Which was better for our gardens– this winter or last winter?

snow in Amherst garden
This photo was taken in Amherst on Friday, Feb. 12, 2016, when a weather system brought below-zero temperatures Fahrenheit. Luckily for our gardens, there was also heavy snow to insulate the soil. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

by Connie Oswald Stofko

Last winter was bitterly cold, but there was a lot of snow cover to protect perennials.

This winter has seen some swings in temperature, which can be bad for perennials.

I thought our gardens might have liked last winter better than this winter.

Not so, say my gardening experts.

“Definitely this year is better, hands down,” said Teresa Buchanan, Teresa Buchanan, general manager at Lockwood’s Greenhouses, 4484 Clark St., Hamburg.

Note that she’s in the South Towns.

“This winter will be better,” agreed Mark Yadon, vice president at Mischler’s Florist and Greenhouses, 118 South Forest Rd., Williamsville. Then he added: “I’m not so sure there’s a significant difference. It’s kind of a toss up.”

Note that he’s from the North Towns.

snow melting in Amherst NY
Yesterday, Feb. 22, the snow was mostly gone. Photo by Connie Oswald Stofko

Don’t forget that the Snowvember Storm of 2014 occurred last winter. The North Towns were spared, but the south got walloped with as much as seven feet of snow, breaking tree limbs and squashing shrubs.

Even if we take the Snowvember Storm out of the equation, last winter was still a tough winter for our gardens.

“February was brutal last winter,” Buchanan said. “It was very cold.”

It was the coldest February on record in Western New York.

This winter has been mild. The autum as so warm and so long, lasting through November and into December, that it made some gardeners  nervous, Yadon said.

Many of our perennials need to go through vernalization, a period of dormancy brought on by cold weather, in order to flower properly in the spring. (This is why hostas don’t do well in the southern part of the United States, he noted; they need a cold winter.)

But here in Western New York, we got enough cold weather this winter for our plants to go through vernalization, he said.

“It turned out okay,” Yadon said.

I was concerned that in the North Towns, we had some fluctuating temperatures and we hadn’t gotten a lot of snow. Cold temperatures without the insulation of snow can harm plants.

But Yadon pointed out that we did have snow on the ground when we got the cold snap with below-zero Fahrenheit temperatures, and the cold didn’t last that long. Last year the entire month of February was cold. He added that gardeners should mulch their perennials.

A big difference between this winter and last winter is that last winter, the soil was frozen very deep, 3 ½ to 4 feet. Liquid water wasn’t available to the roots of the plants; it was all ice.

Desiccation or drying out is what kills plants, Yadon said. This year the ground is frozen down only about a foot, so any plant that is deeply rooted should be in good shape. This year’s long autumn gave plants time to grow deep roots, as well as to bulk up and add mass before they went dormant.

The sun is higher in the sky now and the worst of winter is over, he said. Our plants should be fine as long as they don’t leaf out too early and get damaged by a hard freeze. (If your plants leaf out before a freeze, you can protect your plants by covering them.)

The intense cold we got last year caused some tissue stress to plants such as shrubs and trees with parts above ground that were exposed to the cold, Buchanan said.

“Most plants are not accustomed to month-long cold,” she said.

Other plants came through that intense cold beautifully last year because they were insulated by the snow, she said.

While there hasn’t been as much snow this year, there has been enough that as our recent snow melted, it left some standing water in Buchanan’s garden. That may be a problem for plants, such as salvia and gaillardia, that require good drainage.

Because this winter has been so mild, it may have been easier for insects to survive, and that might result in more insect damage this year, she said.

But there are ups and downs to any winter.

“Ideal winter weather is two feet of snow of the ground that never melts, beginning to end, with the temperature at 28 (degrees Fahrenheit),” Buchanan said. “That never happens.”

5 Comments on “Which was better for our gardens– this winter or last winter?

  1. Donna and Connie, I didn’t mention that my “gardens” are at Amherst State Park. One is 1500 square feet and the other is 440 feet long and about 15 feet deep. lol. Mulching is not an option, but a layer of leaves and pine needles protects part of the gardens. I am happy that as many plants have settled in as have. I appreciate your information, however.

  2. I think it will all depend on how gardens are planted. Some use plants just on the limit of their zone and each winter has or will vary. I have some zone 7 plants that make it year to year, but they are very well protected with a garden having a lot of masonry. Other areas in my garden don’t have that protection and I would not dare to plant anything that tender. I prefer snow cover as Lois mentioned. I use leaf mulch as nature intended and just have to remember come spring to remove it so plants don’t get too wet.

  3. Lois, that’s sad to hear. The weather is so local. The blanket of snow can vary from neighborhood to neighborhood. That’s why it’s also a good idea to mulch your plants. I have my fingers crossed for you!

  4. Last winter the snow provided such a good insulator and I think there was a fairly gradual snow melt. I couldn’t believe that plants that came up. Some I had planted a couple years earlier and thought I had lost them. We had bitter cold this year when there was no snow, and I think it probably damaged a lot of plants beyond survival.

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