Snowed Under

Once it’s too cold to just go outside in whatever you have on, it might as well snow, as far as I’m concerned. From the garden and home design point of view, snow is the great freebie of all time.

For one thing, it’s wonderful insulation, like tiny bubble bubble wrap. A thick layer on the garden keeps soil temperatures even, so you don’t get the freeze-thaw cycles that lift soil and rip roots from the ground. It also protects tender plant crowns from drying sun and wind. And old-timers know your house stays a lot warmer when there’s a good heap of snow all around the foundation. Of course, it will also stay a lot wetter if that foundation has issues.

But enough of practicality! the truly great thing about snow is it’s gorgeous. Even when it isn’t frosting dark tree limbs and setting off the statuary, it’s simplifying the landscape, unifying discordant elements, covering dead weeds and patchy grass like an act of natural forgiveness.

Of course nothing is perfect. There are two ungreat things about snow: one being that the stuff is heavy, the other that you usually have to remove some. Specifics vary but there is one huge big general rule: sooner is better than later, and the wetter the snow the truer that is.

Removing snow from trees and shrubs:

*Start by being sure you have to. Ice is a lot more likely to cause problems; most plants have lots of natural bending capacity, and being whacked is not frozen bark’s idea of a good time. But branches that stay deeply bent for more than a couple of days may never spring back, and if they must bear additional snow they may break under the load.

* When snow-removal is called for, use the brush end of a broom to gently and slowly push branches UPWARD until the snow falls off. The natural inclination is to push down, but of course that means the poor branch is getting hammered double.

* When you get done, consider bundling anything that’s especially vulnerable – arborvitaes, hemlocks and boxwoods, for instance. It only takes a few minutes to apply a loose wrapping of wide-mesh netting and secure it with a few twists of twine.

Removing snow from walkways:

* Even walks that appear to be on level ground often have uphill and downhill sides. Don’t forget to pile the snow on the downhill side, to minimize runoff over the path, and don’t forget to throw that pile well off to the side, so the runoff has somewhere to run. Are there thick shrubs in the way? Make a note on the April calendar to do something about that. I will too, and we can talk about solutions then.

* By now I hope it’s no longer news that using sodium chloride to melt ice is right up there with driving a Hummer for environmental bad behaviour: the stuff corrodes metal, flakes concrete and mortar, damages soil structure, wounds and kills plants, then pollutes both surface and groundwater. Regrettably, alternatives like magnesium chloride and calcium chloride aren’t all that much better. Yet having an icy walkway is also on the anti-social side. What to do?

Two choices – or three, if you’re feeling flush

Choice 1. After shoveling – or even better, before it starts snowing – use a de-icer based on Calcium Magnesium Acetate (CMA to its friends ). It’s still not great for the surface water, but it doesn’t tend to keep seeping down; it’s a lot less corrosive than the chlorides and it seldom damages plants.

Choice 2 : provide traction with coarse gravel, (non-clumping) kitter litter or anything similar. These products are benign outdoors and won’t come in if you keep a stiff bootbrush beside the door. On a somewhat grander scale, most big hardware and building supply stores sell stiff cleated traction mats. You do need to have a place to store them but other than that they’re effortless, and do not require you to nag anybody about entrance etiquette.

Choice 3: go for hot rubber – the electrified rubber mats used by restaurants and stores. At anywhere from 4 to 6 hundred bucks for a 3×5 or 6 foot section they are certainly the expensive spread; they do draw a fair amount of power; and they work best if you turn them on as soon as it starts snowing. But they last a long time, can be left in place all season, and if you love someone who has fragile bones, may well be worth every penny.

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