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Snow Is Our Garden's Friend

Life on Itzy Bitzy FarmBack in North Carolina with 4 inches of snow overnight, so thought I would share this blog I wrote last winter while living in the Northeast.

Being a gardener in Massachusetts can be, well, a test of patience for one thing. Having a growing season of only 158 days brings out the creativity, resourcefulness and yes, Good ‘Ole Yankee Ingenuity! SNOW. It is a fact when you live here. Ah, but ever the optimist, as anyone who lives and gardens in Massachusetts has to be, I look for the good in snow.

For one, snow provides insulation that prevents soil temperatures from constantly fluctuating between freezing and thawing. The reason this matters is because these changes cause the water in the soil, and thus the entire mass, to expand and contract. Roots can be damaged, even tossed out of the soil. The same goes for all those fall-planted bulbs.

In addition to preventing frost heave by keeping temperatures below freezing, the snow prevents plants from starting at the wrong time. By the same token, most plants won’t start up in the spring unless they have had exposure to a certain number of days of cold. Snow cover during a prolonged warm spell is a gardener’s dream.

In this regard, it actually can pay great dividends if you pile snow on your garden beds. This is especially so if you are one of those stubborn readers who refuses to apply an insulating cover of mulch over perennials and around trees and shrubs. Remember, we have had winters where we have not had a good snow cover and the frost went down so deep we have had to worry about our pipes, not to mention our plants.

There is something else that happens when it snows: nitrogen is deposited by the snow and absorbed either into the soil food web residing and active at low temperatures or by plants as a result of nitrogen fixation, a microbial activity which, astonishingly enough, can take place even at low temperatures. Even when the soil is frozen, its eventual thaw can result in the absorption of nitrogen.

winter beds

Well, it turns out not only snow, but rain as well, contains nitrogen compounds that were suspended in air as they formed. It is estimated that 2 to 12 pounds of nitrogen are deposited per acre as a result of snow and rain.

No wonder the old wives’ tales called snow “the poor farmer’s fertilizer.”

The first time I was told this about snow and rain, I found it hard to believe. So I decided to experiment. I had two beds of spinach growing that I wanted to carry over through winter to spring. So one of the beds I turned into a hoop house, the other I mulched with fall leaves and let nature do its thing. After a snow and thaw I noticed the spinach in the hoop house was sort of light pale green and tired looking. But, the spinach under the leaves, when I brushed them back was dark green and making new leaves in the center of the plants. To me it was evident that the nitrogen was adding to the plants' health and robust appearance.

Spinach in the snow

So, the snow may be a bother and those long cold days of winter seem to drag on forever. But, remember snow is a gardener's friend and natural fertilizer.