I love wintertime. I love the snow, the icicles, and even the subzero temperatures (probably because we so seldom get them). Having grown up in the monotonous weather of southern California, I think winter is amazing, even after 25 years in Colorado.
However… sometimes we just get too much winter. Not in quality—Colorado winters are milder than one might suspect—but in the quantity of days when winter is likely. We’ve experienced a hard frost and snow as early as September 8 and as late as mid-June. I like winter—but I like summer too!
Daughter Number 2, who lives in northwestern Washington, recently asked me if it was too early to start planting her vegetable garden. She received her seed order, and figured that lettuce, carrots, cilantro, and peas could go in now. While I suggested that she wait a few more weeks, it hit me—she’s thinking about planting, and we’re shoveling the driveway again.
There have to be some benefits to gardening in a short-season region. Figuring that counting my gardening blessings would go far to help my late-February attitude, I set about making a list. Maybe it will help your attitude too.
Perhaps best of all, I appreciate the break that winter provides for gardeners. No matter how enthusiastic one is about planting seeds, coddling transplants, and picking juicy ripe tomatoes, it is a bit of work. At this time of year, when it’s too early to start all but the pokiest seedlings (geraniums anyone?), I have the perfect excuse to kick back and relax.
In theory, I can also get ahead on a number of other chores—cleaning the basement, mending, organizing my office—so that I have more time for gardening later. In theory….
Then there’s the snow. Our house faces north. That means that any snow falling in our front yard tends to stick around a while. That’s unusual in this land of sunshine, where the roads are clear and dry within a few hours of a storm. Then add in the fact that we’re at the end of a cul-de-sac, up against a hillside, and all the snow in the street blows onto our property. The result is a good foot of snow cover.
The benefits are many. For one, the snow acts as mulch, keeping the soil underneath damp even when we get the warm, dry winds we call a Chinook. Blowing from the southeast, they raise the fire danger to red flag level, and are a primary reason that broadleaf evergreens don’t do well here. The plants just can’t replenish lost moisture from the frozen soil.
Since the front yard faces the street, we wanted it to look its best year-round. I planted lots of conifers, mostly dwarfed varieties, and added the few evergreen shrubs that tolerate our conditions—Cotoneaster, Mahonia, bearberry (Kinnickinnick), and Manzanita. The snow does a good job of protecting them, and they’re thriving.
The snow also insulates the soil, keeping it from getting as cold, or freezing as deeply, as in the more exposed areas of our yard. An article in the Chicago Tribune pointed out how important that is to a plant’s hardiness:
Roots can be damaged by cold temperatures. In fact, “roots are more likely to be injured by cold temperatures than the aboveground parts of a tree are,” says Gary Watson, head of research at The Morton Arboretum in Lisle. He is an expert in tree planting and care. “But the soil doesn’t get as cold, and its temperature doesn’t fluctuate as much as the air.”
There’s another welcome benefit from having a snow-covered landscape. All the weeds I didn’t get around to last fall are hidden until spring. I’m wistfully hoping that they are dead and rotting by the time my perennials start leafing out, but the same snow that protects the roots of desirable plants also keeps those weed roots strong and healthy.
Gardening in Colorado limits my choices. That may sound like a bad thing, but I’ve discovered that restrictions help me be more creative when landscaping our yard. I can’t grow everything—there are a limited number of available species that flourish here. And I want my gardens to flourish. Instead of being overwhelmed by the possibilities, I focus on the aspects I can control, such as choosing combinations of color and texture.
Finally, we get to garden in Colorado. Blue skies, snow-covered peaks, warm summer sun with low humidity, few bugs… it doesn’t get much better than that!