The first big snow is ‘poor farmer’s fertilizer’ and a great soil insulator

Thankfully, the first big snow dump this year was light enough to be moved with a battery-operated leaf blower or swept away with a mere kitchen broom. No back strains or heart attacks! It was so light in weight that there was no need to knock it off trees and shrubs. Just a bit more moisture in it and we would’ve had less accumulation but much shrub and branch damage. This is why it is important for yardeners to keep a long pole ready to knock heavy snow off plants.

I have mentioned before that snowflakes are known as the poor farmer’s fertilizer. They collect nitrogen after they are formed and as they fall. This is then released as the flakes melt. I am not sure this fact makes large accumulations like we just had any more of a desirable commodity, but it might let you appreciate it just a little bit.

It also turns out that most snowflakes are formed around a nucleus that in most cases is a bacterium, Pseudomonas syringae. This can infect plants during the summer — lilacs, tomatoes and more — but is fortunately kept in check by other members of the soil food web. They can also change the freezing point of water.

This particular snowfall had some really easy-to-see snowflakes. We might not be able to grow flowers outside this time of year, but these flakes are every bit as beautiful. Yardeners might want to spend more time observing them.

Due to the way hydrogen and oxygen bond, all snowflakes have six sides. (Sometimes snowflakes melt as they fall and form powders, which, of course, don’t have six sides.) It is not true that each flake is unique, though the chances or finding a duplicate are apparently not great. I could only find one such report. I also found a report that the largest flake ever recorded was a whopping 15 inches across. This is hard to imagine, especially when you add that it was 8 inches thick. Were it really true, you would think there would not only be pictures, but the event would be duplicated and reported again.

My Kodiak buddy Marion Owen takes some amazing photos of Alaska flakes, and so can you. It is getting easier to use your cellphone, many of which have macro photography capabilities. Either take pictures of flakes from inside, after they stick to the outside of a window, or use dark colored cloth for background and use a piece of glass and capture and photograph flakes outdoors. You can skip the glass and just use a bit of dark cloth.

What really counts for yardeners, however, is not the fertilizer value or the bacteria-formed flakes. Snow acts as insulation, particularly if it is full of trapped air. In fact, 95% of the volume of that light snow we got last week was air. This makes a snow cover act like the down in puffer jacket. As a result, snow insulates the ground and the plants it covers like a blanket. Your newly planted spring-flowering bulbs and your perennials can continue to grow roots that will remain thawed until it really gets cold.

And just as important, at some point the ground does freeze. Again, acting as insulation, enough snow will keep things frozen during the many freeze and thaw cycles we experience. This prevents things from starting too early and from being heaved out of the soil.

If we has received just a little snow last weekend, I would be suggesting you pile it on those bulbs and beds to keep the soil they are planted in warm. Even so, you may want to pile more on bulbs and beds just in case we don’t get much more this winter — fat chance!

Finally, it might be a good idea to use some snow to hold markers such as tomato stakes to indicate where plants are and people shouldn’t be.

Jeff’s Alaska Gardening Calendar

Holidays light display: Alaska Botanical Garden, Sunday, Nov. 28, to Saturday, Jan. 29. Tickets can be purchased at

Chrysanthemums and poinsettias: These are short-day flowering plants. Keep yours in natural light when not on display.

Houseplants: You are part of their soil food web. Your job is to continually inspect them for problems. Check for thrips, scale, mealy bugs, necrotic leaves and the like.