winter plant protection

Front arches and cotoneaster with snow February 2021

First (and Last?) Blast of Winter

Until last week, the winter of 2020-2021 was a mild one here on the west coast of Canada. That’s the way it should be, right? A couple of weeks ago, I was anticipating spring.

But this is a La Niña winter. You know La Niña–she’s El Niño’s evil twin sister. Her style is to hold back until spring is just around the corner, and then to descend on the unsuspecting saps who’ve been busy sending photos of stuff blooming in their gardens to folks in places that always get real winters.

miniature daffodils
Early daffodils in 2019. This year they didn’t quite get to this stage before the snow.

Last week, temperatures as low as -9C (16F) were forecast. I raced around the garden, lugging pots into the basement and moving other pots into what I hoped would be sufficiently sheltered spots to withstand the predicted northeast winds that were supposed to produce a wind chill well into the minus degrees. Then I covered up plants that couldn’t be moved with odds and ends of pruned twigs and things like old bath mats and car seat covers that I keep in the shed for these weather eventualities.

Snow on front garden shrubs February 2021

I kept hoping it wouldn’t be as bad as predicted, and it wasn’t, but a low of -4.5C (24F) is pretty cold, especially with a wind gusting to 70 km/hr (35 mph). Having done what I could for plants, I worried about how birds were faring. I made sure the two hummingbird feeders went out first thing in the morning. On Friday, February 12th there were three Anna’s hummingbirds tanking up at the same time at one feeder, a sight I haven’t seen before, since each feeder is usually hogged by one aggressive dude who chases any others away.

Hummingbird at feeder February 2021
Anna’s hummingbird tanking up.
Hummingbird in cotoneaster February 2021
Keeping watch on his (or maybe her?) feeder.

On Friday night, snow began and fell steadily until after noon on Saturday. Total was 30 cm (1 foot). Fortunately, the wind diminished and the temperature rose to an almost tolerable -1C (30F). Rain is predicted for next week, and a return to normal temperatures, meaning lows of 2C (36F) and highs of 8C (46F).

Bird bath and snow February 2021

Returning to plants, I would have been happier if this wintry blast had turned up in December or January, before plants were starting to sprout and even bloom. Now the hellebores, which were in bloom, have gone limp. I know they’ll rebound once it warms up, but it’s still depressing to see them lying on the ground. Buds of Clematis armandii, the evergreen clematis that’s the first to bloom, may have been blasted to the point of no bloom at all by that cold northeast wind. Some of those potted plants may have suffered as well.

Snow on front steps February 2021
Pots near front steps. You can see limp hellebores hanging over the edges of the pots on the left.

While distressing, this sort of snow and cold event is by no means unheard of here. We get one every couple of years. I just wish La Niña had better timing.

Snow on front walk February 2021

The Perils of Plant Protection

Living on the climatically fortunate west coast of Canada, I haven’t paid much attention to winter protection for plants. OK, I’ve wrapped up a big pot containing a dahlia, and moved pelargoniums (“geraniums”) inside for the winter, but for the most part I haven’t worried about winter survival.

Until now. A couple of years ago, my pink gauras failed to sprout in spring after a colder than normal period in February. A year or so later, I lost even the white (presumably tougher) gauras and feared for the survival of a blue Convolvulus. Fortunately the Convolvulus survived, but took its time sprouting out, not emerging until June.

What was going on here? Gauras (also called Lindheimer’s beeblossom) are supposedly hardy to Zone 6, and my place is safely in Zone 8. It wasn’t “wet feet,” either; my soil is as close to sand as it can be this side of a beach, and the drainage is excellent. Not knowing the reason for these losses, I now fret about plant survival every time the temperature descends to -5 C (23 F). That’s happened twice already this winter, and both times saw me racing around with wads of hay to snuggle around any plant I thought might be vulnerable. That includes the aforementioned Convolvulus and a batch of new seed-grown gauras in little pots huddled next to the house wall.

The trouble is, here a cold snap is reliably followed by a rebound into wet and relatively warm — what we call a “pineapple express.” The temperature rises to 10 degrees (50 F) or more, and it rains and rains. The hay mulch gets wet and soggy and packs down over the plants it’s meant to protect. This may not be a problem when the plant is fully dormant, with no top growth, but the gauras and Convolvulus still had some green leaves when I covered them. Unless I rush out and remove the mulch when it warms up and starts to rain, suffocation and rot might kill the plants as surely as the cold would have.

I’m beginning to think the hands-off approach might be better. Once I’ve situated the plants in the right sort of place, they should be able to cope with conditions in the full range of “normal.” If they’re too fussy and delicate to do that, let ’em die.

But those gauras are so elegant and graceful. They bloom for months and are drought-tolerant. I hope my little plants make it to spring, either because or in despite of my efforts.

Gaura lindheimeri (from Wikimedia Commons)

Gaura lindheimeri (from Wikimedia Commons)