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Snow in the Garden

February 3, 2010

Fence border under snow (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) Last week, we had unseasonably warm temperatures and heavy rain here in Maine. One night, I checked the deck thermometer at 3:00 a.m. to find that it read 45F; this is 40-50 degrees higher than our typical overnight lows in January! Throughout this “January thaw,” I kept an anxious eye on the snow pack in my garden. While gardeners in more temperate climates may worry about how a freak snowstorm will harm their plants, cold climate gardeners worry about how the absence of snow might harm theirs.

I’m not denying that snow and (especially) ice can create problems in the garden. During the great ice storm of January 1998, when Maine and Quebec experienced several days of freezing rain followed by frigid temperatures, tree damage was enormous. During the long, dark (powerless) nights, the booming sound of cracking, breaking and splitting trees was like cannon fire. Almost all trees lost limbs, and many large, venerable old trees simply split apart under the weight of all that ice.  Even a more ordinary winter event, heavy snow and ice avalanching off roofs, can do serious damage to shrubs planted below.

But in this part of the world, snow is primarily a beneficent presence in the garden. Here, as in other snowy regions, farmers sometimes refer to snow as “white manure,” presumably because it locks up moisture during the dormant season and then releases it into the soil in spring to nurture new growth. Even more importantly, snow is a great insulator. For perennials that have died back to the ground in fall and whose roots stay alive beneath the ground to produce new growth in spring, the insulating qualities of snow are a boon. An insulating blanket of snow helps to maintain a steady temperature and prevent the frost/thaw cycles that can heave plants out of the ground. And the steady temperature that snow helps to maintain is considerably warmer than the coldest ambient air temperatures. Thus a plant that is rated hardy to –15F or –20F can easily survive nights of –25F or lower if it is under several feet of snow.

March 2008 snowpack (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) I have learned that years of heavy snow will be good years in the spring and summer garden. Two years ago, when we had snow early and often and the snow pack in my garden at the beginning of March was almost 5’ deep, I found parsley (not normally a plant that winters over here) alive and happily putting up new growth when the snow melted in April. It is in winters with little snow, especially if they also have extremely cold  temperatures, that I can expect to mourn my garden losses in spring.

When our brief thaw ended last week, I was happy to see that, although there was some bare ground showing around trees and along the foundation of the house, most my garden was still covered by at least 6 inches of snow. As so often happens in late January, the balmy temperatures of the thaw were followed immediately by strong winds and biting cold. Even a relatively thin blanket of snow can help to protect my plants from these temperature extremes. I’m hoping that the rest of the winter will bring more beneficial snow, with its promise of a beautiful, bountiful spring, to my garden.

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22 Comments leave one →
  1. February 3, 2010 8:59 am

    Jean, the year my mum died, some friends gave me some bulbs to plant in the garden in her memory. We were not able to get up to Kilbourne Grove until after Christmas, and I worried that the bulbs would not be able to get planted. I went to the Kitchen Garden and pulled back that fluffy white duvet(of 2 feet) to find the soil very soft. We had snow early that year, and the soil hadn’t froze under it yet. That was when I learned the value of snow!

    • Jean permalink*
      February 3, 2010 8:55 pm

      Deborah, This is such a poignant story. It is my experience, too, that in years when we get a fairly thick cover of snow before the ground freezes, the ground doesn’t freeze all that much beneath the snow (which is how I think I ended up with parsley in spring 2008).

  2. February 3, 2010 8:59 am

    Dear Jean, I do love your cheery spring ‘header’ picture.

    This whole posting has fascinated me. Of course, one understands that snow can also insulate, but one tends only to appreciate this from an English perspective. What amazes me, even though I am used to the cold and snowy winters of Hungary, is the amount of snow combined with sub zero temperatures that you experience.

    I am sure, that when spring does arrive with you, your garden will be wonderful. I shall look forward to it.

  3. February 3, 2010 10:41 am

    I remember that ice storm of 1998. The Canadian army got called to go help out the people of Quebec because it was a national emergency. I guess I didn’t think about it affecting surrounding states as well…it was crazy!

  4. February 3, 2010 10:43 am

    I learned the value of snow last year, when we had very little and my garden suffered some plant losses, and poor blooming of some borderline hardy shrubs. Still, it’s hard to imagine colurful growth is ready and waiting under all of the white. Lovely perspective. 🙂

  5. February 3, 2010 10:52 am

    I pray for snow each winter, not only to keep the ski industry vibrant but also to insulate my flowerbeds. Because more snow falls on Montreal, Quebec than anywhere in the Canadian Arctic, winter has always been a silent helper in my garden.
    Your post on snow as an insulator is a gem.

