Archives For snow

Let it Snow

The often overlooked benefits of snow

Mike Kwiatek —  February 20, 2014 — 1 Comment

If you’ve been around Chicago in the past month, you’ve probably noticed the sort of weather we’ve been having.

Snow covers the grass of the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden in 2013. This protected grass can expect good growth in spring.

Snow covers the grass of the Elizabeth Hubert Malott Japanese Garden in 2013. This protected grass can expect good growth in spring.

You may even be bitterly cursing the snow and hoping winter will end, cheering this week’s thaw and higher temperatures. What you might not know is that all this snow has a number of benefits that will help your garden and landscape later this spring.

PHOTO: Closeup of bright red, raisiny eastern wahoo berries.

The fruit of eastern wahoo (Euonymous atropurpureus) creates a striking contrast against the snow.

Snow is a great insulator!

As winter presses on, the ground freezes deeper and deeper. This prolonged cold soil can damage roots over time. Snow helps create a blanket that reduces freezing of the soil. Warmer soil keeps microbes more active, which helps break down any plant waste that is in the soil, releasing nutrients. As a result of this insulation, your plants will have a much better start in spring!

Snow brings an important nutrient into the soil: nitrogen.

There are not many ways for nitrogen to enter the soil. While planting legumes and adding fertilizer are the most common ways we add nitrogen to soil, the weather provides nitrogen as well! Nitrogen is abundant in the atmosphere and is most easily collected by falling snow. As the snow melts, it deposits the nitrogen into the ground. (Apple trees and other plants benefit greatly from nitrogen deposited by snow.) When the ground is soft, plowing the snow into the soil will give the greatest benefit. Snow is sometimes called the poor man’s fertilizer.

PHOTO: Bare, yellow willow branches against a blue sky.

The yellow whips of this willow make an excellent contrast to the snow in most landscapes.

Don’t forget, snow is water!

When snow melts, it provides moisture for evergreen trees and shrubs. This moisture helps keep these plants happy and healthy throughout the winter. You won’t see damage right away, but a few years of snow-free winters can cause health problems in your trees.

Last but not least, snow can be very attractive in a landscape.

Snow makes plants with ornamental fruit, flowers, and bark stand out in the winter landscape. Plants like holly, ornamental grasses, euonymus, crabapples, roses, birches, ghost bramble, striped maple, dogwoods, willows, hazels, winter hazels, and witch hazels are only a few of many very attractive plants for a winter landscape. Dogwoods and willow varieties often will have young growth that is orange, yellow, or red. These same colors appear in the fruit of euonymus, crabapples, roses, and holly. Look for varieties that will complement your landscape.

If you find that snow is weighing down branches in your landscape and disfiguring the appearance of your shrubs or young trees, brush off the snow regularly and prune in the spring to remove any dead or broken branches.

PHOTO: Boxwood and hemlock trees against a fence in winter.

Evergreen trees and shrubs like boxwoods and hemlock need water through the winter to stay healthy.

PHOTO: Boxwood in winter; its branches weighted down with snow.

Boxwoods are prone to damage from heavy snows. Minimize damage by removing snow as soon as possible from the branches.

When the snow melts, check your trees and shrubs for damage near the trunk of the plant. Rodents, particularly voles, take advantage of winter snow cover and feed more aggressively on tender bark of young trees. If your lawn has developed paths of dead grass from these garden pests, rake affected areas of the lawn, apply a light application of fertilizer and seed the affected areas if damage is severe.

While many of us are hoping for an end to this winter, this abundance of snow is promising us a great spring!

©2014 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Stories in the Snow

Kathy J. —  February 8, 2013 — Leave a comment

After the recent snowfall, I took my camera out for a walk to find evidence of wildlife around the Learning Campus. The first animal tracks I found were those of at least one coyote running across the snow.

The individual track was not a clear footprint, but it was the right general shape and size to be a coyote.

PHOTO: the single track of a coyote is seen in the snow.

The coyote track looks like that of a medium-sized dog, with padded feet making toe impressions in the snow.

The tracks formed a few paths across the campus.

PHOTO: two coyote trails are seen very clearly running through the snow, close to the treeline.

A coyote ran through the snow toward the right of the picture, then ran back and rejoined its original trail.

The tracks did not follow the paths that people walk, but tended to run closer to trees. This makes sense for an animal that is trying to stay hidden from other animals. I also found a spot where the coyote seemed to run up, do a little turnaround, and take off in another direction.

PHOTO: The tracks in the snow look like the coyote ran and make a circle in the snow.

The tracks look like a coyote circled around after running out of the woods.

This isn’t the clearest picture, but you can still see that the coyote came from the wooded area toward the front of the picture, then it turned around and sank its front paws in the snow where you see two clear side-by-side holes in the snow. It turned and ran to the right of the picture frame. You can imagine a spirted puppy running excitedly as it plays in the new snow, and leaving tracks like these.

I was hoping to find evidence of animals interacting. The closest thing I found was this set of rabbit tracks.

