It has taken a lot of resolve to keep from meddling with my gardens and landscape during this mild winter. Today, as the daffodil shoots and crocus are covered in 2 feet of snow, I’m reminded that winter can still act wintry even when the first day of spring is moments away and the last frost date is two months away.

Our columnist had to dig deep to uncover these sprouting daffodils under this week's snow. (Photo by P. Doan(
Our columnist had to dig deep to uncover these sprouting daffodils under this week’s snow. (Photo by P. Doan)

The daffodils should still bloom after this snow melts but other plants might not make it. A lack of snow cover and warmer-than-usual temperatures aren’t enough to compensate for the harsh conditions that could overcome new growth and ruin all your efforts.

Gardening in a warmer and warming climate is complicated and riskier in many ways. While research shows that phenology, the science of life-cycle changes in plants, has been shifting with earlier bud break, bloom times and other changes, an extended growing season hasn’t yet manifested without the possibility of weather-related losses. The milder winter we have just experienced is predicted to become more normal, triggering growth but making plants more vulnerable to damage or destruction when a cold snap hits.

Farmers will struggle the most. Those of us with home gardens might feel bad, but our livelihoods aren’t at stake when an early May frost kills the buds on our fruit trees or ruins the hardy greens. It’s more challenging to protect trees and shrubs from damage, and current strategies — such as using helicopters or wind machines to raise surface air temperature in an orchard to prevent frost damage — are expensive and designed for large-scale use. Most of us don’t have access to landscape heaters.

I see a lot of statements on social media and on gardening sites about planting peas, one of the earliest vegetables we can sow in this area, on the first day of spring. That, however, might not be the best time. Peas don’t care about what day it is. The seeds need soil temperature to be in the right range to germinate.

My organic Mega Snap Pea packet from Fedco Seeds states they can be planted “as soon as ground can be worked.” That could mean a lot of things, depending on how much work you want to do to make a ¾-inch deep row. Digging deeper, pun intended, I can find that the minimum soil temperature for these seeds is 40 degrees but the optimum temperature is 50 to 75 degrees.

A regional analysis for soil temperatures I found online seemed reasonably accurate and showed 5- and 10-year averages, too. For the past month, soil temperatures fluctuated widely, with early February showing 48 degrees and late February in the low 30s. A microclimate, influenced by site conditions like proximity to water, slope, altitude and soil type, will also determine the soil temperature in your yard or landscape.

Invest in a soil thermometer if you’re ready to plant now. One that is about 5 inches long will give good results because you want to know how warm the topsoil is (the first 3 to 4 inches). Leave it in the soil for 5 to 10 minutes or follow the directions that come with it. Since I live in a moody microclimate and don’t have time to redo planting, I’ll test my soil for a week or two before deciding to plant, and adjust for fluctuations.

Row covers, made of a fabric that allows in light, water and air but excludes insects, will warm soil faster and offer protection from shifting weather patterns like a mini-greenhouse. These can be found at most landscape centers. They can be braced near soil level or raised with hoops. If you fasten a cover over hoops, u-shaped metal or PVC poles staked into the ground, it can accommodate plant growth and remain in place well into the growing season. (Row covers are also known as hoop houses.)

Be sure to avoid frying your plants when temperatures rise, though, and monitor the heat level. Another consideration is to make sure insects have access to pollinator-dependent vegetables, like squash, tomatoes and eggplant, or you won’t get any produce. Remove row covers when flowers bloom.

With a little observation, measurement and attention to detail, we can improve our chances of gardening success in this out-of-whack climate. I feel optimistic as of this writing, but might feel less so once this snow melts and I can assess the damage to my woody plants. The witch-hazel, dogwood and winterberry are slowly emerging after being blanketed by heavy, wet snow and bent to the ground. Hopefully, just some pruning will be necessary.

Behind The Story

Type: Opinion

Opinion: Advocates for ideas and draws conclusions based on the author/producer’s interpretation of facts and data.

Doan, who resides in Philipstown, has been writing for The Current since 2013. She edits the weekly calendar and writes the gardening column. Location: Philipstown. Languages: English. Areas of expertise: Gardening, environment