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An Open Winter?

January 11, 2012

Winter garden without snow cover (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) In Maine, people are beginning to wonder if winter 2012 will be an “open winter.” This is a phrase that is used to describe winters with higher than average temperatures and without reliable snow cover. I haven’t been able to find a clear explanation of what the adjective “open” refers to in this description. I think of the woods being open, passable throughout the winter in the absence of deep snow. Others note that it is bodies of water that are open in such winters, when rivers, lakes and ponds never fully freeze.

This didn’t start out looking like an open winter. An early snow in October was followed by more than a foot of snow the day before Thanksgiving. Typically, once we have a significant snowfall in November or December, we have snow on the ground until spring. This year, however, the late November snow was followed by weeks of unseasonably warm weather in which the snow all melted. By the time I got back to Maine for Christmas, the ground was bare. The weather since has alternated between warm, wet periods (rain) and cold, dry periods. Although we have had a little light snow, there is still a lot of bare ground showing.

Those from more temperate climates may assume that an open winter would be a welcome event; and I have certainly heard some people expressing pleasure in our recent warm temperatures and absence of snow. But this is by no means a universal response. Maine’s winter economy – attracting tourists for downhill and cross-country skiing, snowmobiling, and ice fishing – depends on snow and cold, making the current weather pattern worrisome. I’ve noticed that local television meteorologists have begun to apologize for their warm and snowless forecasts.

But open winters are not just bad for the local economy; they’re also bad for the garden. To understand why, you have to understand the protective role of snow. Snow is a wonderful insulator. We often describe the ground as “blanketed” in snow; a better analogy might be that snow is like a down comforter or duvet – light and fluffy with lots of air pockets that trap heat. Good snow cover protects plants from killing cold and from freeze and thaw cycles that can damage plants and even heave them out of the ground.

Serenity garden without snow cover, January 2012 (photo credit: Jean Potuchek) My garden is on the border of USDA hardiness zones 4b and 5a. We often get overnight low temperatures in winter that are in the zone 4 range (-20F to –25F), but because snow cover insulates plants from those cold temperatures, I grow many perennial plants that are rated hardy only to zone 5. Open winters are likely to be winters with plant losses. This year I’m particularly worried about the newly planted serenity garden. Those plants had only a few months to put down roots and get settled before winter arrived, and they are probably particularly susceptible to both cold and frost heaves. On the other hand, this area seems to be a relatively warm microclimate (the snow always melts in this part of the garden first); time will tell.

Is this year’s open winter is a consequence of global warming, the Arctic Oscillation, or a combination of the two? It’s hard to know. If open winters are going to be more common here, however, I will have to reconsider my fall garden regimen. Up until now, I have simply put away hoses and garden supports in the fall and left winter protection to mother nature. In the future, I may find myself looking to garden bloggers from somewhat further south locations without reliable winter snow cover for advice about other ways to protect plants from the hardships of winter.

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23 Comments leave one →
  1. January 12, 2012 9:30 am

    Jean, Winter across the northeast has been very warm and I hope, for the local economies, snow finally arrives. In southern CT we haven’t seen snow since the pre-Halloween nor’easter dumped on us. Being in zone 6a, my plants should do okay without snowcover. In fact, though I love snow in winter, I’m happy to not have the temperature-moderating blanket of white covering my gardens for a while. Last winter’s snow cover created monstrous vole problems and tree, shrub and perennial loss from winter feeding of underground and under-snowcover roots. The resulting enormous vole population continued to destroy countless perennials all spring, summer and autumn. I hope the lack of snowcover so far this winter will result in a decline in the vole population.

    As far as winter mulch, I allow leaves to collect on perennial beds then, after a good hard freeze, I stack evergreen boughs on the most tender or newly planted perennials. This might work for your serenity garden. The boughs help prevent frost heaving. From what I see in your photos, your serentiy garden already has a good layer of pine needles. These are also very good mulch but an extra layer of boughs might ease your mind.

