Dealing with, and appreciating, garden snow

Snow piled up in Jessica Damiano's garden in

Snow piled up in Jessica Damiano's garden in February. (Credit: Jessica Damiano)

Like many Long Islanders who weren't fortunate enough to take a tropical vacation this winter, I haven't seen a growing plant outdoors since autumn. And I can't remember the last time I actually saw soil. Last month, the mountain of snow inside the 4-foot fence that surrounds my front garden was so high my dog could nearly walk over it.

My inbox tells me many of you are wondering what damaging effects all this snow will have on our plants come spring. The answer may surprise you.

Just as igloos kept the indigenous peoples of Siberia, Canada, Greenland and Alaska warm enough to survive harsh winters a century ago, the mountain of snow in your yard insulated your plants' roots this winter. All that snow blanketing your beds and borders actually protected them from frigid temperatures and minimized heat loss from the soil. It also virtually eliminated heaving, the process by which bulbs, roots and crowns are pushed up from the ground and damaged by winter's constant freeze-thaw cycles.

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And as the snow melts, it waters your plants. This is especially beneficial for evergreen shrubs and trees, which require water year round, and for shrubbery planted under eaves, where they often are blocked from rainfall.

What's more, the numerous Arctic blasts that caused extremely cold temperatures likely killed off many garden pests -- the hibernating ones as well as the ones that migrated south for the winter, as the frigid temperatures extended quite a bit south. In particular, the invasive brown marmorated stinkbug, which I told you about last fall, lost 95 percent of its population to subfreezing temperatures this winter, according to a Virginia Tech research study reported by National Geographic. We also could see fewer soil-borne diseases come summer.

For those concerned about downsides, yes, there are a few: The harsh winter may delay planting early crops like peas and spinach; wait until soil is workable. And cover seedlings with newspaper, sheets or towels if overnight frost threatens (uncover in the morning).

When the ground is frozen solid, it may be impossible for the roots of evergreens to take in moisture from the soil. And a disadvantage of deep and continued snow cover is the refuge it provides for rodents, who tend to snack on nearby tree bark and plant parts. In addition, the weight of snow and ice on tree branches can cause them to break. Be sure to prune away any split or cracked branches, lest they rip off with the next wind gust and cause damage to property or people, as well as further injury to the tree.

Evergreens, especially Arborvitaes, are susceptible to buckling under heavy snow and ice, and some may never recover. Last year, the dozen Leyland cypresses that line my property all bent, some to ground level. It took a 15-foot wooden support left on each tree from late winter through fall to straighten them out. To help avoid this, be sure to gently knock off snow with a long-handled broom immediately after -- and sometimes during -- every storm. Miss just one, as I did, and there may be consequences.

While I'm confessing, I will mention that I also neglected to cover my fig tree in November. I'm hoping the snow took care of that for me.