  6. February 3, 2010 10:56 am

    Hi Jean! Great post!! Here in the north we do so need a protective covering of snow. I also love the beauty of a white landscape, as the gray everywhere can be a bit boring. I love watching it falling and just now we have a light dusting on all the trees. Ice on the other hand I think of as more deadly. We had so much damage last year… birches simply bent over and broke. Sad to see. It can be quite dangerous with trees near houses… I have very old large ones … last year a huge limb fell just next to the house! Gee I do hope we do not have 5 feet of the white stuff come April!! (Actually we do not have much snow at all just now.) By the end of March, I should love to see it all go, but I recall many May snow showers! ;>)

  7. February 3, 2010 10:59 am

    I also meant to say your descriptions of the sounds going on outdoors during an ice storm are so aptly written! The sounds are so frightening and we wonder what might hit the house!! Your words… “cannon fire” are perfect!!

  8. February 3, 2010 4:26 pm

    Yes Jean – I am hoping that our thick blanket of snow last month protected alot of the roots of my plants too as we had the coldest temps for over 100 years here.

  9. February 3, 2010 6:00 pm

    It’s interesting to read about your snow and how it’s actually a good thing. Here little bits of snow is fairly common (except this year) but nowhere near the amounts you get. I often worry the snow will damage the plants instead of thinking of it as the insulator that it is. I hope your snow keeps protecting your garden so you get a beautiful Spring show from your garden.

  10. February 3, 2010 10:09 pm

    I had no idea snow worked in this way up North. What a fascinating and educational (for me, anyway) post! Sending you wishes for lots more snow, so that your summer garden is rich and fertile…

  11. February 3, 2010 10:50 pm

    This is a good point, Jean. In my neck of the woods, it typically doesn’t get all that cold but when it does, there are undoubtedly plant casualties because there is none of that “white manure” to help out.

    Beautiful photos.

    • Jean permalink*
      February 4, 2010 11:46 am

      Edith, I like snow (I think a lot of people who live in northern New England choose to live here because we consider winter a wonderful season), but it does get old sometime around March, and having an image of what the garden will look like in high summer is very helpful then!

      Rebecca, Allan, and Carol, We cold climate gardeners are all on the same page here about the usefulness of snow.
      Rebecca, your mention of the damage to flowering shrubs in snowless winters reminded me of one year when I was in southern Pennsylvania where the region got a lot of snow (several feet!) and severe cold. When spring came, all the forsythias in town were full of bright yellow flowers up to the snow line and were just brown sticks above that.
      Allan, here too snow is a critical part of the winter economy. Ski resorts and hundreds of miles of snowmobile trails are all important winter tourist draws and many of my neighbors keep their families going in winter through income generated by plowing snow.
      Carol, Yes, ice storms are a whole other matter. I still have two big limbs of a white pine that broke off in 1998, got hung up about 20 feet up in the branches of the eastern hemlock growing next to it, and are still dangling there 12 years later. I suppose some day they’ll come down, but it hasn’t happened yet.

      Kyna, Yes this is the self-same ice storm. In both Maine and Quebec, just about everyone lost electrical power. For those of us in rural areas who get water from private wells (with electric pumps), that meant no running water; and people with oil and gas heat quickly learned that their furnaces had electric starters and didn’t function without electricity. Maine had crews from as far away as South Carolina up here trying to rebuild the electrical grid in 20F temperatures. Maine got power back to just about everyone in about two weeks, but I heard news stories of families in rural Quebec who were still driving around from place to place in their cars trying to keep warm a month after the storm because they still didn’t have any heat or electrical power at home.

      Rosie, It’s probably good that your record cold winter was also accompanied by record snowfall. I hope that the snow does protect your plants. If your plants can usually survive freezing temps, they may be okay under the snow.

      Catherine and Meredith, I’m happy to give you a new way to think about snow. I think a lot of the snow that falls in warmer climates does tend to be heavy wet stuff with a lot of ice mixed in, and that’s more likely to do damage to plants that are above ground. Here, a lot of our snow falls when temps are in the teens or twenties (or even colder) and it is wonderful light fluffy stuff (what Deborah aptly described as a duvet).

