Early snow is a warning and opportunity

Posted: Wednesday, October 04, 2000

Snow came slowly at first, just a few light tiny crystals, but it was like an electric shock. Weather predictions, which had been dismissed with shrugs, were confirmed. The season was changing right before our eyes. Summer, with its glorious flowering, had moved into fall, changing colors of the leaves and appearance of the bright fruit clusters in full force. I was looking foreward to another month of good planting weather before the white stuff appeared. It was not to be.

We were planting a small garden by the back door of Bartlett Regional Hospital; Crabapples, Witchhazel, "Aglo" Rhododendrons, the groundcover tapestry of Creeping Dogwood, Lignonberry and ferns, and hundreds of dwarf "Tete a Tete" daffodils and Grape Hyacinths. The area was selected as needing a new planting since the old one had been wiped out in the course of new construction, and we were finally able to plant it.

In one night of white the mood has changed, and we are now looking at our yards with the eyes of harvesters. Oh, we will still be planting; we will prepare beds and build rockeries and fill the soil with the spring bulbs and perennials that will pop up in April, but the mental set has shifted.

The clusters of berries and shrubs are suddenly seen as potential Christmas decorations, evergreens are being appraised for their wealth of garland materials, and walkways and gates are inspected for placing outdoor lighting. The long graceful branches of Red Stemmed Roses will be trimmed and hung with their hips for weaving into wreaths, herbs and attractive foliage will be collected for winter uses, and the next wave of gardening opportunities is with us.

This early warning will stimulate many of us to prepare for a long winter. Boughs will need to be cut for covering perennial beds; those beds need to be cut back and cleaned up for winter. Disease control starts with sanitation. Many fungal plagues and pesky bugs can be avoided by removing foliage and litter from the garden beds.

Since the ground is still mellow, warm and easily worked, the bulb planting will be easy. Any time I have to work in the garden, I will try to do as many tasks at once as I can. While I am removing the old growth I will be planting the next layer at the same time. Two buckets and a tarp will follow me through the yard. The tarp will be for the things I cut off and pull up, one bucket will have bulbs and the other fertilizers and micronutrients.

Looking up, another layer of the landscape comes into focus, the trees and larger shrubs need some care, too -- they are also caught unawares by the change in the weather. Leaves are still green, sap is running in the branches and the wood is still soft. Heavy snow or ice damage can be foretold by looking at the shapes of the branches and imagining that a foot of frozen water is hanging on them.

Weak places are those where the branches come off at tight angles, where long slender stems support thick clusters of sprouts, or where earlier damage has gone untended. Combining preventative pruning with seasonal decoration harvesting gives an opportunity to collect without damaging the esthetic state of the garden.

The dramatic appearance of the snow in the landscape highlights another possibility, that of adding to the privacy layers. The ease of working in the fall, compared to the sheer misery of early spring digging and soil preparation means that the next two weeks will be wonderful times to place trees and big shrubs where they will block views. The long winter means that we want our curtains and blinds open as much as we can, while avoiding the direct eye to eye view of our neighbors.

Totally obscuring them may be difficult, but creating a foreground that both parties can use to diffuse the sight lines helps tremendously. Twiggy shrubs like the Red Stemmed Dogwood or Snowball Bushes or the Amur River Maples work to filter the background. Installing a sturdy trellis and tying some of the branches to this more formal structure goes even farther. It is all a matter of perception, and two willing neighbors can create a privacy zone in very little space.

Enjoy the next few weeks, consider this as a blessing, you may as well.

David Lendrum is a master gardener and owner of Landscape Alaska. Any responses or questions can be sent to

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