Open winter brings problems

By Tom Seymour | Dec 31, 2020
Photo by: Tom Seymour Bare ground in January comes at a cost.

While it is impossible to predict what the remaining months of winter will bring, if the current trend of bare ground, followed by snow and then bare ground again, continues, gardeners may face a number of unusual problems.

First and foremost is desiccation, or drying out of shrubs and perennial plants. Snow serves as a protective cover, even during the severest of winters. But without snow, plants are exposed to the drying effects of already-dry, winter winds. This can lead to the death of the plant.

The longer we go without snow, the more severe the damage to our shrubs and plants. We gardeners and homeowners are most concerned with our cultivated plants, but desiccation also affects wild plants.

For instance, ground juniper, a prickly, fruit-bearing ground cover, can experience severe winterkill during a barren winter. Other wild plants also face problems. We can’t do much about the wild plants, but we can work to save our domestic ones.

Since snow acts as a mulch, we can attempt to duplicate its protective effects by artificial means. Dry leaves or fir boughs stand as two popular mulches for winter use. Some gardeners routinely mulch their plants, and they know that it is important not to mulch until the ground is thoroughly frozen. This prevents heaving when unexpected thaws arrive.

Once the ground is frozen, mulch will keep it frozen, even during warm spells. As an example of this, once in early May I attempted to dig post holes for a cedar post fence.

But the ground was frozen. Small leaves already appeared on deciduous trees, and yet the ground remained frozen. That was because the place where I tried to dig was where I cut several cords of four-foot firewood to stove length the previous fall. The accumulating sawdust acted as a mulch and only after I raked away the sawdust did the ground begin to thaw.

While tempting, I don’t recommend using sawdust around plants, since it is difficult to clean up and the ground beneath it won’t thaw until it is removed. Most other organic mulches are fine.

Smaller shrubs can benefit from a “cocoon being placed around them. This can be made of poultry fencing. Make the fencing loose and then fill it with leaves or boughs.

Alternately, project-minded gardeners can make wooden “teepees” to go over shrubs. These use door hinges to fold and unfold and make storage easy. Whichever way you go, the main object is to protect plants from damaging, life-sucking, winter winds.

Many perennial plants die back in winter, but the living crown, or head of the root system, remains alive. To protect perennials, we need to place mulch around the base of the plant. This can be in the form of already-mentioned mulches and barring that, newspapers, held down with rocks, bricks or bits of wood, while unsightly, will suffice.

Drought factor

Here’s another negative aspect of an open winter. Snow absorbs rain, with the exception of torrential rains, such as was seen over Christmas. Without snow, rain runs over the frozen ground and into rivers and streams.

Nature has established a balance of rain and snow, so that given the proper amount, droughts are kept at bay. The nature of precipitation, whether rain or snow, matters little, given it can seep into the ground, where it belongs. But with frozen ground and no snow cover, moisture cannot penetrate the soil surface and does not go toward filling the aquifers as it should.

Barren ground, with no snow, tends to freeze hard and deep. It works the other way, too. Some winters when snow arrives early and remains all season, the ground only freezes a few inches on top. This gives way to an early garden season, such soil being quick to thaw.

But the deeper the frost, the more damage it can do. Shrubs, both cultivated and wild, suffer greatly under such conditions. Sometimes, water lines freeze and burst, causing untold problems, all thanks to a lack of snow.

Currently, our soil remains frozen, at least for inland sections of Midcoast Maine. The longer we go without snow, the deeper the frost travels. A thick coating of snow will stop the frost in its tracks. It’s not too late, so we should hope snow arrives soon.

In its defense, bare ground in winter offers a break from ice and snow. People can go out hiking, perhaps even golfing. As I sit typing this, I can look out at the field across the road. It looks like it did last fall, with green grass in abundance.

We can do nothing about the weather, except hope that things will turn out for the better. Good luck.

Tom Seymour of Frankfort is a homeowner, gardener, forager, naturalist, Registered Maine Guide, amateur astronomer, magazine and newspaper columnist and book author.

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