Variable Weather Patterns

The western NC mountains are known for their variable weather patterns. Warm spells in January and cool spells in the summer are not uncommon. 

Many of us backyard growers and gardeners get very excited by 70 and 80 degree days in April and start planting our warm season plants. Yet often our region gets hit by a frost in the late Spring, sometimes even in early or mid May.

Mother’s Day Last Frost

Mother’s Day is generally thought of as the last frost date in much of Western NC, although due to the myriad of micro-climates in and around the hollers, that can vary. 

This year Mother’s Day falls on May 10th and wouldn’t you know it, we’re set for a frost overnight on the 9th. 

Tips for Protection

But not to worry! Here are some tips that can help you save you’re already-in-the-ground summer plants like tomatoes, summer squash, cucumbers, peppers, and more. Without some protection, those plants will not survive the frost.

    1. Water your garden thoroughly before the freeze. Make sure both the soil and the plant itself gets watered for protection of the roots and upper portions. If you have a sprinkler, use that. Make sure everything gets sprayed. While it may sound counter intuitive, the water acts as an insulator of sorts. The water freezes and therefore protects the plant matter from freezing. This is a tried and true tip in the orchard industry where fragile flowers can easily be frozen, losing the entire crop of fruit. Running sprinklers before and during a freeze protects the flowers and the buds.
    2. Cover your plants with a bucket. This will harbor your plants from the worst of the frost by trapping the heat (the ground and soil are warmer than the air) and protecting them from the coldest of the air. Make sure to take the bucket away when the day warms up.
    3. Cover with lightweight fleece blankets. Covering plants with sheets or blankets risks crushing them but with some care can be used effectively, much in the same way as buckets. It traps the heat and protects them from the frost. If you use a sheet or blanket, synthetic blends are lighter weight than cotton blends and will be less likely to break the plant. Put some wooden stakes or stones around the plant to prop up the blanket for extra care. Remember to remove all coverings once it’s warmer, generally the next day when the sun comes out.
    4. Cover with a cold frame or hoop house if you have something as fancy as that or you have a large amount of plants.
    5. Bring in your trays of plant starts. Either into the garage, into the house, or move to a greenhouse.
    6. Cover with mulch or straw anything that’s hardy enough and established enough that you might be worried about. For very low temperatures, figs for example might need something extra for support.
    7. Cluster container plants together nearest the house and cover with plastic or blankets. Take care not to crush them.

Resuming Growth

Cold weather slows summer plants down but it won’t kill them as long as you provide the proper protection on those few occasions where the temperature edges close to freezing (32 degrees).

Some people do like to wait until all fear of frost is gone before planting and that’s a fine strategy.

Most years, I actually like to get my summer plants in the ground early to get a jump on the growing and take advantage of those warm spring days. But I’m always ready for the extra labor required if a spring freeze hits. 

Good luck!


Author: Lee Warren

Lee Warren has been homesteading and farming for more than 25 years. She is the former Executive Director of Organic Growers School and the manager of Imani Farm, a pasture-based cooperative farm in Rutherford County, NC. Lee is also an herbalist, writer, teacher, and food activist, with an avid interest in rural wisdom, sustainable economics, and social justice issues.