Demystifying Cold Hardy, Frost Tolerant, Frost Sensitive and Warm Loving Garden Plants - Frosty Garden

Demystifying Cold Hardy, Frost Tolerant, Frost Sensitive and Warm Loving Garden Plants

If you’ve spent any time around gardeners, you’ve heard terms like “frost tolerant” or “warm weather crops.”  This is the idiosyncratic and vague, but purposeful, language of experienced gardeners.

This post seeks to demystify those terms and also teach you which specific plants fall into which category.

What we’ve found in our subarctic gardening experience is that depth of knowledge about this subject has become one of the most important things we have learned.

The four major categories that we will discuss are cold hardy, frost tolerant, frost sensitive and warm loving plants.  The subject of plant tolerance is one of the most vital things you can understand to make you a better cold climate gardener!

Why Are Some Plants More Frost Tolerant Than Others?

This is a really good question to start with!  Why are there differences in temperature tolerance between plants?

Frost occurs when outdoor temperatures hover around the freezing point, or 32F/0C.  It occurs when moisture (water) on the plants, in the ambient air or within the plant itself, freezes.

Frost, or freezing, can cause cellular damage to plants that don’t have sufficient protections from it.

The generally accepted reason for some plants being more frost tolerant than others is due to having higher levels of sugars built up in their leaves.  Sugar water will freeze at a lower temperature, when compared to plain water.  These higher levels of sugar allow certain plants to avoid freezing and thus, they also avoid cellular damage caused by freezing.

There are two types of cold hardiness that are recognized by most gardeners.  These two levels essentially describe the level of cold tolerance that the plants have.

Similarly, some plants won’t tolerate frost at all.  For these, there are also two levels of tolerance.  These two levels again reflect the general tolerance towards cooler temperatures of those plants.

Why Is Plant Temperature Tolerance Important To Know?

As we mentioned above, we have come to the point where we think this topic is one of the most vital to the subarctic gardener.

When you garden in warmer zones, your knowledge of what temperatures a plant can tolerate isn’t often tested.

When growing in the subarctic, you have a very short season bookended by “spring” and “fall” that last about 2-3 weeks each.

  • Understanding temperature tolerance helps you better understand what gardening techniques might be best for certain types of plants.
  • When your indoor seed garden is overflowing, it can tell you what plants can safely be outside and which ones can not.
  • Knowledge of plant tolerance helps the gardener develop a strategy for planting a fairly large garden over several weeks.
  • Knowing plant tolerance allows the gardener to strategically harvest your garden.  What’s important to harvest first?  What can you wait on?
  • With understanding of what your plants can tolerate, the northern gardener can achieve maximum benefit of free outdoor growing energy, directly saving money on indoor plant lighting when possible.

We heavily use our knowledge of this topic every single year.  Every garden we grow and harvest is deeply rooted in these concepts.

What Are Cold Hardy Garden Plants?

Cold hardy plants are the most capable of them all when it comes to cold tolerance.  A mature, cold hardy plant can withstand actual freezing temperatures (32F/0C) for a period of time and even temperatures below freezing.

Cold hardy plants can easily handle light to moderate frosts without being harmed.  Another way of saying this is these plants can tolerate a hard frost.

When To Plant Cold Hardy Vegetables

Plants which are cold hardy can often be put outside before any others.  Once outdoor low temperatures are consistently above freezing temperatures, you can consider leaving these plants outside.

This time frame is typically going to be 3-4 weeks before last frost, or roughly early May in the Interior of Alaska.  Of course, you need to be sure to ensure these plants are hardened off well before doing so.  You can also push these limits even further, if needed.

We do advise bringing your cold hardy vegetables back indoors (or into a greenhouse) in the event that a temperature dip below freezing is expected.  Young plants are still susceptible to freezing temperatures.

We typically plant cold hardy plants in our garden anywhere from two weeks before last frost all the way up to last frost.

For cold hardy root vegetables, these can be direct sowed up to two weeks before the last frost date.

When To Harvest Cold Hardy Vegetables

Cold hardy vegetables can also be the last plants you harvest in the fall, at least if they haven’t flowered or bolted yet.  We are often able to harvest these plants well past first frost and up to the point where the cold really starts to set in.

This is advantageous as we are often quite busy with preservation during harvest season.  These varieties are the ones you can put off just a little bit longer, if needed.  Don’t wait too long, though, as they aren’t invincible!

Notes About Cold Hardy Vegetables

A few of cold hardy plants can also be planted in late summer, allowing for a second harvest.  These are typically very fast growers, such as spinach, lettuce and mustard greens.  If you want to do this, think about planting these about 15-30 days before the first frost for best results.  You can often harvest after the first few frosts and get some extra fresh late season veggies.

Carrots will actually improve in flavor if you allow them to withstand some levels of frost.  It’s always a good idea to harvest these late in the season after you’ve seen a few frosts or you are in the final stages of your garden clean up.

