Before you bemoan the dumping we received last weekend – how much there was to clear, how deep it was – consider some of the benefits to your garden snow provides. Put your puzzler on and consider the possible paradigm shift. Lots of snow is a good thing; it has some real pluses for your garden.
The two worst wintery conditions, from a plant standpoint, are either wet, mild winters or really cold and dry winters with little snow cover. They might be more comfortable from a human standpoint (and that depends on who you ask anyways), but they can cause real havoc with some plants. Plants like lavender, native to the Mediterranean, are used to mild winters, but need soil that drains. In a warmer than usual, wet winter, the soil can be thawed on the surface but still frozen several inches down. Add a little moisture from winter rains and the water does not drain, it sits at the surface looking around wondering what to do next. Lavender roots do not like to sit in water, and so they rot out. I have lost more plants like lavender to mild winters than to bitterly cold ones. The other option, cold/dry winters, is equally nasty. Cold, dry winds can desiccate a woody stem or bud faster than anything causing winter burn, sun scald or dieback.
So, what is so great about big, snowy winters? Easy. Snow provides a nice layer of protection for the roots and adventitious buds close to the root flare. “Reasonably” cold winters (we are talking average range of zero to 32 degrees) with fairly continuous snow cover is about ideal for much of the garden, and especially for newly fall-planted material. Frozen ground prevents roots from being ripped from their mineral home by frost heave or wind-rocking, and it offers zero opportunity for rot. In addition to protecting buds, snow cover also insulates the crowns of herbaceous perennials, where new growth shall emerge come spring. If the upper stems of a shrub suffer winter damage, even severe dieback, protected buds can bust forth and grow a whole new branch structure if needed. This is why I encourage people to hold off pruning “tender” shrubs like Buddleja until spring. If you cut back shrubs which tend to die back each year, such as Caryopteris, in the fall, you are dropping your odds on the number of live buds surviving the winter. You have less new growth with which to work. The same is true for some roses. Good thick snow cover ups the odds for a successful spring. So, next time you look outside and wonder what good all this snow is, think about it from your garden’s perspective.