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A blanket of snow protects garden plants from extreme winter temperatures

Bob Dluzen
The Detroit News

While watching the snow come down during our last snowfall, I was thinking how helpful it was for our gardens.

I was also reminded of a conversion I had many years ago with a beginning gardener who was concerned about snow making her garden too cold. 

From inside a warm home, snow looks cold and in her mind that meant snow was freezing her garden. I pointed out to her that snow is a garden’s best friend. 

Snow acts as a blanket, insulating soil against cold air temperatures. The ground has residual heat that can be quickly lost during cold winter days causing frozen soil. During some winters, the ground may be frozen many feet down.

“Open winter” is what farmers and others concerned about lack of snow cover call a snowless winter. 

I remember such an open winter when we lived in northern Michigan. That year there was very little snow, we received only a light dusting whenever it did snow. 

The farm we lived on had a barn with a water line going out to it to provide water for cattle. That water line froze underground even though it was over 6 feet deep. A bonfire was lit over the surface of the soil in order to thaw out the underground pipe. Now, that was a cold winter.

While cold soil temperatures can wreak havoc, it is the problem of freezing and thawing that is most likely to do damage to gardens in our part of the state.

When soil alternatively freezes and thaws during the winter, the resulting ice and liquid water pressures can literally push, or “heave”, some plants up from the soil causing severe root damage, sometimes even killing plants in the process. 

The blanketing effect of a deep enough layer of snow pretty much eliminates freezing and thawing cycles, effectively protecting plants from heaving. 

We had a good example of extreme temperature fluctuation this past couple of weeks. Before our last snow storm we had relatively mild temperatures with rain. That was followed by snow and temperatures going down to single digit degrees at night. 

Three days after the snow and frigid temperatures, I dug down through the snow and found liquid water on the surface of the soil. It was a real-time example of snow keeping the ground warm. 

Digging down through the snow, the surface of my garden was still not frozen even though air temperatures ranged from the teens during the day to near zero at night.

Farmers who plant wheat and other winter grains depend on winter snow cover to protect their crops. 

Winter wheat is planted in the fall and left to overwinter as young plants. During an open winter many acres of wheat can be winter-killed by icy winds that not only chill the soil but will desiccate young wheat plants. 

Just a few inches of snow can make all the difference. Often, on rolling fields, snow at the top of the higher spots is blown away leaving bare soil exposed, those areas are the ones most prone to plant damage during open winters.

Like anything else, too much of a good thing can be harmful, and snow is no exception. Heavy, wet snow can accumulate on woody plants like trees and shrubs and break branches, but that is a relatively rare event in our area.

While we’re halfway through winter and see snow everywhere we look, eventually the snow will melt and spring will be here.