What's the Difference Between a Frost and a Freeze?

Plant struck by frost

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It’s not autumn in the garden until the weather service starts issuing frost advisories. That’s when you have to kick it into gear and get those final chores done. While a frost advisory may not be a major catastrophe for your plants, there's always a chance that an anticipated frost could become a freeze. It's important to know the difference between a frost and a freeze, and the potential of each on your garden.


Before a frost or freeze, weather reporters will usually issue an "advisory." Advisories are issued for a time frame of at least three hours up to about a day of weather when there is a good likelihood of unusually cold temperatures. Advisories break down as follows:

  • Frost advisory: This occurs when the temperature is expected to fall to a range of 36 degrees Fahrenheit down to about 32 degrees Fahrenheit.
  • Freeze warning: A warning is issued when there is at least an 80 percent chance that the temperature will hit 32 degrees Fahrenheit or lower.
  • Hard freeze: This takes place when the temperature falls below 28 degrees Fahrenheit.

It’s interesting to note that frost and freeze advisories are only issued during growing seasons, both spring and fall. If the plants are dormant, it’s just called cold weather.

Light Frosts 

As air temperatures cool, the ground also begins giving off heat. This is called radiational cooling. Generally, the clearer the sky, the more heat is given off. For a frost to kill plants, the earth has to lose enough heat so that the freezing temperature occurs at ground level. If the ground is still warm, it is possible for the frost to hover a bit above ground level. That’s what happens when the tops of your plants are killed by frost, but the lower portions remain green. This is generally referred to as a light frost.

Frosts tend to be short-term events that occur overnight or in the early hours of the morning. Hardy plants may come through unscathed, but tender plants will probably suffer some damage and begin their season-ending decline. It’s one of the reasons the USDA designates their hardiness zones by the first and last expected frost dates.                 

Hard Freeze 

Freezes are usually caused by what is called advective cooling. Advection is the transference of some atmospheric condition, like heat, humidity, or cold, by the movement of an air mass. Think of an arctic blast: When one of these blows in, all the annual plants and tender perennials tend to die off for the winter.

Freezes can be quick or they can linger. If they are cold enough, even a short freeze can do a lot of damage. Even hardy perennials will be killed back to ground level by a long, hard freeze. This is when the ground crunches when you walk on it

Protecting Plants from a Frost

There’s nothing we can do to stop frosts and freezes from happening, but we can reduce the damage they do to our plants. Try these techniques to protect your plants during frosts and freezes.

Cover Your Plants

When an advisory is issued for your area, pull out the row covers or grab some sheets, blankets, pots, baskets, or whatever you have at hand that will cover large plants or borders. If the air cannot settle on your plants, they should not be hurt. Be sure to remove the coverings once the temperatures have warmed the next day again, but keep them close at hand. You can be sure there will be more advisories to come.

Water Your Plants

It may sound counterintuitive, but water can insulate. Wet soil can hold four times more heat than dry soil, and water sprayed directly on plants will form a layer of ice that insulates the plant underneath it. This only works for a frost; don’t push your luck and try this during a hard freeze. It is important to keep your plants, including trees and shrubs, well-watered until the ground has frozen. They may be dormant, but their roots are still active and need water.

Put Down Winter Mulch

Once the ground has frozen hard, it’s time to protect marginally hardy plants by putting down a winter mulch to keep the soil frozen. You don’t want repeated freezing and thawing to push the plant’s crown out of the ground.