    • January 15, 2012 5:45 pm

      Joene, Thanks for the suggestions, and for noting that the pine needles that have already fallen on this bed are providing a layer of protection. I also have about 2″ of compost mulch underneath those that I put down after I planted this bed in August. For now, I decided that I was probably okay, but I’ll keep the evergreen boughs in mind for the future — another resource that I have lots of!
      I had never thought about the fact that winter snow provides protection for small animals that we may not necessarily want to protect as well as for plants.

  2. January 12, 2012 2:35 pm

    In Vermont the garden plants that were most prone to winter kill were the ones right up against the south side of the house. I had thought the warmth from the house would protect them, but instead it melted all the snow so that they lost their insulating cover. The evergreen boughs sound like a good idea. My recommendation (…) is for you either to do a lot of back-breaking work shifting pine needles around to cover the beds or to go buy a lot of expensive mulch. Guaranteed to snow hard the next day.

    • January 15, 2012 5:47 pm

      Stacy, I didn’t even have to do all the work to bring on snow; I just had to start thinking about it. Within 24 hours after I posted this, we got some snow — not a lot of snow, about 5″, but enough to provide some cover in the garden.

  3. January 12, 2012 3:51 pm

    Hello Jean.

    An inexpensive and available solution during the winter season is straw. I use in my 5b Michigan garden as a winter dressing for my new plantings; it may be just the thing for your serenity garden, too.

    • January 15, 2012 5:50 pm

      Debra, Another great suggestion; thanks. Although, given how plentiful evergreen seedlings and needles are on my property, they’re probably going to be easiest for me. After I posted this, I saw a post by Leslie Land (of Three Thousand Mile Garden fame) in which she described her use of evergreen boughs for plant protection. Her Maine garden is on the coast and gets less reliable snow cover than we get inland, so it’s probably a good model for me.

  4. January 12, 2012 6:25 pm

    Oh I do hope your Serenity Garden makes it through the open Winter. It seems there are some differences in usual conditions all across your country. Over here we’re having a very dry ‘wet’ season this Summer. It was only two years ago I was complaining about the very wet ‘dry’ season!! I think change and fluctuation is all part of the cycle throughout the world’s history. Of course, as you rightly noted, the fluctuations in conditions mean we have to re-think what we need to do out in our gardens.

    • January 15, 2012 7:24 pm

      Bernie, Since I posted this, we’ve gotten some snow, which helps. I don’t worry about losing the whole garden, just individual plants. It is true that weather cycles are always changing, and that’s particularly true in this part of the world, where weather patterns have always been a bit unpredictable. (Mark Twain famously said about New England weather, “If you don’t like it, just wait a few minutes.”) It’s figuring out which are temporary cyclical variations and which are more permanent changes that we must adapt to that i struggle with. I hope you get some rain for your wet season.

  5. January 12, 2012 7:41 pm

    I’m outside of DC and there are already plants in the Nat’l Arboretum that are trying to bloom. I explained to my students that if the plants bloom before the bugs that depend on them arrive, it disrupts the natural cycle. Plus, they want snow days! (So do I!) I’ve heard Feb is going to make up for how warm Jan has been, but who knows? I hope your snow arrives. :o)

  6. Lula (onbotanicalphotography.blogspot.com) permalink
    January 13, 2012 12:24 pm

    Jean, in Europe it has also been a very mild end of fall and beginning of winter. Trees lost leaves very late, It is completely different than last year. I understand your concern for your serenity garden, so let’s just do the “snow dance” and hope it works!

    • January 15, 2012 7:26 pm

      Casa Mariposa and Lula, This does seem to be a strangely mild winter in many places. But, at least for now, we have some snow (and cold to go with it!).

  7. January 13, 2012 3:31 pm

    When we lived in Switzerland they battled with lack of snow for winter sports, unless the tourists went up near the glaciers (and they too are melting back). That was when Switzerland invented snow cannons, spraying the ski slopes overnight. Difficult times for all of us. We have had a weird autumnal day with heavy grey cloud, but just a drop of rain.

