Here in Portland, we aren’t exactly used to waking up to multiple inches of snow on an April morning, but as we’ve learned, it isn’t an impossibility! April 11, 2022 is sure to be remembered as a record-breaker for the city, even though such “unusual” days are beginning to feel like the norm. As gardeners attuned to the rhythms of our own corners of the great outdoors, we are uniquely positioned to see the realities of our changing climate, but we also have the perfect space in which to make a positive impact: our gardens.
The Good News
In the face of unseasonable weather events like this, filled with broken limbs and frost-damaged blooms, everything can start to feel like doom and gloom. But it isn’t! There is plenty of good news surrounding this week’s weather: A late-season winter precipitation event like this can help to recharge our groundwater and prime plants across the landscape to face whatever conditions await them in our increasingly hot and dry summer months. And fortunately for gardeners in the Portland metro area, air temperatures never fell below freezing.
Although we experienced some accumulation of snow on the ground, many people don’t realize that this can actually act as an insulating layer for the vegetation underneath. And while it is probably too soon to declare any definitive outcomes in our gardens, we are less worried about our tender plants than we might be had air temperatures been lower. Most plants will likely recover, with the possible exception of warm season annuals and veggies if you had already taken the gamble and planted them out already. Gardeners know better than anyone that sometimes risks pay off, and other times they don’t — not that we enjoy the process of learning that lesson anew each time we are tempted to set out plants earlier than we probably should!
Assessing the Damage
With the snow melting away, take a few deep breaths and remain calm as you assess the damage your garden may have sustained. It’s still too early to get an accurate picture of the damage from this event, and many plants that look terrible now will flush back out and fully recover later in the season. Even if this spring’s floral display has been impacted, next year will bring more blooms. And any annuals and warm-season vegetables too damaged to recover can always be replaced. A toppled lilac shrub can regrow from the smallest sucker. And new saplings can always be planted where old trees once stood.
The most likely plants to have sustained damage from this wet, heavy snowfall are woody shrubs and trees whose branches were presented with extra weight to support. At the Farm, we've seen our mature, leafed-out Japanese maples take a hit, as well as other small trees and tightly-branched shrubs. In general, you don’t want to shake ice and snow off of the limbs of such plants during or after a winter weather event as the branches are brittle; however, when such weather is not accompanied by a hard freeze, know that it's okay to brush snow off of any branches that look particularly weighed down if you are able. Sometimes, of course, this just isn't practical or safe, or you may not be present to do anything about it, as was the case for us. And that is okay.
As the snow melts, you can clean up any fallen branches and cut back any limbs that have broken during the storm. This will not only improve a plant's appearance, but help to prevent further damage and reduce the risk of disease or insect infestation. While no tree wants to lose a large portion of its canopy, otherwise healthy plants will likely survive the shock and simply grow in their new shape, sending out new branches over the years. If inspection of unbroken branches reveals damaged vegetation or flowers, be patient. Your plants will likely push out new growth later in the spring; it may just take them a while.
Although it is unlikely that we will have had any perennials melt away in this year’s cold snap, don’t give up hope on any that may have taken a hit just because they look rough! You can carefully remove any mushy plant material, but the roots are likely still alive underground. With luck, it won’t be long before new growth appears.
Looking to Nature
This recent weather may be disconcerting and even disheartening, but it's worth remembering that plants are inherently resilient. Nature is the perfect teacher on finding opportunity in adversity. A fallen tree in the forest creates the perfect pocket of sunshine for a host of new plants to sprout up and take its place. On a large scale, each of us can — and must — do our part to make a positive impact on the environment and our changing climate, but that responsibility doesn’t rest on any of our shoulders alone. And as individuals, our gardens will recover. Spring — even a crazy one like this — serves as a reminder that new growth is always around the corner.