Bend and snap

Snow. Nothing stirs quite so many mixed emotions for me as snow. On the one hand, it is beautiful and brings back fond childhood memories. On the other hand, it brings a lot of garden anxiety.

After having some short-lived flurries on Christmas Day, we woke up to 12 inches of snow the next morning. It’s pretty when you’re snug inside looking out. Ideally, I would just sit inside all day with a cup of hot mocha and a buttery, flaky pastry to contemplate the beauty of the natural world. But, this amount of snow also starts a ticking anxiety clock inside my head.

Snow crushing the garden
Looking out at the front rock garden from inside.

Many broadleaf evergreen shrubs like Jerusalem sage, hebes, grevilleas, etc. didn’t really evolve in places that receive large amounts of snow. Other broadleaf evergreens like camellias, silk tassel bushes, and manzanitas suffer too. Heavy snow sticks to their leaves and branches, bending them down to the ground in awkward positions. If the branches aren’t flexible enough, they snap. If the weather stays cold and the the snow stays on the plants for too long, the branches can end up deformed. So, that clock starts ticking in my head…tick…tick..tick. There is a limited amount of time to get that snow off.

Snow on the outdoor potted plants
12 inches of snow on our container plants.

This amount of snow also has to be shoveled, which adds an additional layer of stress. The shoveled snow has to go somewhere, but now it is difficult to tell where the most fragile plants are underneath that obscuring, thick, white blanket of snow. I’ve got quite a number of broadleaf evergreens along the driveway and garden paths, which means the snow needs to either be tossed carefully in between them or carried to another location and disposed of there. A careless toss of a shovelful of wet, compacted snow and driveway gravel on top of an already bent plant often results in at least a few broken branches or, worse, a completely smashed plant. I am willing to put in the effort to work around the plants, even though it takes a looong time with the amount of driveway we have. It becomes a little more difficult when you have an impatient husband who just wants to get the job done.

The first foot of snow is shoveled, but more keeps falling...

Magnify that difficulty a hundredfold if someone happens to be visiting us when it snows. Inevitably, they want to help. I dread this moment immensely because it is so difficult to direct someone who doesn’t know where the plants are located underneath the snow. A misplaced strike of the shovel can do a lot of damage very quickly, not to mention the flying clods of heavy snow and gravel mentioned earlier. I also end up feeling like a crazed, grumpy, controlling plant freak when I try to direct other people’s snow shoveling activity. Ugh.

Snow in the apple orchard
Snow in the apple orchard

I’ve finally settled on a strategy of sending anyone who wants to help towards other parts of the driveway that aren’t directly adjacent to any fragile plants. Over the past few years, I have also been gradually removing the larger, more delicate broadleaf evergreens from next to the driveway and replacing them with tougher herbaceous perennials and broadleaf evergreens that can take more abuse. My eventual goal is to have it so we can either use a snowblower, or hire someone to plow, without having me stress out about plant damage.

Snow in the front rock garden
First round of snow brushed off the plants and sidewalks cleared, more snow coming. 12/26/2021 at 3 pm.

Another difficult part about having visitors occurs when they want to go out and explore the yard in the snow. I’ve planted stuff almost everywhere out there and they aren’t going to see the plants underneath the snow. They won’t hear the plants being crushed underneath their boots.

Plus, I would feel absolutely crazy following someone around, trying to control where they go. I would become a neurotic, obsessive, and overprotective botanical mother hen trying to protect each and every one of her precious little Sempervivum chicks. I tend to become passive aggressive and sarcastic when I am stressed out and trying to control a situation. Not a good combination. I can just hear my growing frustration and nonsensical dialogue now. 

Snow in the front rock garden
There are plants under there!