    • January 15, 2012 7:28 pm

      Diana, That snowmaking technology made its way to this side of the Atlantic, too, and all the downhill ski areas use it. The capacity to make snow is much less common in cross-country ski areas, and non-existent on snowmobile trails.

  8. January 14, 2012 10:06 am

    Jean, I’ve been thinking a lot about this issue recently as well. Much like you our snow this year has been patchy at best. I used to lay down evergreen branches in fall in my last garden to protect plants that weren’t as hardy and have been thinking that I should have done that this year in my garden. There’s a number of new plants that went in ground this year that I’m rather worried I won’t see come spring.

  9. January 14, 2012 11:13 am

    I thought we would be having an “open winter” until yesterday’s snow storm (that followed the ice storm). Here, too, I worry about plant loss if there is not any snow cover. Here, too, many people depend on snow to earn a living. Well, we have snow now. Maybe it will come your way.

    • January 15, 2012 7:32 pm

      Kathy, We did get the snow here, so I hope it sticks around. I noticed that the plow guy managed to come 3 times for this 5″ of snow — twice to plow and once to sand; so I guess he’s trying to make some money while he can.

      Marguerite, Did you get snow out of this storm last week? I didn’t track what happened to it once it left here. Of course, if some of our new plants don’t come back in spring, it will be hard to tell whether they succumbed to the cold or just didn’t want to grow where we put them. I guess it doesn’t matter, because in either case I’d be likely to plant the same thing again and see what happens. (Who was it that said, “I don’t regard a plant as not hardy here until I have killed it three times.”?)

  10. January 14, 2012 11:30 am

    Here, our rare snows usually occur in February or March. I agree that the best thing for your Serenity Garden is an additional layer of mulch, and then sit back and wait for winter to dump three feet of snow on it!

  11. January 14, 2012 3:24 pm

    We have had more than half of days in the high 60s to high 70s through December and January. For us, its not a big deal, plantwise, and I am taking guilty pleasure… but at the same time the forsythia and lady banks roses are already awake. The return of the migrating birds on their way back North is already happening too… I feel like a month early?? I have been thinking about global warming today a lot actually, and was wondering if Charleston was going to be more like South Florida in my lifetime.. that is if the sealevel doesn’t swamp us first?

    • January 15, 2012 7:35 pm

      Deb, The snow came before I got a chance to do anything about mulch, so I’m just hoping there will be more on top of that and the snow cover will last till spring.

      Jess, I think I saw a prediction of climate change somewhere (but now I can’t find it) which forecast that in 50 years, Pennsylvania will have the conditions that Georgia has now and New England will have the conditions that Pennsylvania has now. Only time will tell whether this strangely mild winter is a taste of those changes.

  12. January 14, 2012 3:43 pm

    Jean, I am firmly in the snow camp for the plants and for myself. After the warm weather I described in my GBBD post and all the hellebores blooming, it’s going into the teens tonight and tomorrow night. I will just have to note how everything does. I can see pine needles all around your serenity garden in your photo. It would be very easy to just rake them on top of the garden. That’s what I would do.

  13. gardeningasylum permalink
    January 15, 2012 2:15 pm

    While I see how snow helps with heaving and hydration, I have to second Joene on the vole issue – winters like the last one in CT allowed rodents to feast and the plant loss was enormous. Hope Serenity reigns in your own garden, Jean 🙂

    • January 15, 2012 7:37 pm

      Carolyn, Thanks for the easy suggestion about the pine needles. It’s too late now because it snowed (thankfully) before the cold got here; but I’ll keep it in mind for the future.

      Cyndy, I’ve never had an issue with voles here. I gather that they prefer more open areas, so the heavy woods may make this less than ideal habitat for them. I’m glad they’re one rodent scourge I don’t have to deal with.

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