Snow, Glorious Snow!

From the dumping we received to make it a very White Christmas, to the recent snowfall this past week, it’s been a great season for snow so far! And while anyone who lives in the West understands the necessity and importance of a good solid snow pack for the coming season’s water needs, there are other benefits for gardeners as well.

The first thing that snow provides is insulation for your plants, and it’s an excellent insulator. While that sounds a little odd- how could something be insulated when it’s buried in the frozen stuff?- it works particularly well. Without it, our subzero night time temperatures will work to freeze the ground more deeply which can damage the root systems of trees, shrubs, and perennials. Along this line, it will also serve to even out the temperatures when our daytime highs and nighttime lows swing too much and protects plants from the freeze/thaw cycles that can literally heave them out of the ground.

A good snow pack helps to not only ensure a good supply of water for next season, but also works to preserve moisture that is already in the soil. When we have mild winters, or springs that are especially windy, a good deal of moisture is lost simply through evaporation. Snow cover will help conserve what is already there.

Called the “poor man’s fertilizer,” snow works in an interesting way. As it falls through the atmosphere, nitrogen and sulfur are picked up and attach to the flakes. When it melts in the spring, these element are released into the soil and will be used by your plant. Remember N-P-K? Nitrogen is the N in that formula and is essential to good plant growth.

It’s been said that roses flower better after a hard winter and that apples and pears set more fruit. I don’t know if that’s true or not, but we will certainly have the opportunity to test it this year! The snow cover is great for those bulbs you planted last fall too. The cold temperature provides the cooling period they need to bloom well come spring, and the slow melt will help to water them.

But as much as I love snow, it’s not all good. Heavy, wet snow like we had during our last storm can weigh down branches and snap them quickly. Go out and gently shake the snow off when we have a storm like that. Even though it’s lovely to look at, it can be harmful, or even deadly, for your trees, shrubs, and perennials. Watch out for ice as well. Daily freezing and thawing, especially if they are under a roof edge where the water runs off the warm roof but then freezes once it hits the tree or shrub if the air temperatures aren’t above freezing can cause excessive ice build up and break the branches. If a branch splits or is broken off, prune it back to give it clean cut and minimize the amount of tissue exposed for the rest of the winter.

While snow is great for us for many reasons, moles, voles, mice and other critters will use it as a cover for their tunneling activities. Rabbits, deer and others will be looking for more easily available food sources, so may be more likely to graze in your yard. Since the snow is deep in some areas, it’s easier for them to reach previously unreachable branches too.

There are some visual landscaping effects that I particularly enjoy during a snow winter. The contrast of a red twig dogwood against the white landscape. Ornamental grasses like Pampas Grass that have been left for the winter. Take a look around your yard!

But my most favorite “picture” in my wintry landscape is the abundance of birds that are at my feeders. We have a huge juniper next to our house and several hundred birds have found their home there. Situated on the south side of the house next to a stucco wall, it’s warm during the day and protected at night. We’ve hung two feeders in a weeping cherry tree in the garden about ten feet away and it’s fun to watch the variety of birds that congregate there each day. I can hear them singing right outside my home office window as I am writing this. So my final tip for the winter snow is to use birdseed as anti-skid material instead of salt. Using salt can damage your garden when it melts and runs off in the spring. Birdseed is not only safer, but your bird friends will thank you as well!

Be safe, enjoy the snow, and remember that January is a time to dream of warmer gardening days to come!