I know it is the middle of winter, but I am predicting a better than average growing season next summer. I don’t normally go out on a limb like this, but I will this week. Believe it or not, air pollution is the reason for my optimism.
Well, actually, it is the combination of all the snow that has been dumped on us and the exhaust from our cars and trucks. It turns out the white fluffy stuff is full of nitrogen and sulfur amongst other elements. These are important plant nutrients. And, when in melting snow, both of these required nutrients are in plant-usable form -- meaning they don’t have to come from the soil-microbe interplay, but rather, literally from the air.
Actually, rain, hail and sleet contain nitrogen too and most probably more than does snow. All precipitation picks up some nitrogen from lightening, but the main source turns out to be man-made nitrogen from air pollution (a good reason not to eat snow even if it isn’t yellow). The stuff is apparently attracted to and sticks to snow as it falls through the atmosphere. The difference between the rain versus snow, however, is the accumulation of nitrogen over the winter which is absorbed when the thaw comes. Most rain simply runs off. So a winter’s worth of snow is considered a better fertilizer source than rain.
Anyhow, all this year’s (or should I say this winter’s?) snow will now supply nitrogen when it melts in the spring. One article I read suggested the Adirondacks get 12 pounds of nitrogen per acre. An average farmer uses 120 to 150 pounds per acre.
We, of course, are not farmers and the smart gardener amongst us uses mulch. Our lawns don’t need that much additional nitrogen. I am betting our snowfall this year beats most of the Adirondacks’ snow load, which means we are probably adding more than 12 pounds. To my way of thinking, this will add to the growth of our plants this spring and summer.
Sulfur is in the air pollution mix too. This goes into snow as well. You can only hope there isn’t too much because while plants do need it, sulfur lowers the soil pH. A lower pH means an acidic environment which is a better environment for moss than grass.
Still, while the snow has bits of sulfur, nitrogen and even other elements, it is the insulating value that really helps the garden. Your perennials are covered, essentially, by a blanket of mostly air which keeps the soil at a steady temperature, preventing freeze and thaw cycles which can damage their crowns and roots. Snow also keeps wind from drying out the soil and the crowns of your plants.
It also turns out that parts of tree (and I assume shrub) roots remain active when the soil isn’t frozen so solid. While you don’t get limb growth during the winter months, you do get winter root extensions when there is good snow cover. Snow helps in this regard and, again, I suspect we are going to see better than normal tree growth this summer as a result.
Ever the optimist, I realize snow provides cover for voles. It can be really heavy and break limbs and flatten shrubbery. And, of course, it is back-breaking, heart-attacking stuff when there is so much. Still, you have to look at the bright side of things. That is what gardeners do. Given normal weather this summer, this winter’s snow should be of much benefit.
Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar
Happy holidays: Thank a gardener in your life by offering up a few hours of help as a holiday gift.
Alaska Botanical Garden: Join, individual or family memberships make great gifts that will keep on giving all year long. Plus, see the fantastic light display by getting tickets. www.alaskabg.org
Christmas Trees: Watered enough? Lights safe? Yes, you will be able to recycle again this year thanks to the ALPAR tree program.