Snow

MARION OWEN photo

How does snow affect plants? For the most part, snow is a good thing. As a gardener though, it’s helpful to be “snow aware.”

My apologies. Little did I know that last week’s column, which began with, “Since winter is tippy-toeing ever closer with each passing day,” that I might have been responsible for the recent dump of fluffy white stuff.

 Nonetheless, the question on many people’s minds might be, “What does this mean for my plants?”

 There is a saying, “A good winter with snow makes all the plants grow.” 

But snow can also cause trouble. Let’s dig into the good, bad and ugly of snow and what we can do about it.

 

Insulates from cold

 Did you know that temperatures under a layer of snow are usually warmer than the outside air? All thanks to the structure of snowflakes. Inside each crystal are hundreds of tiny air pockets encased in ice. Even larger air pockets form when snowflakes heap together on the ground. The result is a fluffy, down quilt that insulates the ground.

 Without snow, prolonged periods of cold can spell trouble. Roots are unable to take up water, which means plants can die from dehydration.

 

Bring in the light

 Snow’s whiteness reflects a certain amount of sunlight. But much of the light penetrates the snow. Which means plants can continue photosynthesis (even in low light) through the winter.

 

Fertilizer from the sky

 Something magic happens when it snows. As snowflakes tumble downward, sulfur and nitrogen compounds cling to the crystals. Then, when the snow melts, these elements release into the soil where plants absorb them. 

Eases freeze-thawdamage

Freeze-thaw periods can be deadly to plants. They cause water in the soil to expand and contract. Roots break, daffodil bulbs turn to mush, even launching out of the soil. A blanket of snow saves the day by softening the blows of extreme temperature swings.

 

Doubles as a windbreaker

Snow not only insulates plants from sub-zero temps, it shelters them from fierce winds. Nature’s windbreaker. Icy gales suck moisture from leaves, stems and roots. 

 

Blankets containers

Planters create miniature gardens to grow flowers, herbs and veggies. Fortunately, pots and containers shrouded with snow are less apt to crack and split. Bottom line: More plants and shrubs survive ’til spring.

 

Drip, drip, drip

Plants need moisture. Rain, fog, hail, snow, sprinkler. Compared to rain, snow has a gentle touch. It’s true. When snow thaws, it gently provides moisture. At the same time, snow improves soil tilth, or texture. And to some degree, so does freezing and thawing. Much like the burrowing action of earthworms, bacteria, and fungi.

 

The perfect bird feeder

Brown seeds stand out against the white of snow for birds and small animals to find.

 

God bless dirty snow!

Ever noticed how snow turns to slush faster where the road grader created snow berms? That’s because when snow becomes dirty it absorbs more sunlight, heats, and melts. 

 

God bless white snow!

Winters in Kodiak are dark. Our shortest day is 6.5 hours. I can hardly wait for the first snowfall! It brightens everything, creating peace and stillness, which lifts everyone’s mood. Especially Dan, who runs the local tire shop.

 In Japan, snow is revered. Stone lanterns called Yukimi become snow-viewing accents. And snowflakes that adorn branches are called Sekka, or snow flowers.

 Harm caused by snow

You’ve seen trees and shrubs damaged by heavy snowfalls, right? A thick layer of snow can also block sunlight, which prevents snow warming from below and can delay the emergence of bulbs and perennials in spring.

Which brings us to problem-solving and how to prevent damage from snow. Here are a few tips...

 

A weighty problem

Snow might be a great insulator, but too much of a good thing can break branches and trunks. Clear snow from greenhouses and sheds. I’ve watched with dismay as a slab of snow slid down my greenhouse roof and crushed a favorite rhododendron.

 

Choose plants wisely

Can I grow bananas in Alaska? In my dreams. It’s tempting to grow exotic plants in cold climates. But in the long run, such gambles are a waste of time, money and energy. Better to select hardy plants that are suitable for your micro-climate. Tip: Golden and variegated plants are often more tender.

 

Branches to the rescue!

Each fall, I place spruce branches over perennial plants: Blue poppies, daffodil bulbs, bleeding hearts, and underneath rhododendrons and currant bushes. These giant, evergreen “hands” provide the ideal layer of protection. Especially during snow-free winters. Ideal because they allow life-giving light, air, and moisture to circulate. Cool climate gardening 101.  

To wrap it up, snow brightens dark landscapes and provides winter protection for plants. It also offers a break from garden chores. Time for tea and reflection. One last thing: If you didn’t gather up your dead broccoli stalks, no worries. With snow, your neighbors will never know!

By the way, did you know that a snowflake traveling from the upper atmosphere to the ground is a 20-minute journey?

 

Got winter gardening tips? Would you like to sign up for my Garden Shed newsletter? Send me an email to mygarden@alaska.net.

 

 

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