‘Chill’ could almost be a pleasant euphemism for ‘frost’. Both words describe cool or cold weather that occurs during winter. The obvious difference is that one is good, and one is bad. Chill is a minimum duration of cool weather that some plants require through winter to maintain their schedules. Frost is weather that is cool enough to damage some plants.
This technical difference is that chill is at or below forty-five degrees Fahrenheit (≤45°F), and frost is at or below thirty-two degrees Fahrenheit (≤32°F). That is a difference of only thirteen degrees Fahrenheit (13°F), just above the freezing temperature of water. Climate and weather are simply not cooperative enough to comply to such precise technicalities.
Climates that provide sufficient chill for many plants that require it are also likely to inflict frost on occasion. Where chill is sufficient for most plants that need it, frost is likely much too severe for plants that are sensitive to it. Climates that lack frost are unlikely to provide enough chill for plants that need just a bit. High chill apples and oranges should not mix.
Of course, just as various chill dependent plants require various degrees of chill, various frost sensitive plants tolerate various degrees of frost. Some orange cultivars can survive frost as cold as twenty-five degrees Fahrenheit (25°F) within climates that low chill apple cultivars are happy with. Angel’s trumpet though, succumbs as soon as ice crystals form.
It is helpful to know which plants are sensitive to frost, even in frostless climates. Tropical plants might get rather pallid when the weather is too cool for too long, even if frost is not a direct threat. Potted plants are more susceptible to frost damage than they would be in the ground, but can migrate to sheltered situations. Some can be temporary houseplants.
Frost naturally limits the selection of plants. Various tropical plants that are appropriate to frostless climates are not appropriate for climates with harsh winter weather. That can be confusing with so many distinct climates within such minimal proximity. Coastal, inland, mountain, and all climates are so very different from each other.
This really is the best climate for gardening. Even though summers are mild, there are not many plants that want for more warmth. Even though winters are mild, it gets just cool enough for many plants that require winter chilling. Yet, there are a few plants, particularly plants from tropical climates, that can be damaged by frost. The best way to protect such plants from frost is to not grow them.
Of course, this oversimplified technique would prevent the cultivation of familiar plants like banana, angel wing begonia and angel’s trumpet. In cooler regions, it might involve bougainvillea, philodendron and some types of citrus. Most of us would prefer to take some degree of risk to grow marginal plants. Some may get damaged by frost and then recover. Others may be killed by frost.
Potted plants can be moved to sheltered spots when threatened by frost. Some can be brought into the home or garage temporarily. For some, the simple shelter of a porch or a dense evergreen tree might be sufficient. Bougainvillea and other plants that do not like to be potted might prefer to be planted under the eaves against a warm south-facing wall. A bit of warmth radiates from walls at night.
During the coldest nights, some of the most sensitive plants that can not be moved to shelter may need shelter brought to them. Burlap, plastic, paper or any sort of sheeting that can be temporarily suspended on stakes above the foliage should be sufficient. Leaves that touch the sheeting can potentially get frozen. The sheeting should be removed during the day so that it does not get too warm in the sunlight.
Foliage that does get damaged by frost should not be pruned away immediately. It may be unsightly, but if left for later, it helps to insulate inner foliage and stems from subsequent damage from later frost. Besides, immediate pruning stimulates new growth that will be even more sensitive to frost than was the foliage and stems that had already been damaged.
Timing is very important in gardening. Even when the weather in autumn still seems like summer, spring blooming bulbs must be planted on time. Bare root fruit trees will become available while they are dormant, and will need to be planted before they wake up. Roses need to be pruned before buds for new canes swell later in winter, even if their old canes are still awake and blooming.
Some procedures are influenced more by environmental factors than timing. Planting bare root fruit trees and pruning roses must be done sooner if the weather gets warm sooner than expected. Irrigation must be increased in summer, but only as warm and dry weather necessitates such increase. It gets decreased in winter, but only as weather gets cooler and rainier. Then there is frost.
Frost arrives differently every year, and is of course worse some years than others. It is only a minimal threat in some regions, but limits what can be grown in others. It happened to be sneaky this year, by hiding in between remarkably pleasant days. While the daytime weather is so mild and even unseasonally warm, a weather forecast may provide the only early warning of overnight frost.
By now, sensitive plants were either protected successfully, or possibly damaged by earlier frosts. Potted plants got moved to shelter under porch roofs, or maybe dense evergreen trees near the home. Those in the ground might have been tented with plastic or sheeting suspended above the foliage by sticks and maybe string. Old fashioned Christmas lights might have softened the chill.
Many perennials and annuals are just left out to succumb to the cold. Any remaining warm season vegetable plants are not worth protecting. They will not produce anything this late anyway. Canna and ginger can likewise be left out in the cold for their foliage to freeze and collapse to the ground. If protected, they can stay green through winter, but will replace their foliage in spring anyway.
Foliage of hosta and dahlia can be removed because the dormant parts of the plants are safe below the surface of the soil. Canna and ginger rhizomes on the surface of the soil might appreciate a bit of mulch if their foliage gets removed. Frost damaged stems of woody plants should not be pruned out too early. Premature pruning stimulates new growth that will be sensitive to later frosts.