Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Garden in Snow

I made the mistake of thinking that winter was already over.  We were past the end of our most-likely freeze window and February, the month in which the elm trees bloom and the red buckeyes at the Greenbelt flower, was beginning.  But I was getting ahead of myself again, forgetting that winter in Austin, though short and mild overall, is highly variable day to day, wildly unpredictable year to year, and tends to recur long after spring is underway.

The snow on Friday morning was the highlight of the storm.  In thirteen years of living in central Austin, I've never seen actual snow – not ice or hail – accumulation on the ground.  So when I woke to a white world on Friday morning, instantly the storm of the past few days became the snowstorm of 2011 and my memory of the freezing days that preceded the snow day faded.  This day was the day of the snowstorm.


In reality, Friday, the day of the snow, was also the day of the thaw, the day of sunshine and temperatures above freezing for the first time since Tuesday.  For the plants in my gardens, the snowfall was merely the last trial at the end of three long days of freezing temperatures and frigid winds.  And, despite what I say about the seriousness of our bouts of winter and the unpredictability of our cool season, nearly 70 consecutive hours of freezing temperatures is not something that I expect for my garden to have to endure in this climate.  Before the snow fell, before the novelty of my first Austin snow day rewrote my memory of the week, I was worried about my plants and upset about the injustice of our climate, in which hard freezes are infrequent enough to warrant severe-weather status yet reliable enough that growing tropical plants is out of the question.


I grumble about the freezes but I've learned to expect them, even as I am planting my fall garden in the heat of October.  I only plant greens that can withstand the common, light freezes of the cool season, and I devote more garden space that I might like to the real cold-hardy plants, like kale and collards, that can handle ice storms, near-0˚ F wind chills, and other "freak" winter events that could otherwise wipe out my entire garden.  This year I've also been covering most of my front-yard garden in Plankets, 10 x 20 foot plant blankets made out of thick, green row-cover material, whenever the night temperatures are predicted to fall into the mid-20's or lower.

Front-yard garden under Plankets and snow

The Plankets seem to help, or at least they give me something to do in the face of an impending freeze, but using them tends to mash down the tallest of the plants and, even though I strive to put them in place near sunset and take them off as soon as temperatures warm in the morning, deprives the plants of a few hours of sunlight.  Last week, though, with temperatures remaining below freezing for nearly three days in a row, my front-yard garden was covered in Plankets for about 70 hours, from Tuesday afternoon until midday on Friday, when Lee helped me to toss away the snow (heavy!) and give the plants a few hours of fresh air and sunshine.


Out from under the Plankets, the garden looked rough – smashed by the weight of the snow, frost-bitten, and winter-weary.  Though I felt cruel covering the plants up again, we covered the garden again on Friday night because we still had one more hard freeze to endure before our "normal" balmy winter conditions returned on Saturday, allowing us to finally put away the Plankets until the next round of severe weather.  As the gardens, front- and backyard, began their recovery, the question on my mind was:  Do the Plankets help more then they harm?

The backyard garden wasn't covered during the storm.  In fact, I haven't covered that garden at all this year.  It's in a more protected location, with less direst north wind exposure, it contains a higher proportion of cold-hardy plants like cabbages and collards, and it's been something of an experiment this fall, seeing if that space gets enough light, can withstand lower temperatures, etc.  So, while the microclimates of the two gardens differ somewhat, the backyard garden, which was not covered during the extended freeze or the snowstorm, offers a point of comparison to the Planketed front-yard garden.

Backyard garden under snow

In both the front-yard and backyard gardens, I am growing lettuces, Swiss chard, spinach, and beets.  While the tall chard plants in the front yard were being smashed under the Planket, the chard plants in the backyard were covered in snow.


After the snow melted and the warm temperatures returned, the chard in the backyard looked mostly dead.  The leaves were translucent and mushy, lying on the ground wilted.  Only a few of the inner-most leaves of those chard plants appeared to have survived.  I am hopeful that, even though the current leaves on those plants were lost to the storm, the plants themselves are likely to regrow from their roots, which were protected from freezing by a deep layer of mulch.


The chard in the front-yard garden, which was covered with the Plankets, fared better.  After days of being covered, the plants were bent, with some broken stems and frost-bitten leaves, and smashed and generally looked abused.  But overall the leaves on those chard plants were still upright and alive looking, ready to rebound from the storm.


Judging from the (very unscientific) comparison of the covered vs. uncovered chard, using the Plankets saved valuable garden produce.  Other comparisons support those results.  The lettuces in the backyard garden were killed by the cold temperatures and/or snow, and, like the backyard chard, their leaves turned to mush.  Some of the lettuces in the front-yard garden were killed, but the majority of the plants in the row survived, with frost-damaged outside leaves.  Cilantro and parsley, relatives in rows next to each other, had different fates as well.  While the cilantro was covered during the storm, the parsley was not, simply because the 20' Planket didn't quite reach that far, so while the cilantro survived the storm, the parsley was wilted and white when the snow cleared.  So the Plankets do help more than they harm, but, even knowing that, I hope that I don't have to use them many more times this year.

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