Near-record snowfall might delay gardening season

Sheila Toomey

At the Master Gardeners' Rondy table last weekend, among the peat and pots at Alaska Mill and Feed, up and down aisles of yard tools in hardware stores all over town, the joke is the same: "Looks like it'll be July before we get out in the garden this year. Ha ha ha."

Don't believe the laugh. It masks desperation. With a near-record snowfall, with 35 inches on the ground and more snow in the forecast, gardeners are becoming seriously concerned about our short season starting even later than usual.

Traditionally, our outdoor planting season begins Memorial Day weekend or, for the daring or reckless, May 15.

Experts at the National Weather Service are reluctant to predict when the ground will be soft and dry enough for us to dig. There are just too many variables.

However, they have lots of numbers for us to obsess over while trying to figure it out for ourselves.

• In the two years (1954-56) with the all-time largest Anchorage snowfalls, the springs "were really cool," said forecaster Christian Cassell.

Spring temperatures are partly determined by the amount of sun vs. cloudiness, of course. But they're depressed by ground snow that hangs around into spring, reflecting the sun's heat back into the air instead of letting it do its melting-warming thing in our yards.

From 1997 through 2011, ground snow at the NWS offices (just south of the airport) melted to zero as early as March 31 (2003: total snowfall 36.8 inches), and as late as April 27 (2002: total snowfall 84.4 inches).

In 1954-55, the winter of the record 132.6-inch snowfall we're closing in on, the snow didn't melt away until May 7.

"If we have a very cool April, it could be delayed two or three weeks," said NWS meteorologist John Papineau. Currently, the NWS Climate Prediction Center is calling for "an above normal probability for cooler than normal temperatures during the March-April-May period."

• What about all the water this snow is going to dump on the ground when it finally does melt? Garden guru Jeff Lowenfels warns us every year about messing around in the dirt while it's still wet. Once more, there are a lot of variables. According to the NWS, 35 inches of snow melts into 6-feet, 7-inches of water. The actual amount of water on or in the ground depends on how much sunshine we have. With sun, lots of that water evaporates, said Cassell.

A fast melt is hard on drivers and storm drains, but gardeners should probably hope for it, the experts say.

The worst possibility is a prolonged melt-and-refreeze scenario. The mixed signals really mess up perennials trying to figure out when to stick up their heads.

• Perhaps the most important factor in getting started with your garden is how deeply the earth is frozen when winter ends and we float into spring, said Papineau. Anchorage Master Gardener Mel Monsen, who works at the Alaska Botanical Garden, agrees.

Monsen said he thinks the earth is less frozen than usual. We had an early November snow and no big thaw, so the ground has been well insulated through the lowest winter temperatures. If the ground thaws quickly, all that snowmelt will vanish into the soil faster.

Monson said he thinks this year's deep snow insulation mitigates in favor of workable soil and a normal planting date, "maybe even a little early." He predicts he'll be putting his onions out on April 20 and the rest of his garden during the last two weeks of May.

Timing is everything

DO IT NOW: Have you started repotting and watering your overwintered tubers and bulbs -- praying they survived? Bagged dahlia and begonia tubers-bulbs are available in stores around town. Master gardener Jane Baldwin said she usually picks up asiatic lily bulbs about now, pots them up in half-gallon milk cartons, and buries them in the snow next to her house where they will appear with spring, whatever its timing is this year.

Daily News correspondent