The snow's here — for now; make mulch your backup plan

GardeningJeff LowenfelsNovember 13, 2013 

My longtime readers know what happens when I write about the weather. It turns. If it is nice, it gets bad and if it is bad, it gets worse. If it's dry, it rains and if it rains, it rains more.

Oh well. I figured it was late enough into what we used to call "winter" around here, and with about five minutes of daylight lost every day, what further damage could I do? Besides, there are some times when you just have to talk about the weather, even if you are jinxed.

So, I sent in this week's column and it was all about no snow. Guess what? I am writing a new one now.

After all, it is big deal for gardeners and yardeners right now, or at least it was up to this Monday, to lack snow halfway into November. The experienced Alaska gardener knows that terrible and expensive things happen when we go through prolonged snow-free periods like this one.

My big concern is that our perennials are being impacted. They either start growing when they should be dormant or, as it seemed to be the case this fall, they didn't go dormant when they were supposed to stop growing. Because most of the what's in our gardens are not usually native plants, there is no predicting what will happen. One can guess, however, and it isn't pretty.

In addition, when we don't have a decent snow cover there is less decay of those clippings you left on the lawn, as well as this fall's mulched-up leaves. It's hard to believe that there is a tiny zone just at the soil level and just underneath the blanket of snow where there is a lot of microbial activity all winter long. This is good stuff, breaking up organic matter and converting it into plant available food.

Granted, our unusual lack of snow is over. But if we have a thaw in the weather and no more snow for a while, there is still a way to help the situation. Mulch is definitely the answer. Those leaves you should have collected make a great substitute for a foot of snow. If you have them, even if you were saving them for next spring, now might be the time to spread them over your perennials, even with the little snow we just had

If you have a particularly valuable and vulnerable collection, you might consider buying weed-free straw to spread over your plants. Make sure it hasn't been treated with chemicals, however. Some folks actually put old blankets, sheets of plastic, painter tarps and other similar coverings. Just make sure to remove them on a timely basis and they should do some good. And don't for get to cover those spring flowering bulbs as well as your perennials.

And, now that it has snowed, you might want to treat the event as if we won't have another one for the rest of this winter. Shovel it off lawns and onto perennial beds and around shrubs. Make it deep enough that it will act as an insulation blanket for as long as possible. How deep? At least 12 inches (which means it better snow some more). That way you will at least stabilize the temperatures around your plants for as long as the snow lasts.

As for trees, they can suffer too, but generally are much hardier because we use more natives. Still, it's always a good idea to place a six- to 12-inch layer of leaves as mulch around the base of trees and out to at least the dripline. Make sure to leave a small area mulch free around the tree so the microbes in the mulch don't end up decaying the tree bark.

The one upside of winter without snow covering the ground is that you won't find many voles running around in your lawn They are too scared of predators being able to see them. If you have not placed aluminum foil around the bottom foot of newish trees and shrubs to prevent vole gnawing once snow does come, by all means do so. It is a cheap and easy way to save young stock for which you probably paid good money.

Jeff Lowenfels' bestselling books are available at and

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