Winter's Cold Grip on Our Gardens

Photo by Eddie CrimminsAlthough the snow has finally begun to melt, continued bitterly cold temperatures may delay the emergence of spring blooms. Photo by Eddie Crimmins

We typically can predict that winters will be cold and summers will be warm, but the more subtle dynamics of weather are much harder to foresee. This winter we have experienced a constant pattern of lasting, significant cold temperatures along with repeated snowfalls that kept piling up throughout late January into late February. It appears we are finally getting through the most severe part of this tough winter, but it will leave a lasting effect on our landscape.

Gardeners are typically very happy to have lasting snow cover over the garden as this provides an insulating “blanket” to protect from severe cold. However, this year we experienced early chilling cold spells for several days without good cover, which can cause damage to tender plants. We did get a lasting snowfall that provided a dense cover over the landscape. Now, at the end of February, the snow has melted significantly, but we are still experiencing cold daytime temperatures with significant dips at night.

EnlargePhoto by Oliver Rich

Such late wintery weather can cause plants to delay emergence and “break bud” to produce flowers and leaves. In previous years, I have seen spring's first blooms delayed by up to a few weeks because of similar weather. But there's no need to worry – everything will catch up by July.

The impact of this winter's weather on spring 2014 is yet to be seen. If we get a significant warm spell it will speed the plants along, especially in urban “hot” spots – areas warmed up by reflections from concrete surfaces or external heat sources. However, we may see some delay this early spring season.

These cold temperatures also delay winter work in the garden. It can be difficult to work in severe cold, but more importantly, snow or ice can make it troublesome to reach plants. Even when everything melts the significant moisture super-saturates the soil, making it soggy and is easily compactable by a gardener's foot. Compaction damages the capacity of the soil to allow plant roots to grow and take up moisture. We try to stay out of the garden beds when the soil is in this condition, allowing the moisture to evaporate and drain away and avoid underground damage to fine, tender roots.

Dealing with our weather can be challenging, but it is good to be prepared and adjust project needs. Our horticultural staff has been hard at work, and we're very excited for spring to arrive in our gardens.

Photo by Beverly IsraelyAnother benefit of snowfall is, of course, its transformation of the High Line into a winter wonderland. Photo by Beverly Israely

Thomas Smarr is the Director of Horticulture for Friends of the High Line.

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