PHOTO: a set of rabbit tracks appears from behind the corner of the building, turns around and goes back in the direction it came from.

The rabbit who left these tracks decided to turn around and go back instead of coming around the corner of the building.

Here the rabbit hopped to the corner of the building, stopped, and then turned around and went back the way it came. Did it possilby see or smell the coyotes that were running around and decide to go back to hiding?

On my walk I found squirrel, bird, and mouse tracks. And then I found these strange marks in the snow.

PHOTO: a nice layer of snow on top of a hedge row has long parallel lines from students dragging their fingers along the hedge as they walked past.

Fingerprints in the snow?

What could these strange lines be? “It’s elementary, Mr. Watson!” These “fingerprints” were left by elementary school students as they dragged their hands along the snow at the Learning Center this morning.

If you want to find animal tracks in the snow and figure out what stories they tell, here are some tips:

  • Go out and look when the snow is fresh.
  • Think about which animals you have actually seen around, and where you have seen them. Look there.
  • Search around trees and shrubs, especially if there are places a small animal might crawl into for shelter.
  • Be alert for sources of food; the snackers and nappers may be out looking for a meal, and they will leave their marks.

Good luck, and remember not to eat yellow snow.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

Updated: Snow Drought!

How to protect your trees and garden

Karen Z. —  January 14, 2013 — 3 Comments

There’s no doubt: it’s a snow drought, and records are falling like…well, like snowflakes should be falling.

  • Wednesday we broke the record number of days without a 1-inch snowfall (319).
  • Last weekend we broke the 1940 record of 313 straight days with less than 1 inch of snow on the ground.
  • Just 1.3 inches of snow (more near the lake) has fallen to date, compared to the norm of 11 inches.

It made us wonder: what does a snow drought mean for your garden?

To find out, we talked with Boyce Tankersley, our director of living plant documentation.

What Snow Drought Can Do to Your Garden

It’s easy to give snow drought the brush-off  (no shoveling! no scraping! no wet feet!), but it can damage your plants and affect the soil in your garden. The following can happen in a drought:

1. Moisture loss accelerates. “It’s the combination of no snow cover plus cold winter wind that does the damage,” Tankersley explains. “When there’s no snow, plants act like a wick in the soil, so the wind not only dries out the trees and shrubs, but also the soil they’re planted in.”  

2. Soil compacts. In a normal year, it rains in November, so the moist ground freezes as temperatures drop. Ice crystals form in the soil. As winter progresses, snow piles up, preventing wind from reaching the frozen moisture in the ground. With spring thaws, ground ice melts, creating air pockets and naturally looser soil. In short, Tankersley says, “winter is good for gardens.” Without that rain/freeze/thaw cycle, air spaces can’t form in the soil, so it collapses and compacts, requiring mechanical tilling to loosen it up again.

3. Plants get stressed beyond capacity. In 2012, plants endured an early spring with a late frost, followed by summer and fall drought, and now, snow drought. There’s a real risk of winterkill—the term used when plants succumb to winter conditions. “Check trees and shrubs for buds in early May,” Tankersley suggests, “especially non-natives like Magnolia soulangeana, which is particularly susceptible to winterkill.” Even well-established, old trees can succumb—forever changing yards and neighborhoods.

What You Can Do to Help Your Garden

On mild days when temperatures are above freezing, Tankersley’s strategies for home gardeners include the following:

mulched tree

1. Mulch. Like a thick blanket, mulch holds in moisture and creates a layer of insulation for soil. Tankersley’s choice in his own yard? Oak leaf mulch. Why? “The leaves decay slowly, so they release nutrients into the soil over time.” Other options: chopped up plant material from your yard (non-diseased, please), or scattered straw. 

2. Add native plants in spring. Natives are already naturally adapted to outside-of-the-bell-curve extremes, with some sporting roots 15 to 20 feet deep. Compare that to a typical landscape plant with roots just 6 inches deep.


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

While many city-dwellers might be noticing a serious lack of snow this season, winter finally arrived at Chicago Botanic Garden last week.

The first significant snowfall of the season gave the Garden a perfect white coat for winter. What better reason for a walk through the Malott Japanese Garden?

Many consider winter to be the Japanese Garden’s most beautiful season. Its design emphasizes nature’s forms like clouds, stones and hills. In winter, pruned magnolias, azaleas, forsythia, quince, as well as smooth lumps of yews and junipers, resemble white boulders or fluffy clouds. Open-pruned pines, wired to maximize long and borrowed views, are natural snow catchers, offering up their own cushions of snow. Even the lanterns are designed to catch and display light snowfall.

To learn more about celebrating winter in Japanese culture, be sure to check out the Three Friends of Winter show, held at the end of January each year. 


©2013 Chicago Botanic Garden and my.chicagobotanic.org

On Thursday, February 23, the Chicago Botanic Garden witnessed an amazing snowfall and captured it on video. Continue Reading…