      Grace, it probably is the case that your occasional cold snaps would do less damage if plants had some covering. Do people there mulch tender plants or cover them with evergreen boughs when cold is forecast? (I don’t bother with that kind of protection because I assume I’ll have snow to do the job.)

  12. February 4, 2010 2:48 pm

    Hello Jean,

    I knew that snow insulates the garden, but it is hard to believe for this desert dweller. I would guess that gardening in Maine would be somewhat easier then in the midwest where there is not a layer of snow continually. I am glad you garden is still well insulated so we can enjoy it’s beauty later this year.

    • Jean permalink*
      February 4, 2010 4:46 pm

      Noelle, I spent the first half of my life living in southern New England (Massachusetts, Rhode Island, and Connecticut at various times) and always within 30 miles or so of the coast. There, periods of snow cover alternated with periods when the snow had melted. When I moved to Maine 30 years ago, I discovered a different reality: once the first significant snowfall of the year happened (usually in November or December), there would be snow cover continuously until spring. I do think that this continuous snow cover makes gardening a bit easier. I think it also explains why I usually have no trouble growing zone 5 plants even though I often have zone 4 low temperatures.

  13. February 4, 2010 10:53 pm

    Wow, if your temps were 45 at night that would have been the same as here in 8b! We had 13 straight days of below freezing temps in Jan (we usually average 1 a year), which for here definitely spells dead stuff to mourn this spring. Thank you ever so much for making me a ‘blog of the month’. I do appreciate your support and will be posting frequently so I earn the spot!

  14. February 5, 2010 5:34 am

    Great blog about the snow effect. Here in Brittany we have had a big snowfall for our area at 45cm+ (18 inches) and so many trees and branches are down from the weight of the snow. Everyday I can hear chainsaws as the landowners try to clear up the debris. My echium pininana which are not frost hardy, I cover with fleece at the end of their first year, so they make it into the second flowering year, but the snow has, I think, completely wrecked them. I have yet to get echiums through a winter here, but I will keep trying because their such beautiful plants.

    • Jean permalink*
      February 5, 2010 3:45 pm

      Jess and Brittany Girl, Thanks for visiting.
      Jess, the 45F overnight temp here was very, very unusual — and just plain weird. The daytime highs weren’t much higher than that, though. It’s kind of a relief to be back to normal, although we haven’t had anywhere near the amount of snow that the mid-Atlantic states have been getting.
      Brittany Girl, Sorry to hear about your unusual snow storm, especially since it was the heavy, wet kind of snow that can do so much damage to trees and shrubs. And, of course, a blanket of snow — no matter how insulating — will do nothing to protect plants that are not frost hardy. Dealing with loss seems to be part of the experience of gardening.

  15. February 5, 2010 7:19 am

    I agree, it is that reliable snow cover that allows us to push our zone. You also took me back to memories of an ice storm that occurred while I was living in Washington state. We were two weeks without power, and such devastation to the trees. It was so sad to see. One of the few candles I had was scented with grapefruit. I do not believe I will be able to tolerate anything that smells of grapefruit ever again, after 2 weeks of it. 🙂 Being fairly new to New England, I was not aware that high winds and bitter cold often follow our January Thaw, though this was certainly the case this year. Stay warm!!

    • Jean permalink*
      February 5, 2010 3:49 pm

      Liisa, Oh gosh, I don’t want to even think about two weeks without power. Mine was out for 10 days here in 1998, and I started to lose it about day 5. It made me realize why people in the 19th century did not live alone and why anybody who even aspired to being middle class had servants. I reached the point of melting down stubs of candles and reforming them around pieces of string for wick to make new candles. Since then, I keep a much larger supply of candles in the house at all times!

  16. deborahelliott permalink
    February 5, 2010 7:17 pm

    Thanks for your perspective on snow. The snow photo is beautiful. Of course we hardly get any snow at all, so for us it’s mainly an excuse to shut down schools and have a holiday! I think my thin southern blood might have a difficult time with your winters.

    • Jean permalink*
      February 5, 2010 7:38 pm

      Deb, I think Maine winters are easiest for those human furnaces like me who are almost never cold but who start to wilt when the temperature gets up to 80F. The other part of it, though, is that people dress differently. As I write this (in my coolish 65F house), I have on multiple layers of silk, wool and fleece. You would laugh at what passes for summer here; if it gets up to 90F three days in a row, it is an official “heat wave” and front page news! It only needs to get up to 85F or so for people to start complaining about the heat.

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