Snow can help – or harm – the garden

A thick blanket of snow can be good for the garden, or it can cause harm.

By , The Associated Press

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    If temperatures are going to be cold, we might as well have snow covering the garden.
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If temperatures are going to be cold, we might as well have snow.

You might think that snow has nothing to do with gardening — that once a white blanket drops over the landscape, all garden activity and thoughts of gardening cease.

Not so: Your gardening activity might cease, my gardening activity might cease, but some things still go on garden-wise.

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Snowy benefits
Snow is a terrific insulator, and the ground never freezes during winters when snow falls early and deep, and stays. Plant stems go dormant in fall, not to awaken until spring, but roots grow whenever temperatures are not too cold, which may be the case under snow even in the dead of winter.

Earthworms and soil microbes also keep at work as long as the soil doesn't get too cold. And a snowy blanket makes it easy to dig carrots, leeks, parsnips stored right where they grew.

Snow also keeps perennials and newly planted trees firmly anchored in the ground. Insulated soil stays reliably cool or cold; bare soil, in contrast, experiences wider swings in temperatures and the periodic freezing and thawing heaves poorly rooted plants up and out of the ground.

Winter winds can dry out the evergreen leaves of perennials such as coral bells and dianthus. Once dormant and nestled beneath a few inches or more of snow, these plants are kept quiet and moist.

Snowy mischief
Snow does bring some mischief. Lettuce tolerates temperatures below freezing just fine, but its leaves turn to mush when covered by that same moist blanket appreciated by coral bells and dianthus.

Snow also exacerbates problems with animals. With less on which to nibble at ground level, deer turn their attention to fat buds on apple trees and crisp leaves on rhododendrons. Mice become free to scoot about within a snowy realm, protected from the searching, hungry eyes of hawks and cats, and the nose of my dog. Given free rein, rodents will gnaw at young bark, even chomp on those tender carrots awaiting harvest from soft ground.

A thick blanket of snow gives rabbits a leg up to reach branches they could not previously reach. Once a foot and a half of snow falls, rabbits can chomp away on young stems that were over 2 feet off the ground in summer.

Snow does bring one more potential problem – with evergreens.These plants have a hard enough time drawing water from frozen soil. That trouble is compounded when sunlight reflected off snow sucks even more moisture from leaves.

The best way to avoid this problem is by not planting evergreens, especially broadleaf ones, where a broad expanse of open land to the south can bounce reflected sunlight on them. And mulch them well with wood chips or straw before the ground freezes so that it does not do so deeply (or hope for a deep, insulating blanket of snow).

Beautiful snow
Mice, rabbits, deer, and desiccating evergreens notwithstanding, isn't a snowy winter landscape nice to look at? Take a hodgepodge of plants, paths, and lawn and sitting areas, throw a snowy blanket down over everything, and what's left is a harmony in white.

Snow does drain what little color might be left in the winter landscape, yet more than mere whiteness remains. Line and form then dominate. Patterns are created by dark lines of fencing and tree limbs, and by billowing mounds of dense twigs.

Each fresh snowfall lends yet another dimension as snowflakes pile up on every horizontal surface. Upper sides of tree limbs become painted in craggy swathes of white. Straight, white swathes line fence rails, and each fence post gets capped with a dot of white. Whatever evergreen greenery remains is all the more appreciated.

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