It should be noted that with the root vegetables in this category, you can keep the plants in the ground well past your last frost date.  We don’t advise keeping them in the ground all winter, but some people do so and harvest when they are needed.  We advise a full harvest and storage in appropriate conditions or the use of preservation techniques.

When it comes to most lettuce-like greens on this list, you can also direct sow these in your garden up to two weeks before last frost.  Some years will support even greater season extension.

Most lettuce and leafy greens will germinate in the cool soils and will sprout when conditions are right for them.  These direct sowed plants will also be more vigorous than indoor grown and transplanted varieties.

A List Of Common Cold Hardy Vegetables

  • Arugula
  • Asparagus
  • Beets
  • Broccoli
  • Brussels Sprouts
  • Cabbage
  • Carrots
  • Collards
  • Endive
  • Garlic
  • Kale
  • Kohlrabi
  • Leeks
  • Lettuce (most varieties)
  • Mustard Greens
  • Onions (Seeds, sets, bunching)
  • Parsnips
  • Potatoes
  • Rhubarb
  • Rutabaga
  • Spinach
  • Turnips

What Are Frost Tolerant Plants?

The next level of cold hardiness is simply frost tolerance.  These plants are a little bit more sensitive than truly cold hardy plants.  There is enough of a cold tolerance difference to classify them just a little differently in our book.

Frost tolerant plants are those that will, as described, tolerate fairly light frosts.  The biggest difference between these plants and cold hardy varieties is that these don’t tolerate freezing temperatures quite as well.  Some varieties can withstand short periods of freezing temperatures without trouble.

When To Plant Frost Tolerant Vegetables

Frost tolerant plants can often be treated very similarly to cold hardy plants.  Meaning, they can be placed outside when temperatures are consistently above freezing, and preferably somewhat above it.

As with cold hardy plants, we recommend bringing young plants inside (or in a greenhouse) in the event of a dip into freezing temperatures.

We typically plant our frost tolerant plants in our garden a week before last frost and up to last frost.

When To Harvest Frost Tolerant Vegetables

As with cold hardy plants, these are often plants that you can hold off on harvesting until after the first frost, if needed.  We try to harvest most of these at or around our first frost time, but often prioritize them more than truly cold hardy varieties.

These plants are susceptible to damage from frosts.  So, to maximize your harvest quality, it’s a good idea to harvest them before such damage can occur.

Notes About Frost Tolerant Vegetables

While these plants are frost tolerant, be careful about exposure to freezing temperatures when the plants are young.  Younger plants must still be treated with care.

With radishes, you can get some late season harvests in.  Planting radishes about 3 to 4 weeks before first frost and even up to first frost can allow for some nice, quick garden snacks quite late in the season.  Radishes are typically very fast growers, reaching maturity in 3-4 weeks.

Artichokes do surprisingly well within the Interior of Alaska.  Artichokes are typically difficult to grow, but our northern climate supports them well.  Our cool temperatures lend well to the plant’s requirement to spend a couple of weeks below 50 degrees for a good fruit set.  Artichokes in sub-irrigated containers have performed quite well for us in interior Alaska.

A List Of Common Frost Tolerant Vegetables

  • Artichoke
  • Bok Choy
  • Cauliflower
  • Celeriac
  • Celery
  • Chard
  • Chinese Cabbage
  • Peas
  • Radish
  • Radicchio

What Are Frost Sensitive Plants?

There is a frost tolerance level that sits between frost tolerant and warm loving.  These are best described as frost sensitive plants.

These varieties feature very little frost tolerance and could be expected to be severely injured or can die once frost hits them.

These plants do often tolerate somewhat cool temperatures, at least down to the low 40’s or high 30’s where frosts aren’t also present.

When To Plant Frost Sensitive Vegetables

Frost tolerant plants can be brought outside on days where temperatures are expected to be in the mid-40’s and above.  We definitely want to avoid any risk of freezing, so being careful is important.

While we are hardening frost sensitive plants off, we look for days that will be in the mid-40’s or above.  These are also varieties that we will try to protect with frost cloth in the event a late frost comes up in the early season.

With these varieties, we typically wait until at least our last frost date plant them outside.  If the weather isn’t behaving, sometimes we will wait until a week or so after last frost, just to be safe.

When To Harvest Frost Sensitive Vegetables

When we go about our harvest strategy, these are always at the top of our list to get out of the garden as soon as possible.

While you can sometimes wait for the first frost to kill off the plant, we are aiming for harvest usually right around first frost.

We won’t often try to put frost cloth on them late in the season, mostly because growth and maturation of fruit is almost at a standstill in cool temperatures.

Notes About Frost Sensitive Vegetables

A defining characteristic of these plants is that frost sensitive plants always require warm temperature soils to germinate.  The seeds of these plants will not germinate well, or at all, in cool soils.

These plants are strong candidates to be placed or planted in a greenhouse, if you have one.  They will appreciate the extra warmth in most cases.

Additionally, with tomatoes, some varieties are exceptionally tolerant of cooler temperatures.  While they don’t like freezing temperatures, we’ve seen a number of varieties get well into the 30’s before showing signs of cold stress.  It’s important to note that this characteristic isn’t universal among tomatoes and is only found in the hardiest of tomato varieties.

