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Urban Gardener: Snow is Good for Gardens

Saturday, January 25, 2014


Polar vortex, wind chill factors, deep layers of snow, long periods of cold, and lots of ice are all on gardener’s minds but not heavy on their hearts. We know our urban plots will thrive despite winter’s rigor. Let’s take an honest look at our planting plots, our shared needs and the multitude of benefits a hardy winter gives our gardens.

Snow covers the garden and moderates soil temperatures. Surprisingly, soil has natural warmth which our ancestors exploited for cool moderate storage of potatoes, apples, pears, oysters and many other root crops in cellars. Many cellars did not have paved floors until well into the 20th century to take advantage of this natural warmth.

Mulch is a primary ingredient of soil building. Perhaps the single most important horticultural practice, mulching is best known for its contribution to the biomass incorporated in the fascinating mixture of minerals and rocks we call soil. Soil is alive with communities, of micro-organisms, so called lower life forms of insects, small mammals, reptiles and rodents.

This complex web is mistakenly reduced to chemical formulae when a more accurate description is one of multifaceted relationships over time.

Snow has many of the same qualities of a good mulch. Snow prevents harsh dry winds from desiccating foliage and bare soils. Snow buffers the soil from rapid changes in temperature. A good mulch also protects the soil from a destructive cycle of freeze and thaw and snow will do the same. Some freezing and thawing is natural. However, the more we can slow this process the better off for gardeners. A freeze thaw cycle has the potential to tear away the delicate root hairs measured in cells that are the capillaries extracting nutrients from the soil. Plants must restore lost root hairs lost to swelling and contraction natural to the transition of water from liquid to solid ice. Ice expands and heaves soil, we’ve all seen soils full of ice crystals that lift up and away from the surrounding land.

Bulbs and perennials can suffer from freezing and thawing. Lifted up from deeper levels many bulbs are exposed to sunlight or harsh temperatures. Cover crocus if you see them pushed up by frost. Otherwise, the constant movement damages the plant structures and assists the mortal enemies of gardeners: squirrels, mice and moles.
Snow moreover is a complex mixture. No snow crystal is alike yet all have the same attributes. Snow crystals and ice form around very small particles. Dust from the Sahara has been found across the Atlantic basin. Volcanic eruptions spew elements from deep within the planet far into the sky. Precipitation washes these tiny but numerous particles from the atmosphere onto our soils. A fascinating study indeed, this process is essential for soil health under the best of circumstances and a barometer of soil health. By products of combustion, petrochemicals for example and industrial activity are now present globally.

Snow is also an aesthetic. Sculptured forms capture the essence of wind. The lovely purity of snow is innocent. Here is a form that appears passive yet like so much in the garden we gaze upon a moment in time. Snow captures water and as it melts slowly trickles into the soil. Much is dissolved besides water; essential minerals such as salt precipitates in North America at the rate of 1.2 pounds per acre a year. The complex chemistry of soil and the agriculture it supports whether on vast wheat fields or sections of community gardens is essential to life.

Gardeners prosper while snow covers our gardens. Do not fear! While the snow gently coddles bulbs, mulched root crops are safe. Carrots, turnips, leeks and other vegetables and herbs such as parsley winter over just fine. Why bring these bulky items into the cellar when they will survive just fine in the garden plot?
What is a gardener to do? First, find a comfortable place to settle in and finally: read those garden catalogs! I know of no other activity as peaceful as the winds blow hard from the NE and the house shoulders its burden of shelter from the storm. Now is the best time to peruse old fashioned catalogs. Yes, January still yields a fine crop of printed catalogs for all ranks of gardeners. Prefer online? Sure, go ahead. I commiserate however. For me, the kitchen table rules. I never tire of over-sized hibiscus blooms juxtaposed to children’s heads. Nor do I pass up the chance for a big slice of pie to go with my lists of plants to grow, varieties to try, newly discovered heirlooms, to explore the great GMO debate, the latest gadgets and garden gizmos.

Polar vortex? I have no fear, the garden is safe under its snowy blanket and all is right in the garden and gardeners too. There is goodness in the world. 

(Photo: Leonard Moorehead)

Leonard Moorehead is a life-long gardener. He practices organic-bio/dynamic gardening techniques in a side lot surrounded by city neighborhoods in Providence RI. His adventures in composting, wood chips, manure, seaweed, hay and enormous amounts of leaves are minor distractions to the joy of cultivating the soil with flowers, herbs, vegetables, berries, and dwarf fruit trees.


Related Slideshow: 14 New England Snow Tubing Spots

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Ski Ward

Great for Worcester families, Ski Ward is the perfect destination for everything snow. On any given day, there are over 200 tubes, up to 8 snow tubing lanes in operation, and 2 lifts to bring you back up for another slide down Ward Hill! This year, Ski Ward is celebrating their 75th anniversary, and it’s no secret what has kept them open so long. For a deal, head over on Tuesdays—on the 1st Tuesday of the month tickets are only $7.50 (for their 75th anniversary), and all other Tuesdays tickets will be $19.39 (that’s the year they opened their doors!).