“No, you can’t go there… or over there… or there either. No, that’s part of the garden too. Oh careful!, there’s poison oak over there (a justifiable lie to keep them away from an entire corner of the yard). Why don’t you come over here to this nice safe patch of lawn instead? Grass likes being stood on. Evolutionarily, lawn grasses were selected for abuse by clueless mammals because they are God’s least favorite plants. Plus, this is a great vantage point where you can stand completely still and look around the garden with your eyes instead of your clutzy feet. Watch it! There’s a rare such-and-such plant underneath that particular lump of snow. I paid $65 for it and your clompy designer boots won’t help it grow any better. Yes, as a matter of fact I do value that plant more than our 40 year friendship. Where are you actually allowed to go? (I quickly discount mentioning hell as a possibility and move on to more palatable options). You could stand over there in the driveway or on that paved sidewalk over there. Those are good spots. Or, you could also walk over the bridge. As a matter of fact, why don’t you leave the yard entirely? The woods are full of plants just waiting to be walked on. Or, maybe you could just go back inside? Yes, that might be best. It’s nice and warm and there aren’t any plants you can destroy in there.”

Just absolutely batty, I know. I really do enjoy having friends and family over for the holidays, but sometimes the garden brings out the worst in me. Weird, huh? Gardening is supposed to be relaxing. But, enough. How about some pictures of it all?

Here is a perfect example of a newly planted area with hundreds of delicate plants hiding underneath the snow. It doesn’t look like anything is there, but believe me, there are plants there, and I don’t want them walked on.

Newly planted rock garden buried under snow
Dozens of new rock garden plants lie underneath all that snow. Stay off my garden!

The snow came immediately on the heels of a very heavy rain (1.7 inches) on Christmas day. As a result, there was still water running over the surface of the gravel path between the south rock garden (right) and the perennial beds (left). At first, we thought maybe our water line had cracked because there was so much water. Fortunately, it hadn’t.

Snow in the south rock garden
Runoff and snow in the garden.

Although the lighting is different, this photo was taken just seconds after the one above. I wanted a close-up shot to show the water running over the surface of our gravel path. Everything was so squishy walking around – the ground was completely saturated. Our soil here is thick, heavy clay. That’s one reason I build my gardens up into berms.

Later in the afternoon on the 26th, it started snowing heavily again. By then, it was too dark outside to shovel or knock the snow off of the plants without accidentally destroying things. So, it was time to just hunker down inside and hope for the best. The next morning brought this…

20 inches of snow around the house, garden, and surrounding woodlands!
20 inches of snow!

Eight more inches of snow, bringing our total to 20 inches. It was warm enough that everything soon compressed down to about 12-15 inches. Time to get shoveling, along with all the stress that comes with it. And, yes, we did happen to have a friend visiting for the holidays. I have no idea how successful I was at putting up a normal facade while directing snow shoveling activities. I suspect that I probably seemed grumpy.

In all reality, I wanted to just enjoy the scenery and focus on knocking the snow off of the broadleaf evergreens. But, once the shoveling starts, it is almost impossible to stop the momentum. I was also pushing to keep ahead of L and our friend while they were occupied in the safer zones so that I could focus on the more sensitive areas of the garden. It all went smoothly and there were no garden casualties. So, it appears that my strategy for managing the situation works and I just need to chill out and enjoy BOTH the snow and the friendship when they come.

By the time we were finished shoveling (hours later) and I had rested up, it was cloudy again. All the plants were still slumped over in the snow (tick tick tick). Time to get to work. First up, my Aristotelia fruticosa in the left foreground. Can I say how disturbing it is to find one of your favorite shrubs, formerly 5 feet tall, suddenly mashed over to 18 inches? Awful. I wondered if any of the main stems had cracked or snapped?

Heavy snow on the broadleaf evergreens
Time to start knocking the snow off.

Luckily, the main stems were intact and there was very little breakage. It straightened back up pretty well once the snow was off. It is such a cool plant, with curvy weird branches and odd little leaves. I wish it was easier to photograph.

The Aristotelia springs back after the snow is knocked off

Next, this formerly 6 foot manzanita (right foreground). Now, also mashed down to 2 feet tall.

This one also didn’t break and started standing back up as soon as the snow was off.

