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Winter in the garden

02/20/03 12:00AM By Henry Homeyer
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(Host) Commentator Henry Homeyer says that appearances in the garden this time of year an be deceiving - even under two feet of snow, there's a lot going on.

(Homeyer) It was 14 degrees outside. The wind was blowing, and it was spitting snow as yet another winter storm moved in on us. But I was in the garden, digging in the dirt. No, I'm not crazy, I just wanted to see what all this snow has done for us.

Everyone says that snow is a great insulator, so I thought I'd see what that really means. The snow was 29 inches deep in my garden that day. I dug down - no mean feat while wearing snowshoes - and was delighted to discover that only the top half inch of soil was frozen. I had brought along my soil thermometer, a metal probe with a round dial that looks like an over sized meat thermometer. Two inches down the soil temperature was 35 degrees. A foot down it was 42. So don't worry about your tender perennial plants. They haven't been bothered by these subzero nights.

Beneath the snow early spring bulbs are waking up. Some, like snowdrops, are probably already poking their little green noses up, curious to see if spring is on the way. Most years I have snowdrops blooming by early March, but this year they'll be buried by snow until April, perhaps. Oh well.

In the soil - beneath that tranquil white blanket - bacteria and fungi are breaking down the leaves and compost I added to the soil last fall. This winter the process hasn't stopped, only slowed down a bit.

If you need to worry about your plants, and many gardeners do, worry about your fruit trees and your blooming shrubs. Fruit trees that have not been protected with wire screen around their lower trunks may suffer more rodent damage this winter. The snow provides cover for voles, those little rascals that eat the bark of fruit trees, so hawks and owls have fewer chances to swoop down and snatch them up.

Tender trees and shrubs, things like mountain laurels, magnolias and old fashioned forsythias will probably suffer some damage this winter. Extreme cold and north winds can kill flower buds, so this spring, expect fewer blooms in windy sites. Of course flower buds on lower branches, those beneath the snow, will survive nicely.

Last summer we had a drought, so the winter's snow is a blessing. The fact that soil has not really frozen is good, too. As the snow melts water should percolate through the soil, replenishing aquifers and reaching the deepest roots of our trees.

So if you're getting tired of winter, just keep in mind that beneath the snow your soil is busy. Roots are growing and little critters are working in the soil. And before you know it, we'll be working in the garden, too.

This is the gardening guy, Henry Homeyer, in Cornish Flat, N.H.

Henry Homeyer is an author, columnist and the Vermont Associate Editor of People, Places and Plants magazine.
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