Assess the snowpack in your yard while planning for spring gardening

As a big front-end loader cleared off the huge snow piles lining our driveway, I couldn’t help wondering about this spring. It could be a doozy, with lots of ice for an extended period. Freeze and thaw cycles will heave our roads — and driveways — and things are going to be wet if not slippery. Ugh. As if all this white stuff hasn’t caused enough problems already.

It turns out fresh white snow’s “albedo” — a term new to me — is high. This is the reflective property of snow: how much it reflects sunlight and its associated heat back into the atmosphere. Apparently, white snow can reflect back 80% to 90% of sunlight. Dirty snow, on the other hand, reflects 10% to 30%. The rest of the heat is absorbed.

I am not wishing for all of our white snow to turn dirty, but we have all witnessed the transformation before: A week or so after a snowfall, the snow piled along our roads indeed does get covered with a black soot that makes it unsightly. However, we should be thankful that it is absorbing heat instead of reflecting it. This means it won’t stay around nearly as long.

In many large wilderness expanses, it is natural wind-borne dust that reduces the snow’s reflective abilities. Desert sands, soil freed by excessive tilling, dust from wildfires and massive construction projects can travel thousands of miles in the atmosphere and end up on, say, the snow in the Colorado Rockies. One study concluded it was this dust and the absorption of heat that accounts for the rate of the Rockies snowmelt, not the advance of spring weather.

Clean or dusty, it is always a good idea to check out the snow in your yard a bit more carefully. Look for two things. First, those areas where snow didn’t really accumulate. These are not good areas in which to plant spring-flowering bulbs or tender perennials. Clearly those areas have a different water regime. They probably aren’t good places to plant much, in fact.

• • •

Listen to the ‘Teaming with Microbes’ podcast with Jeff Lowenfels and Jonathan White:

Better, look for areas where the snow is melting faster than others, be it because of dust or sunlight. These are mini hot spots in your yard and can be very useful for gardening, especially if you are trying to grow something on the margins. If you don’t want to bother digging and planting in the ground there, you might want to put containers in those locations.


And of course, you need to pay attention to where the snow piles up. If these are natural pileups, you know you have an area which is wonderfully insulated by snow. You may also have an area which gets more water than others. These have their up and down sides for gardening.

Manmade piles, on the other hand, can be controlled — though not anymore this year, probably, but your memory should last until next fall, when you can better delineate where you need to put snow in case we have a repeat of this year’s haul. Pictures of your yard always come in handy. They are also a great way to record what is happening snow-wise in your yard and you can pass them on to snowplowers with instructions as to where to place snow piles.

I’ve already written this season about life under and on snow. It is always fun, and a good idea, to get out there and see what is living — and eating — in your yard. You can use the internet to identify tracks.

Finally, check for signs of wind action. You might have a wind alley that shows up by making a pattern in the snow. Or there may be places where you get drifting. These may not be good places to be putting delphiniums, Malva or other tall plants.

The snow is here. It will disappear. Might as will try to take advantage of it and learn some things that may make your gardens better.

Jeff’s Alaska Garden Calendar

Alaska Botanical Garden call for speakers: ABG’s Spring Garden Conference is being held downtown this year at the Dena’ina Civic and Convention Center! ABG is accepting proposals for speakers, vendors and workshops. Make plans to attend even if you don’t want to speak!

Seed racks: They are here! So are starting supplies. Reduce plastic use.

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.