A List Of Common Frost Sensitive Vegetables

  • Snap Pea
  • Sweet Corn
  • Tomatoes
  • Beans
  • Most herbs (Parsley is frost tolerant)
  • With few exceptions, most flowers are frost sensitive.  Exceptions include perennial flowers that are naturally cold hardy.

What Are Warm Loving Plants?

Some varieties of vegetables simply prefer warmer temperatures.  We sometimes refer to these as “warm climate crops” as well.

Warm loving plants are usually sensitive to temperatures below about 50 degrees.  Temperatures below this can injure the plant, severely reduce growth rates or sometimes even harm productivity.

When To Plant Warm Loving Vegetables

When we are in the process of hardening off these plants, we try to aim for days in the mid-50’s and above.  We don’t leave them outside at night unless the temperatures are expected to remain above 50 degrees.

As for planting warm loving vegetables, we often will wait until at least last frost to put them in our garden.  It is often beneficial to wait 1-2 weeks after last frost, in case potentially devastating cool temperatures comes.  With peppers specifically, we usually wait two weeks after last frost to plant them in our garden.

It’s very important to maintain flexibility with these plants and allow them to be brought inside if conditions warrant.

When To Harvest Warm Loving Vegetables

Similar to frost sensitive plants, these are always the first to get harvested.  We try to aim for before the first frost to harvest them.  While most of these will maintain their fruit reasonably well, even after a frost, don’t wait too long as the fruit will quickly be damaged.

As with frost sensitive plants, we don’t bother putting frost cloth on these in late season as growth has virtually stopped once cooler temperatures appear.

Notes About Warm Loving Vegetables

When it comes to warm loving plants, there aren’t many “fast growers” that can get you vegetables fast.  Most all warm weather plants require at least 2-3 months past the transplant date to reach full maturity.

Warm loving vegetables will often perform at their best when brought into a greenhouse.  When they are warm, they will grow as fast as they can and mature their fruit and vegetables more quickly.  Additionally, anything you can do to keep the soil warm for these plants will be rewarded in better production.

At least here in the subarctic, we find that we have to finesse our peppers into full maturity.  While we usually have some peppers that are fully ripe at or before harvest time, many are not.  We’ve found it to be a good practice to return peppers into our indoor grow room for full maturation.  This process usually happens within days upon bringing them inside, radically improving our harvest rates.

Squash are often recognized as warm loving plants.  That’s true, and they will do better when they have great warmth.  Some varieties are more temperature sensitive, whereas others could be classified as frost tolerant.  All squash will produce better when offered warmth.

A List Of Common Warm Loving Vegetables

  • Cucumbers
  • Eggplants
  • Peppers
  • Okra
  • Pumpkins
  • Summer Squash
  • Winter Squash
  • Sweet Potato
  • All Melons (Marginal subarctic crop)

Final Notes On Hardiness & Frost Tolerance

One thing that is important is that hardiness against the cold can vary due to a number of complex factors that go into this.

The most relevant aspect to cold tolerance is often the exact variety, or cultivar, that you are growing.  You might find one type of lettuce that can barely withstand a frost and others that will tolerate a hard frost.  These are nuances you just have to learn.

Additionally, crops with curled/wavy/textured leaves will usually feature more frost tolerance than those with smooth or flat leaves.  This partially relates to the ability for frost to penetrate the plant, but also the curls will create very small micro climates that help the plant survive colder temperatures better.

In closing, we’ll remind you that young plants don’t have nearly as much frost tolerance as their full grown varieties.  It’s always important to keep an eye on the weather in the shoulder seasons!  Don’t push things too fast.

We know that it’s exciting when the weather starts to warm up!  If you’re a new gardener, play it safe and just plant everything around or after the last frost date.

2 comments… add one
  • Diane Drobka Apr 5, 2021 @ 16:03

    I just purchased a dozen Mangave pups. Most had a cold tolerance listed at 10 degrees F and a few were 20. Since we sometimes get low temps in winter, I felt safe ordering these. Then, after I got them, I read detailed information that says that they are not frost tolerant. How can that be? They can only tolerate 10 degrees if there is no moisture in the air? Now I’ll have quite a few additional pots I may have to bring inside for the winter which is very frustrating.

    • Jeff Apr 5, 2021 @ 17:44

      This is surprisingly common among many genus of plants. There can be differences in cold tolerance based entirely on the exact cultivar (or specific variety of a plant) you received. Some types of mangaves are hardy to zone 4, whereas others require much warmer zones. If you purchased from a reliable seller and they stated they were relatively cold tolerant, you are likely safe! If you know the exact cultivar you received, it will be important to narrow your research to that type (e.g. Blue Mammoth) as opposed to the genus (e.g. mangave) as a whole.

      If you just don’t know what you have, I would probably suggest hedging your bets. Put some in the ground and some in pots that can be overwintered. If yours survive the winter, you can likely put them all out next year! Good luck and thanks for the comment!

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