Sunday, March 6, 2016

The New England Winter That Wasn't

Generally, winters in New England are thought of as snow filled and unbearably cold.  The snow in the picture above is more or less the trend for this entire winter.  Storms brought dustings or perhaps a couple inches and then warmer weather arrived and the snow disappeared.  This pattern happened over and over and although the cold did arrive occasionally, it didn't last.  Overall, an excellent winter for those who dislike cold and snow.  Not so much an excellent winter for plants and the water table.

Snow cover acts as an insulator.  This helps protect the soil during the freeze/thaw cycle of winter.  The ground cools, freezes, warms, and freezes through the winter months.  With snow on the ground, plants are offered some protection and stability from the insulating factor of snow.  Without it, shallow rooted plants are heaved from the ground as the soil expands and contracts.  Perennials and bulbs are especially prone to damage during this time.  Broad leaved evergreen plants gain protection from drying winter winds if they're covered by snow.  Exposure leads to brown rhododendron and azalea leaves come warmer weather.  In addition, snow pack that's allowed to melt slowly adds to rivers, lakes, and the water table gently over time.  Rain, on the other hand, quickly enters the environment and then moves through before being able to soak slowly into the water table.  Missing this slow gathering of water may lead to dry conditions come spring or even drought.

Here in southern Vermont the weather in March is more like the weather in April.  The upcoming week may even get us close to 70 degrees.  The average temperature for this time of year is around 40 degrees.  It may hit 67 on Wednesday and then stay in the 50's into the future.  Fantastic for spending time outside, not so fantastic for the environment.  I'm predicting we'll have a short spring followed quickly by warmer summer-like weather.

Recommended Plant:  The Lupine is a frequently seen roadside plant here in New England.  It's tough, grows well in poor soil, and enjoys sunny locations.  Lupinus perennis is the common blue variety, although there are many other colors available.  Like other plants in the pea family, it is able to fix nitrogen from the atmosphere which allows it to survive in less than stellar soils.  In fact, if planted in soil that's too rich the plants tend to become floppy.  They are relatively easy to start from seed as long as they have a chance to soak over night prior to planting.  Lupine seed also needs stratification, which is a period of cold temperature to promote germination.  Most seeds purchased are exposed to cold temperatures but if you collect seeds from the wild you'll want them to spend some time in the fridge to mimic winter temperatures (30 days or so).  Some people also abrade the seeds with sandpaper prior to soaking to help them germinate, although I've never had to do this.  Although perennial, they're not especially long lived.  They dislike transplanting, as once the plant begins to grow they create a carrot like taproot.  It's best to choose their permanent home and then leave them to it.  The plants will spread via seeds but don't tend to be invasive.