips, and daffodils.  For the rest, hang in there. It won’t be long until we can enjoy all – I promise.

Written by Cathy Testa

Lady's Mantel Leaves Pop Up on April 15th, 2014

Lady’s Mantel Leaves Pop Up on April 15th, 2014

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Is it too early to plant?

Early spring container combination

Early spring container combination

The overly-chilly temperatures experienced during early April this year has made us more than anxious for warmer weather so we can get outside to begin gardening.  And it has also prompted many of us to ask if it is too early to plant?  But the rules still remain the same.  In fact, they may be more applicable.


To be safe, for plants sensitive to cold, you should wait until after we get our last spring frost, expected around April 26th based on averages.  Otherwise, you risk damaging the foliage and potential flower buds, or the total loss of your new plant.  “It’s just a tad bit too early for some plants, even though we are ready to get out there.”




By now, you have probably put out some pansies, tulips, daffodils or other spring-like bulb plants, such as hyacinth.  These can take the chill.  There are some other cold-tolerant plants you can plant now as well.

You will see evergreen and deciduous shrubs and trees, early spring perennials, and other plants hardening off outside at the nursery.  Hardening off is a process where plants are transitioned from the growers’ greenhouse to outdoor temperatures.  These plants are safe to plant.  If you are not sure, ask your nursery person.

But beware; I saw a store that put orchids outside on a table last week.  A little chill to orchids may not harm them, but frost will damage them, resulting in a bad start.  Use a little common sense and consider the type of plant you are exposing to the new environment outside before proceeding.  It may be best to wait until mid-to-late May for the cold sensitive plants.


Houseplants, cacti, tropical plants, summer annuals, and summer-blooming bulb-like plants want warmth and can’t take cold soils.  So if you stored your canna rhizomes in the fall, or caladium and elephant’s ears tubers, you should not put them in the ground yet.  Plant them in pots indoors and place them near heat sources or by a sunny window to get them started early.  When the soil warms up outside (60 degrees F-70 degrees F), move them into the ground.  Or pot them up in your container gardens around late-May.

If you kept your tropical plants in the basement to go dormant in their pot or container over the winter, now is a good time to transition them to a room inside your home to start greening up.  Start a watering routine slowly.  When the warmer days arrive, cold-sensitive plants can be put outside.  And if you just can’t wait, cover your plants with a light sheet or bring them inside when the weatherman indicates an overnight frost.  It is best to be cautious.


This time of year, however, is a great time to get other tasks done or set-up so when it finally warms up, you will be ready to take action.  Get your containers and patio pots out, clean them up with a bit of light soapy water, place them in your favorite places, and fill them up with potting mix so when you bring your plants home from the garden nurseries, all will be ready for you.  It is also a good time to clean up any perennials with damaged or worn foliage.  Clean up your garden beds of debris, add some organic matter and/or mulch if needed, prune summer-flowering shrubs blooming on new wood before growth starts.  Edge your beds, get out your bird baths, cut back your ornamental grasses, and sharpen your garden tools.  And of course, clean up any left over tree and branches fallen from our past winter storms.  There’s plenty to keep us busy while we wait.

Container Crazy Cathy T
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