Thursday, February 27, 2014

Will This Winter EVER end? The Effect of Snow and Ice on Plants and Trees

Great Lakes Frozen Solid
Stunning NASA photos of Michigan show a frozen solid mitten.  A whopping eighty eight percent of the Great Lakes are ice covered as of February.  Ontario's deep waters and slightly southerly location have kept it flowing. Only a trickle of Lake Michigan remains.  In between, the state's icy white tundra resembles the Arctic Circle.  Penguins could happily belly flop down my driveway.

The Great Polar Vortex of 2014 (and now 2017).  What effect will this inverted Tasmanian devil of a weather phenomenon have on midwest plants and trees? 

This peninsula's not so pleasant this winter. 

Polar Vortex 2017
It's normally not tough to think up winter garden topics, but this frigid year it's hard to recall what the ground  actually looks like.  Heck, I can't even identify my patio table.   Winter interest?  The snow shovel's the only thing poking out of the yard, and there's NO interest there. 

The good news is that the thick snow cover will mostly negate any damage to most plants.  That stuff we've been shoveling will save most of the garden in the end. Deep snow insulates and protects the soil beneath and its plant contents. So pile it on.   Had this protracted cold snap taken place without the layers of snow, many tender plants would not have survived.

The problem's not with the heavy snow, but the extended cold.  Areas along Lake Michigan that supported more tender plant survival due to the abundance of lake effect snow are not seeing the insulating snowfall as the frozen lake simply doesn't give up the needed moisture.  It also doesn't evaporate, which bodes well for water levels in warmer times.

For native plants, consistent cold temperatures are good news.  It's the cycle of "freeze and thaw" that forces roots to the surface. Although warmth would be welcome, an interim thaw would only endanger the root systems of localized plants and shrubs. The deeper than usual frost line should cause no harm to plants that normally thrive in Michigan's zones.
Trees do not benefit from the warming blanket of snow, but their size, and the moist summer and fall
months will protect most mature arbors from permanent damage.  Of concern are newly planted saplings and trees introduced based upon the promise of warmer winters.  Lulled into a sense of false tropics, suppliers began to introduce trees and plants that did not consistently survive in our zones. The Eastern White Pine has adapted well to survival in Michigan, but past episodes of protracted near and below zero temperatures caused  some of the crop to fail.

Expect some white pine casualties in 2014.   This harsh winter may prove to be too much for my gentle green giant. 

Otherwise, once the snow thaws, look for lakes filled to the brim with stunning and sculptural ice flows, rushing rivers, and lush gardens. 

The beauty of summer and spring is only exacerbated by the brutality of winter.  This winter is not unique.  There have been others with colder temps or more precipitation--but not many. 

Motown had its snowiest January in recorded history.  Whether the cause is global warming, greenhouse gases, or simply the vagrancies of nature, this too shall pass. What will emerge will be spectacular. 

In the interim, curl up with those seed catalogues and enjoy the break. 


Shrubbery Flubbery -- How to Clear Shrubs of Snow and Ice

Winter Porch Pots -- Greenery Containers

Hey! Look What Survived the Winter In My Garden