Winter can be a bore for gardeners, but there’s action below the surface

Yeah, yeah, we are all sick and tired of the snow. Sure, it can be slightly tolerable when it is still clean-white and sparkles on those rare sunny days. However, it is throughly unbearable as soon as it takes on the look of burnt toast and 1950s Pittsburgh.

We don’t often think about the impact all this snow has on the gardening season other than my mention of the nitrogen it holds. This feat is because snow is teeming with microbial life, very micro. They thrive in the subnivean environment as well as the terrestrial one it covers.

On a larger scale, a good snowfall really helps bigger animals: the shrews, voles and mice who use the cover to avoid being eaten by owls and other predators. They scurry along the interface between the snow and the ground and support themselves all winter by eating leaves — grass blades are leaves, right? — seeds, bark and the like. Due to the longevity of this year’s cover, expect lots of vole “damage.”

Weasels connect the subnivean and terrestrial. They make great tunnels in the snow and I suspect they love this kind of snow that sticks around for a long time. It is worth turning white for, which they do.

Apparently, the size of the larger mammals, all the way up to bears, correlates with winter rodent populations. Good vole populations result in higher numbers of their predators, as well as the aforementioned lawn-damage questions.

On the diminutive side, I am always stunned when I think of the presence of microbes in snow. Of course, with a few books on microbes, I would have such an interest. But even without those books, the interest should be there because I try to be a thinking gardener/yardener.

I’ve covered that bacteria are in every snowflake and that they hold nitrogen. Lots of snow becomes “poor farmer’s fertilizer.” Ah, but there is a relationship between how long soil is frozen before there is snow cover and the amount of carbon available to this interface zone. It has to do with ice crystals forming in plant material on the ground when it is cold but there isn’t snow cover. The crystals break the organics and this makes it easy for winter microbes to access necessary carbon.


This year, we had snow cover all winter and quite a bit at that. If I am interpreting this properly, that means our soils are not only going to get a lot of nitrogen when the snow melts, there should have been a great deal of decay. If you left leaves and mulch this fall, as all Alaskan yardeners do, then your soils are going to be greatly enriched. This is part of the reason why you don’t need to apply fertilizers in the spring no matter how much advertising tries to convince you otherwise.

And, since we have so much snow, it won’t fully melt until close to the start of the natural growing season. All the nitrogen accumulated and held by the snow microbes becomes available at the perfect time. And since there are microbes involved, they continue to hold most of this nitrogen until the soil food web system gets going when plants start growing.

Add to all of this the insulating impact of a deep, winter long snow. Thanks to the deep and constant cover, the frost didn’t go down very deep. Once it goes, it won’t take long for the soil to warm up.

I guess this week’s takeaway, since this is purportedly an advice column, is that the winter season may seem void of interest for yardeners and gardeners, but there is a lot of activity going on that supports our hobby even if we’ve cursed the snow more than once this year.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar:

Alaska Botanical Garden: Join now by visiting and take advantage of all The Garden has to offer. Also, the “make-your-own-pot out of paper tool” is available at The ABG Store along with some neat tools and logo stuff.

Seeds to start: Lobelia (need 20 days to germinate‚ seeds need light so don’t cover), snapdragons (10 days to germinate and need light and cool temperatures), carnation (two days to germinate), verbena (20 days to germinate), pelargonium

Herbs to start: Lavender, lovage, lemon balm

Corms: Glads unless you want to plant them directly

Tubers: Dahlias, yacon

Jeff Lowenfels

Jeff Lowenfels has written a weekly gardening column for the ADN for more than 45 years. His columns won the 2022 gold medal at the Garden Communicators International conference. He is the author of a series of books on organic gardening available at Amazon and elsewhere. He co-hosts the "Teaming With Microbes" podcast.