The Calm Below the Storm

This winter’s epic storms lavished near-record amounts of snow on a vast swathe of the American landscape. At my farm here in Bucks County, PA, five feet of snow have fallen since Thanksgiving, leaving the ground covered with a snowy mantle several feet deep.

Increasingly I hear friends and colleagues complain of “snow fatigue.” They want to see this vast snowy carpet rolled up once and for all—and a speedy ending to this prolonged winter’s tale. While I’m tempted to suggest they regard the great American Snow Pile-up from the overwintering plant’s point of view, I fear the answer would be a cannonade of hard-packed snowballs.

Veteran gardeners know a lush snow cover promises a bountiful garden season ahead. The current feet-deep snow blanket on the ground is a godsend for wintering plants: the thicker the covering and the longer the duration the better. Paradoxically, the same weather gyrations that dump all this snow provide the needed “security blanket” to protect overwintering plants and the soil from zigzagging temperatures and climate effects.

A few feet of snow provides an “igloo effect” that insulates the plants’ earthly home, shielding vulnerable root systems from potentially destructive temperature jumps. The frost heaves caused by winter’s “bipolar” temperature swings that lay waste to asphalt roads can devastate fragile soil. Left unprotected, plants’ root systems—subterranean habitat under siege, tissues torn and exposed to frigid air and desiccating wind—are doomed.

Deep snow cover actually helps warm “hibernating” plants. In winter, dormant plants, though asleep, are still in a minimal growth phase. A thick snow mantle warms the soil, plants’ root crowns and, in some species, the upper root system. Under the snow covering, the soil can be 25 degrees warmer than the air temperature. Without this snow security blanket, very low temperatures cause plants to suspend growth activity and utilize the stored energy in plant tissue to keep warm.

Sunlight boosts the thick snow’s warming effect, helping the soil retain the daytime temperatures into night. Snow helps conduct light to the soil it covers so plentifully. Under the thick snow layer, plants’ root systems engage in photosynthesis, powered by the sunlight, distributed evenly as if by an advanced lighting system. Nurtured in the light and relative warmth of snow’s cold greenhouse, plants will emerge earlier, grow lusher, and taller.

Finally, our winter’s thick snow cover creates a finely calibrated “drip system” that keeps plant roots underground optimally watered, even in frigid conditions. The warmest snow, drawing heat from below as well as above, nourishes the dormant plants. And come warmer weather—it will come, it will come!—the resulting snow melt will help keep water tables well-supplied, the better to slake the thirst of plants and trees.

Adopting the plant’s point of view cures “snow-blindness,” and opens our eyes to snowfall’s role as the white stuff with right stuff: an invaluable source of protection, warmth, light and moisture for plants. The snow may be white, but its rewards are green.

This entry was posted on Thursday, February 27th, 2014 at 11:38 am and is filed under Original Posts. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed.
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11 Responses to “The Calm Below the Storm”

  1. Anne Hanne said:

    I look forward to your wonderful essays! I learn a lot and laugh often. Thank you!

  2. Chris said:

    Thank you! Knowing my garden is renewing itself under the sweet cover of snow, just made this winter all the more bearable.

  3. pat said:

    Counting my blessings!

  4. Gail said:

    I think I like this article better then any other I’ve read. Thank you!

  5. dianedigsplants said:

    George, your explanation of why “snow is the white stuff with the right stuff” coaxed a smile from me today! Thank you! I’ll share this with friends! Be safe out there!

  6. Grams said:

    Well, that makes me feel better while I wait out the
    predicted next storm, Titan.

  7. Mary Walczyk said:

    Thank you so much for your lovely article. It is soothing to think the roots are getting some water. Everyone does seem to want this time of year to end, but I am not among that number. Each day is important, and your Easter bonnet shall be worn soon enough!

  8. Elaine said:

    That is some comfort as we await yet another snowstorm!
    Thanks.

  9. Patrice said:

    Thank you for such a lovely description of how all this snow is good for our gardens!
    However, I always thought the whiteness of snow would reflect the sunlight AWAY, just as icebergs do. But you say the snow helps draw the sunlight to the soil. Can you explain this a little further.
    Also, I’ll add that I’m OK with all the white stuff….as long as we don’t lose our power. I had houseplants that got frostbite last storm…..not to mention us humans and our pets!

  10. Steve Fowler said:

    Great article and I totally agree about the insulating properties of a good snow cover. However, now that the snow has disappeared from some parts of the gardens, i can see the shallow ‘tunnels from voles snaking their way through the gardens. I have spread fresh coffee grounds over the trails as a deterrent to the voles. The small amount of nitrogen in the grounds as they break down will be a good benefit to the plants later this spring. The grounds spread over the snow also focused the sun’s rays into melting portions much more quickly.

  11. Doris Martin said:

    Here in DRY, DRY New Mexico we can only dream of a lovely thick blanket of snow.

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