Gardening: Dealing with the early snow and cold temperatures

By Nancy Szerlag
Special to The Detroit News

A record-setting early November snowstorm followed by frigid single-digit temperatures caught everyone by surprise, but especially gardeners and homeowners.  Those who put off final lawn and garden cleanup until mid-November may have to wait until spring to get the entire job done as forecasters say Michigan may be in for a cold and snowy winter.

The deep snow that blanketed Michigan was actually a blessing, as it protected many of the plants, trees and shrubs from the bitter cold that followed the storm. The snow insulated the soil that hadn’t frozen so early in the season, thus protecting plant roots from the early season subzero temps.

So, what to do now? First, don’t panic.  If you have newly planted trees or shrubs, it’s not too late to mulch them with 3 to 4 inches of shredded bark, which will provide further protection should we lose our snow cover. However, keep the mulch 6 inches from the trunk of the tree to prevent cover for bark-chewing critters. 

Apple trees still carrying fruit are buried under snow Tueday, No. 12, 2019 during a heavy snow squall in Williamsburg, MI (Special to the Detroit News/John L. Russell)

During a heavy snowstorm, removal of snow buildup on evergreens will help prevent limb damage, but it must be done carefully as rough beating and shaking of frozen branches can cause splitting and cracking. A broom used in a gentle upward motion is effective. Begin from the bottom and work upward to prevent additional buildup of snow. Ice covered trees and shrubs should be left to Mother Nature to care for.

Now, what to do about garden beds that missed the fall cleanup? It’s not the end of the world. In fact, the environmental movements to protect pollinators, butterflies, bees and birds now recommend leaving gardens intact over the winter as leaves and stalks harbor eggs of beneficials and seed heads that provide food for winter birds. Stems left intact also protect plants from crown rot due to excessive moisture buildup.   Exceptions would be diseased leaves, which should be removed as soon as they appear. 

If you did some late season planting and didn’t mulch, repeated freezing and thawing of exposed ground during the winter months causes soil to expand and contract, which can tear up roots and heave those new plantings out of the ground.  A 3-inch layer of mulch will prevent this heaving by maintaining more constant soil temperatures.  You don’t have to do it tomorrow. Twenty minutes spent in the garden on a sunny winter’s day here and there will not only get the job done, it will lift your spirits.  

Nancy Szerlag is a master gardener and Metro Detroit freelance writer. Her column appears Fridays in Homestyle. To ask her a question go to and click on Ask Nancy. You can also read her previous columns at detroitnewscom/homestyle.