“How can it be that after a frost the entire garden looks as if it had been to a party in hell?” asks garden writer Jamaica Kincaid in the piece “A Fire by Ice." This paradox is present throughout the winter experience, not just in the garden. Alluding to symptoms of frostbite, have you ever heard the expression, ‘cold enough to make your skin burn?’ Tissue damage from cold weather is destructive to plant and skin cells alike.
Every fall and spring, many tender and deciduous plants experience this damage. But even winter annuals can show signs of frost damage throughout the season. Pansies are notorious for this. As the internal temperature in various tissues of the plant become cold enough to break cell walls or spoil cell components, damage, wilting, and death may occur.
Healthy plants will usually survive short periods of extreme low temperatures. The best way to prevent and treat frost-damaged winter annuals is to mulch sufficiently and water regularly. It’s easy to forget to water winter annuals; but for most of the country winter months are the driest. Remember that even when the plant isn’t actively growing, the roots are still developing.