After knocking the snow off of the manzanita, it straightened back up

The Hebes in this section of the garden made me so sad. This is my favorite one, Veronica pinguifolia ‘sutherlandii’. That’s it – the white blob in the corner, under the snow where the two parts of the pathway meet. I think I jinxed myself earlier when I was worried about snow or ice breaking it. Here, I just couldn’t bring myself to clean off the snow again. I had carefully brushed it off on the 26th, then we got more snow, and there was more on the way. I sort of figured maybe it was safer underneath until things started thawing out. We’ll see.

One of my favorite hebes buried under snow

This is my oldest, and largest manzanita, Arctostaphylos densiflora ‘Sentinel’. I’ve had it since 2008 or 2009, so it was about 8 feet tall and wide before the snow. Now, it’s all mashed over and only about 4 feet tall. It was actually starting to bloom before the snow came. The Anna’s hummingbirds normally appreciate the flowers this time of year. I wonder what they eat and how they survive when everything is covered with snow? Time to knock the snow off and uncover the flowers. I dreaded walking through this part of the rock garden to get to it, though. There are a lot of plants under there somewhere.

Manzanita 'Sentinel' bending under a heavy snowfall

I went in anyway. The manzanita looks much better now. Seems to me that most of the manzanitas in my yard have been pretty flexible under the snow, which I hope I remember next time. One last thing to stress about. Note the mashed ceanothus bush off to the left. I didn’t bother knocking the snow off of that one as it was getting too large and is coming out in 2022.

Manzanita 'Sentinel' after knocking the snow off

Speaking of the hummingbirds, I was almost certain they had died overnight because of the cold and lack of food. All of the flowers and insects that they normally eat were buried and the hummingbird feeder had frozen. How would they survive? But then I spotted this in the manzanita. See it? Lower right corner about a third of the way up and a third of the way towards the left.

Cold little hummingbird sitting in a snow-covered manzanita

I took our feeder inside to thaw it out for a few minutes. When I brought the feeder back out, this little bird was so hungry that it immediately buzzed over and started feeding as I was hanging the feeder back up. I normally can’t get that close to them, so this was a special treat. Here it is, later that day.

Hummingbird happy to be fed out in the snow

Finally, it was nightfall. Time to end a long day. It was about to get cold. Mid teens or lower 20s for lows over the next few days.

Night view of our garden and house in the snow

I have to admit being a little amused by some of the frantic gardeners on social media who were freaking out about a mere 2 or 3 inches of snow in their gardens (snow totals vary widely in the Willamette Valley, depending on elevation and proximity to the coast) and the coming colder weather. Some of the more experienced gardeners had busily wrapped their tender plants beforehand, hoping to pull them through the cold snap (I ended up only covering two plants, which I will talk about next post). However, there was also quite a bit of fuss from more inexperienced gardeners about whether their perfectly hardy maples, rhododendrons, daphnes, viburnums, and bottlebrushes would survive.

To be fair, I have come to expect the weather to be colder and more severe in our garden than at other locations around the Willamette Valley. On average, we are typically 5-10 degrees colder and we get a bit more precipitation. I attribute a lot of this to local geography. We are in the foothills of the Coastal Mountains on a northeast facing slope. This puts us in a solid zone 7, while most of the other gardeners in the region are zone 8, with some pushing zone 9. I don’t have the luxury of growing a lot of the tender perennials that others have come to depend on. Or, maybe it might be more accurate to say that I don’t want to spend the time to coddle them through our zone 7 winters. After my first few painful years of losing a lot of more tender perennials, I’ve given up on them and prefer to spend my time and energy on more hardy plants.

12/20/2021 to 12/27/2021: Min. = 22°F. Max. = 49°F. Precip. = 6.7 inches of rain + 20 inches of snow.

Garden chores accomplished: Shoveling the driveway and walkways, knocking snow off of plants, turned on heat in greenhouse.

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. Geppetto

    Yup….Gardening is supposed to be relaxing. 😉

    1. GARDEN CURMUDGEON

      If only I could remember that small detail…

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