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Urban Gardener: Snow is Good for Gardens

Saturday, January 25, 2014

 

Polar vortex, wind chill factors, deep layers of snow, long periods of cold, and lots of ice are all on gardener’s minds but not heavy on their hearts. We know our urban plots will thrive despite winter’s rigor. Let’s take an honest look at our planting plots, our shared needs and the multitude of benefits a hardy winter gives our gardens.

Snow covers the garden and moderates soil temperatures. Surprisingly, soil has natural warmth which our ancestors exploited for cool moderate storage of potatoes, apples, pears, oysters and many other root crops in cellars. Many cellars did not have paved floors until well into the 20th century to take advantage of this natural warmth.

Mulch is a primary ingredient of soil building. Perhaps the single most important horticultural practice, mulching is best known for its contribution to the biomass incorporated in the fascinating mixture of minerals and rocks we call soil. Soil is alive with communities, of micro-organisms, so called lower life forms of insects, small mammals, reptiles and rodents.

This complex web is mistakenly reduced to chemical formulae when a more accurate description is one of multifaceted relationships over time.

Snow has many of the same qualities of a good mulch. Snow prevents harsh dry winds from desiccating foliage and bare soils. Snow buffers the soil from rapid changes in temperature. A good mulch also protects the soil from a destructive cycle of freeze and thaw and snow will do the same. Some freezing and thawing is natural. However, the more we can slow this process the better off for gardeners. A freeze thaw cycle has the potential to tear away the delicate root hairs measured in cells that are the capillaries extracting nutrients from the soil. Plants must restore lost root hairs lost to swelling and contraction natural to the transition of water from liquid to solid ice. Ice expands and heaves soil, we’ve all seen soils full of ice crystals that lift up and away from the surrounding land.

Bulbs and perennials can suffer from freezing and thawing. Lifted up from deeper levels many bulbs are exposed to sunlight or harsh temperatures. Cover crocus if you see them pushed up by frost. Otherwise, the constant movement damages the plant structures and assists the mortal enemies of gardeners: squirrels, mice and moles.
Snow moreover is a complex mixture. No snow crystal is alike yet all have the same attributes. Snow crystals and ice form around very small particles. Dust from the Sahara has been found across the Atlantic basin. Volcanic eruptions spew elements from deep within the planet far into the sky. Precipitation washes these tiny but numerous particles from the atmosphere onto our soils. A fascinating study indeed, this process is essential for soil health under the best of circumstances and a barometer of soil health. By products of combustion, petrochemicals for example and industrial activity are now present globally.

Snow is also an aesthetic. Sculptured forms capture the essence of wind. The lovely purity of snow is innocent. Here is a form that appears passive yet like so much in the garden we gaze upon a moment in time. Snow captures water and as it melts slowly trickles into the soil. Much is dissolved besides water; essential minerals such as salt precipitates in North America at the rate of 1.2 pounds per acre a year. The complex chemistry of soil and the agriculture it supports whether on vast wheat fields or sections of community gardens is essential to life.

Gardeners prosper while snow covers our gardens. Do not fear! While the snow gently coddles bulbs, mulched root crops are safe. Carrots, turnips, leeks and other vegetables and herbs such as parsley winter over just fine. Why bring these bulky items into the cellar when they will survive just fine in the garden plot?
What is a gardener to do? First, find a comfortable place to settle in and finally: read those garden catalogs! I know of no other activity as peaceful as the winds blow hard from the NE and the house shoulders its burden of shelter from the storm. Now is the best time to peruse old fashioned catalogs. Yes, January still yields a fine crop of printed catalogs for all ranks of gardeners. Prefer online? Sure, go ahead. I commiserate however. For me, the kitchen table rules. I never tire of over-sized hibiscus blooms juxtaposed to children’s heads. Nor do I pass up the chance for a big slice of pie to go with my lists of plants to grow, varieties to try, newly discovered heirlooms, to explore the great GMO debate, the latest gadgets and garden gizmos.

Polar vortex? I have no fear, the garden is safe under its snowy blanket and all is right in the garden and gardeners too. There is goodness in the world. 

(Photo: Leonard Moorehead)

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.

 

Related Slideshow: 14 New England Snow Tubing Spots

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1000 Main Street, Shrewsbury, MA. (508) 842-6346.

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Yawgoo

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160 Yawgoo Valley Road, Exeter, RI. (401) 294-3802.

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Nashoba Valley

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Ski Butternut

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Amesbury Sports Park

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12 S Hunt Road, Amesbury, MA. (978) 388-5788.

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Bousquet Mountain

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Grafton Ponds

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