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How does winter help the garden?

winter loaded screen

I love winter. I love snow. However, I must add two caveats to my initial statements – I love winter and snow as long as I am warm and I can stay at home. It’s when my feet get cold or my car is fishtailing trying to turn a corner that winter weather goes from fun to miserable.

When you turn on the news, radio, or talk with your neighbor people are getting rather irritated with winter. With all this complaining about our cold snowy weather, is there any benefit to winter when it comes to our yards and gardens?

One major item to look at is the evolution of plants. Many of our native cold-weather plants evolved to be adapted to the cold temperatures. For instance, many of our native wildflowers produce seeds that must go through a period of freezing temperatures to germinate in the spring.

The freezing temperatures also give our soils a period of rest. This can help to conserve organic matter and improve soil health. Herbaceous plants that die back to the ground and return their carbon to the soil in the form of dead plant matter, perpetuates a cycle that is why Illinois has some of the best soil in the world.

Snow is incredibly useful as an insulator. While it may be negative five degrees Fahrenheit outside, snow’s insulating effects preventing excessively frigid temperatures from reaching deep into the soil which may damage tree and shrub roots. The snow tucks away our prized spring bulbs, garlic, or strawberries under a protective layer. Illinois is notorious for going from 60 degrees to 20 degrees in a day. These massive fluctuations in temperature can be damaging to plants and crops like strawberries and cause the freeze-thaw effect on our soils making them expand and contract. The snow buffers those swings in temperature.

Snow also helps conserve soil moisture in the winter. This past fall of 2020 in Central Illinois was exceptionally dry. Snow will melt eventually and provide soil moisture, but an even bigger advantage is covering the ground and holding the existing moisture in place. That way by the time spring comes around our soils should be ready for planting.

Many of our crops grow very well in Illinois. Corn is a massive economy in Illinois due partly to our winters. Wheat is another example of a crop that does well in our seasonal climate. Garden plants like tomatoes benefit from winter. Even though the tomato can’t survive the cold, so too is the same with many pests that plague this crop. This is the case with many garden and landscape plants. Cold helps to suppress the bad disease and insects.

What is winter without snow? Snow can be a design feature for a yard. Snow highlights plant shapes, interesting trunk structure, and it makes any red berries or stems seem to burn with color in the stark winter landscapes. Evergreens pop out as a primary feature or focal point in the yard. The stately remains of ornamental grasses and flower stems stand adorned with snow.

There are of course some negative aspects to winter. Just trying to navigate in winter weather is dangerous. And gardeners do worry about plants that get overburdened with snow and ice. Another problem is the critters that can use the snow as cover such as voles. Or the fact that food becomes scarce in winter and animals like rabbits or deer may look to your newly planted tree as sustenance.

Yet, as much as I hate to admit it, having a break from the garden is good for us too. After all, you don’t know what you have until you lose it. Fortunately, all is not lost with winter. Spring will come again and the garden, fresh from its winter slumber, will be ready for us.

Edit: After writing this article I shoveled the heavier than expected six inches of snow off the drive. I may need to add another caveat to my statement in the opening paragraph. My back is not a big fan of snow right now. Where’s the pain reliever?

Good Growing Tip of the Week: Heavy snow and ice loads on branches should be left alone as they could be at their literal breaking point. If you feel you must do something push up on the branches.


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