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February 7th, 2013 1:00 PM


Ben Hughes, handler of the weather-predicting groundhog Punxsutawney Phil, holds Phil in the air after removing him from his stump in Punxsutawney, Pa., in 2009.


On-off winter hard on yard plants: Use snow's insulating value to protect flowers, shrubs -- but pile it on gently

Published: Friday, February 01, 2013, 11:35 AM Updated: Friday, February 01, 2013, 11:38 AM

So — are we going to have six more weeks of winter?

Depending on what transpires on Gobbler’s Knob tomorrow, it could go either way.

Listening to the prognostications of a pampered, overfed groundhog is great theater but hardy something to trust — even after more than 110 years. Punxsutawney Phil last year saw his shadow, meaning six more weeks of winter.

But if you recall, February and March 2012 were hardly winterlike. Groundhog day 2012 saw the mercury climb to 44 degrees in Grand Rapids. The mercury hit 60 degrees or better on 19 days last March, including five days at 80 degrees or better.

You might say winter 2012 was a nonevent. This season was on a similar trajectory until an arctic blast and lake-effect snow pounded the region Jan. 21-24, with daily highs in the teens and overnight lows below zero or in the single digits. Lakeshore counties were blasted with more than a foot of snow, and Grand Rapids logged more than 6 inches.

What made this particular cold snap unsettling was its bitter onset.

Much of the state basked in 40-plus-degree temperatures before plunging into single digits and subzero cold. You could tell something was afoot by the rapid change in air speed and the last-minute feeding frenzy by birds.

Perhaps birds have an avian version of the breathless television meteorologists warning of bone-rattling cold and lake-effect snow. We were given ample warning of changing conditions, so no one should have been caught unprepared.

The drastic temperature swing probably will result in the loss of perennials and ground covers that had to endure subzero cold without benefit of snow. Roots of most landscape plants are injured when the soil temperature drops below 10 degrees. Snow -— like mulch, is nature’s version of insulation. The ground temperature beneath a thick layer of snow stays around 32 degrees, even if the air temperature drops into the single digits.

A science teacher in Arizona did some computing and determined that a 10-inch layer of snow has the insulation value of a 6-inch layer of R-18-rated fiberglass insulation.

Indeed, a good layer of snow on the roof tells you the attic insulation is working.

You’ll be able to see this first-hand in April when forsythia bushes start to bloom. During severe winters, the prized yellow flowers often are missing from upper branches. Blooms congregate on the lower 12-18 inches of the shrub. Buds protected under a thick blanket of snow are unscathed, while those exposed to cold, drying winds are void of blooms.

When there’s enough snow to shovel, I typically recommend piling it at the base of shrubs and on top of perennials. The operative idea here is shovel — not plow or blow.

Snow pushed or thrown onto plants is denser than natural snowfall and tends to stick together. As it settles, it can rip branches from shrubbery, according to research by the University of Vermont. This is particularly true of branches that are already brittle because of extreme cold.

Gently placing snow at the base of shrubs rather than heaving it on will offset potential damage while affording protection.

Foundation plants are prone to snow damage, but not necessarily from a plow or an overly exuberant kid with a shovel. They’re more likely to be crushed by ice and snow falling from the roof. Plants cushioned with a layer of snow will better absorb the impact. Plants protected by a tepee-shaped wooden frame fare best.

Then there is the unintended damage caused by plows. Plants situated along walks and drives often are mowed down by plows or the weight of snow being pushed at 20 mph. Many commercial snowplow operators encourage clients to place posts with reflectors at the edge of lawns and gardens to help drivers stay on the pavement. This might be a bit of a challenge if the ground is solidly frozen.

Another peril to plants is road salt and other melting agents applied to drives and walks. The next time it snows, salt already on the ground invariably is plowed or piled around plants. It leaches into the soil and damages plant roots. Calcium chloride is a safer alternative — especially is you mix it with kitty litter or sand to enhance traction.

Perhaps that is what keeps tuxedo-clad groundhog handlers from tumbling down Gobbler’s Knob while hoisting a 34-pound rodent to a sea of television cameras

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Posted by Matthew Diskin on February 7th, 2013 1:00 PMPost a Comment

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