How to Protect Your Desert Plants and Trees From Frost

Desert garden with cactus, succulents, bougainvillea and other arid perennial plants.

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Even the hottest of desert climates can experience frost at some point during the year. If precautions aren't taken, nighttime temperatures dropping to freezing and below can damage trees and plants. For deserts within the United States, potentially harmful low temperatures may begin as early as November and continue through February or even March.

Ten Things to Know About Frost and Your Desert Garden

If you take the time to properly prepare, your plants and trees can prevail after the lowest desert temperatures. The following tips will help protect your garden from frosty nights:

  1. Know your plants: It's important to learn which plants in your garden are easily damaged by low temperatures. Some of the most common frost-sensitive desert plants are Bougainvillea, Hibiscus, Natal Plum, Cape Honeysuckle, and the Red Bird of Paradise. Citrus trees and non-native cactus plants may also be at risk. If your plants are new or actively growing, they probably need frost-protection.
  2. Utilize strategic locations: Plant frost-sensitive plants in the most favorable places to minimize the risk of damage. Some ideal spots include: near the pool, south or west sides of the property, close to areas that retain heat like concrete walls, or underneath roof overhangs, eaves, and patio extensions (but not in full shade).
  3. Take an accurate temperature: Different parts of the desert may experience lower temperatures, depending on the elevation and the amount of concrete in the area. If you live in a more rural area, use an outdoor thermometer and compare your actual temperature to the nearest city's. That way, if you know that your reading is always about four degrees lower, you'll be prepared for frost even if nearby forecasts call for a low of 35 degrees Fahrenheit.
  1. Cover your plants: To protect your plants and trees from frost damage, they need to be covered. Use paper bags or boxes on sensitive ground covers or flowers. For trees and shrubs, the best covering materials include sheets, light blankets, or burlap. Hardware stores actually sell large sheets of light, porous cloth for this purpose. If you need to buy them, don't wait until the first frost, because they sell out quickly. You can also try buying sheets at thrift stores.
  2. Avoid covering with plastic or heavy cloth: Plastic traps the moisture under the tarp and damages the plant. Heavy blankets are also ineffective—when they soak up moisture they can become very heavy and break or even flatten branches.
  3. Be mindful when covering: Make sure your cover touches the ground as this helps to retain all the warmth under the cloth. When possible, try to avoid touching the leaves with the cloth and aim to drape on the branches.
  4. Protect citrus trees: Citrus trees that have not yet reached maturity, and especially lime and lemon trees, need frost protection. It can be very difficult to cover large trees, but it's worth it to do the best you can. Unless it experiences a very severe frost, a mature citrus tree will most likely come back from frost exposure the following spring.
  1. Keep watering your plants: Wet soil absorbs heat during the day. In the winter, always water your plants and trees in the morning. That way the leaves will be dry by the time it starts to get cold at night. As always, don't overwater.
  2. Don't rush to uncover: Try to refrain from removing plant and tree frost covers if it's still dark, and preferably not until late in the morning the next day. Some of the coldest temperatures are just after sunrise.
  3. Resist pruning until spring: If frost gets to your plant, don't remove the damaged parts right away. They may look unhealthy for a couple of months, but those dead branches and leaves provide protection for the part of the plant that's still alive. You can prune frost-damaged plants in the spring. Desert gardeners will also need to know when to prune and when to leave the plants alone.

When dealing with cold, freezing nights, it's better to do something for your plants than nothing. If you know the names of you plants, you can look them up at Desert-Tropicals.com for more specific care instructions.