1000 Main Street, Shrewsbury, MA. (508) 842-6346.

Photo: James Emery/Flickr

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Another New England ski area that is celebrating an anniversary this year is RI's Yawgoo Valley Ski Area and Sports Park—they turn 50! Visit Rhode Island’s only ski area to help them celebrate. For only $12, enjoy a 50-minute session of tubing fun! After tubing, head to the snow tubing park’s concession stand to grab a hot chocolate and thaw out!

160 Yawgoo Valley Road, Exeter, RI. (401) 294-3802.

Photo: Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism/Flickr

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Nashoba Valley

Also turning 50 this year is Nashoba Valley Ski Area in Westford, MA. Open seven days and seven nights all season long, this is the perfect place to get your snow fix. Fly down up to eighteen groomed lanes, serviced by four lifts to minimize wait time. If you need a break to fuel up, visit the onsite snow tubing park lodge, featuring a full bar, TVs, and a warm place to relax.

79 Powers Road, Westford, MA. (978) 692-3033.

Photo: Massachusetts Office of Travel & Tourism/Flickr

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Ski Butternut

The Berkshire region of Massachusetts is ideal for a winter getaway. At about an hour and a half drive from Worcester and a two-hour drive from Providence, it is close enough to make a day trip out of it, but the area’s beauty will make you forget you’re so close to home. In the Berkshire town of Great Barrington, you will find Ski Butternut on East Mountain. The price is right for a great tubing experience—only $20 for two hours. This park features 8 tubing lanes, 7 chutes, 200 tubes, an old fashioned handle lift, and 100% snowmaking coverage.

380 State Road, Rte. 23, Great Barrington, MA. (413) 528-2000.

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Amesbury Sports Park

When many people think of northeastern Massachusetts, they think of the beaches and dunes. Well, the town of Amesbury boasts something a little different: Amesbury Sports Park. During the winter, they are 100% dedicated to snow tubing fun on their lanes—the hill is the steepest tubing hill in the state.

12 S Hunt Road, Amesbury, MA. (978) 388-5788.

Photo: Ines Hegedus-Garcia/Flickr

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Mount Snow

Vermont is known for their pristine 4-season scenery, their mountains, their maple syrup, and so much more. One winter thrill that is a Vermont do-not-miss is snow tubing! Check out the park at Mount Snow in West Dover. The hill is one of the largest available for snow tubing in the state, and is always covered with plenty of snow, even when there is none in your back yard.

39 Mount Snow Road, West Dover, VT. (802) 245-SNOW.

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Woodbury Ski Area

Woodbury Ski Area in Woodbury, CT is the largest snow tubing park in all of New England. This place is huge—you get to race down their 20 tubing lanes located in 3 different tubing parks serviced by 4 different lifts. Each park is very different, from terrain to speed and more. If you’re going tubing with a group, ask about their family size tubes!

785 Washington Road, Woodbury, CT. (203) 263-2203.

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Killington Tubing Park

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4763 Killington Road, Killington, VT. (802) 422-6201.

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Pats Peak

Every weekend or school break, Pats Peak in Henniker, NH opens up its snow tubing park for business! In order to ride the tubes down the mountain, riders are required to lie on their stomachs, making for a thrilling experience! If you want to try a bit of everything, visit Pats Peak on Saturday night or Martin Luther King Day. For just $48, enjoy skiing, snowboarding, snow tubing, and lesson tips!

686 Flanders Road, Henniker, NH. (603) 428-3245.

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Berkshire East

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66 Thunder Mountain Road, Charlemont, MA. (413) 339-6617.

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Loon Mountain

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60 Loon Mountain Road, Lincoln, NH. (603) 745-8111.

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Magic Mountain

Head to Magic Mountain in Londonderry, VT for a fun-filled day of snow. Ride down one of the several tubing lanes and breathe in some fresh mountain air. After your day of tubing, head to the Black Line Tavern afterwards for a delicious family dinner.

495 Magic Mountain Acc., Londonderry, VT. (802) 824-5645.

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Bousquet Mountain

One of the best values for tubing in Massachusetts is to be had at Bousequet Mountain in Pittsfield, located in the cultural district of the Berkshires. There are plenty of open tubing lanes and chutes for people over 5 years old—and the price is only $15 for 2 hours on the mountain.

101 Dan Fox Drive, Pittsfield, MA. (413) 442-8316.

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Grafton Ponds

Although there is only one snow tubing lane at Grafton Ponds Outdoor Center, it will be worth the wait to take the ride down the hill. The lane is 600 feet long, one of the longest in New England. Their special snowmaking process ensures perfect conditions all winter long.

783 Townshand Road, Grafton, VT. (802) 843-2400.

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