Getting Ready for Frost

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Pansy plant covered in frost.

Frosty mornings do not mean it is too late to plant pansies.

Cooler temperatures are on the way and some inland regions in southeastern NC may actually wake up to patchy frost Saturday morning. Even if you do not see frost this weekend, it is only a matter of time before you do. Statistically, the average first fall frost in southeastern NC occurs the first week of November for inland areas like Burgaw, Wallace, Currie, and Shallotte. For coastal communities (Hampstead, Wilmington, Southport) the first frost does not typically occur until the third week of November due to the moderating effect of ocean waters. With frost, many plants stop growing, changing the gardener’s palette of gardening chores. The following tips will keep you on task in your southern yard and garden this fall.


If you moved your houseplants outside for the summer bring them back in when night time low’s start dipping down into the 40’s. Inspect plants for pests before bringing them inside. Mealybugs and aphids are two of the most common pests on houseplants. Both can be treated with relatively non toxic insecticidal soap or horticultural oil, just be sure to thoroughly cover plants when you spray.

Winter is a resting time for most houseplants so wait until spring to divide or repot. If you need to trim your plants back a little that is fine, but wait until spring to do any severe pruning. Cut back on watering and fertilization through the winter since cooler temperatures and lower light levels mean houseplants will not be actively growing. Houseplants often shed leaves when they are moved inside as they adjust to lower light levels. This is normal and should only last for a few weeks. If your plants continue to shed leaves weeks after being brought inside you may be overwatering.

Vegetable Gardens

Frost will bring an end to any summer crops still producing in your garden. If frost is predicted, make a final harvest of tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, eggplant,  and okra. To make the most of this late season bounty, store crops under proper conditions. Most summer crops store best at 55 degrees in perforated plastic bags and will last up to a week under these conditions, though peppers will last longer. Storing summer vegetables near apples and tomatoes, which release ethylene, will reduce their shelf life.

Green tomatoes harvested before frost, can be wrapped in newspaper and kept at 55 F to 70 F. Tomatoes stored in this manner can last 3-5 weeks. Be sure to inspect each week for ripeness. Once harvested, tomatoes will continue to soften and turn color, but will not develop flavor so leave fruits on your plants as long as possible for maximum taste.

Be sure to dig sweet potatoes before frost. Following harvest, sweet potatoes should be ‘cured’ by placing them in a moist, warm (80-85 degrees) location for a week to 10 days. Once cured, store them for winter in a dark, cool location (55 degrees) where they will not freeze.

Broccoli covered in frost.

Light frost will not damage cool season vegetables like broccoli and cabbage.

Cool season crops growing in your garden will tolerate light frost and temperatures as low as 29 degrees. To keep cool season vegetables productive during colder months cover them with row cover or a cold frame. Cool season vegetables include lettuce, spinach, chard, broccoli, cauliflower, turnips, beets, Chinese cabbage, kohlrabi, radish, rutabaga, and beets. Hardy vegetables, which include kale, collards, cabbage, brussel sprouts, carrots, onions, garlic, and leeks, will be fine outside in the garden all winter.

Lawns and Landscapes

Frost will cause southern lawn grasses to go dormant. At this point in the season it is important to make sure your irrigation system is turned off. Also, this is not the time to fertilize since lawn grasses are not actively growing. If you notice lots of weeds in your yard, you can treat with an herbicide if daytime temperatures are reaching into the 50’s or 60’s. Most winter weeds can be controlled with herbicides containing a combination of 2,4-D, mecoprop, and dicamba – the active ingredients found in many readily available lawn herbicides. If your lawn is consistently weedy, the question you will need to ask is what can you do encourage your turf to be thicker and healthier.

Most perennials will turn brown and go dormant following frost. Once this happens you can either cut them down to ground level or leave them standing until late winter. Some perennials, like Siberian iris and sedum, have interesting form in winter, while others, like purple coneflowers and black eye susans, provide seeds for birds. Waiting until later in the winter to cut them down will add interest to your landscape. Ornamental grasses will also add interest to the winter landscape so wait until February to cut them back.

Even though frost signals a change to colder temperatures, it is still a good time to plant or transplants most trees and shrubs, as well as divide and replant perennials. The main exceptions are marginally hardy plants and ornamental grasses. Plants that are listed as hardy to only zone 8 or 9 should not be disturbed until spring (examples include angel’s trumpet (Brugmansia and Datura) and princess flower (Tibouchina)). Disturbing marginally hardy plants in fall will increase the risk they will die overwinter. Wait until April or May to divide ornamental grasses. Like our lawns, most ornamental grasses that do well in our area are warm season growers and respond best to division in late spring.

If you have not yet set out pansies and other hardy annuals for winter color be sure to do so before Thanksgiving. Wait until after Thanksgiving to plant spring flowering bulbs such as daffodils and Spanish bluebells.

Learn More

Visit your local Cooperative Extension office to learn more about gardening and landscape care. Go to to find your county Extension center.