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Alaska is killing my plants!

January 13, 2012

After a winter of balmy temperatures and no snow, a blizzard dumped this load on the warm ground in my garden.

Credit: Doreen G. Howard
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Buried under 25 feet of snow, coastal Alaska gobbled up the winter cold and snow we normally have in the northern tier of the country.  Chalk it up to the Arctic Oscillation, a rare phenomenon that is killing my perennials and shrubs.

When the ground remains warm, as it has during this strange winter, and is suddenly covered by a heavy snow pack and sub-zero temperatures, plant roots suffer.  Many die, especially when the thaw-freeze pattern is repeated.

We’ve had no snow this season until Jan. 12, when a blizzard dropped 8 inches and temperatures plunged below zero.  Jan. 11, it was 59F and sunny, as it’s been most of the winter.  Daffodils had been popping up in the previous weeks.

I planted a plethora of Echinacea last summer, thinking I’d have colorful workhorses in my perennial beds that would also draw pollinators and feed birds during the winter.  Dan Heims,accomplished breeder and president of Terra Nova Nurseries, explained to me that in order for Echinacea to succeed in cold climates like mine (USDA Zone 4b), I had to deadhead ruthlessly the first year in the ground.  I shouldn’t let plants blooms, but pinch off the buds as soon as I spotted them.  Plants then spend their energy building extensive root systems to survive in the cold.  I hope it worked!


I planted 26 different coneflowers last spring, including Pow Wow, with great hopes of a colorful display throughout the growing season. Photo courtesy of Ball Horticulture Co.

I also left dead chrysanthemum and aster foliage on plants.  According to the Univ. of Iowa, the foliage blanket insulates plant roots.  But… may have insulated them too well, and below zero temperatures probably damaged roots in warm soil.

And, I worry about shallow-rooted shrubs like blueberries.  Hopefully, the foot of pine straw I mulched them with will keep root-kill to a minimum. 

Rose canes are still green with intact leaves in mid-January due to the warm winter.  With the sudden onslaught of snow and sub-zero temperatures, roots will probably die in the warm ground.  The chrysanthemums won't make it either.

Roses are toast.  Most canes were green and buds are plump when the storm hit.  They’ll probably die and only the rootstock upon which they’re grafted will survive.  Those on their own roots, like Therese Bugnet, may survive.  We’ll see.

Let’s compare notes about what survives this strange winter.  I’d love to hear what worked for you.

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Doreen Howard has written for The Old Farmer's Almanac All-Seasons Garden Guide for 15 years and is the former garden editor at Woman’s Day as well as a photographer. She has grown more than 300 varieties of heirloom edibles and flowers in the last two decades.

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Look for Doreen's newest book, Heirloom Flavor: Yesterday's Best-Tasting Vegetables, Fruits and Herbs for Today's Cook. Find in stores everywhere including Walmart and on the Web including

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spring will tell

By SusanJB

I too am wondering what is still viable in my gardens and what is not ever going to grace me with it's presense again. I have lavender and thyme and sage that I really will be disappointed if they don't come back. I also planted some tulip bulbs this fall. I guess we wait and see.

Re: spring will tell

By Doreen G. Howard

Susan, your tulips should be OK.  They have built-in antifreeze in their bulbs.  They may sprout earlier than usual.  Lavender is notorious for fading when the weather goes bonkers.  I've learned the hard way to grow lavender in pots and overwinter them in my garage where it goes no lower than 20F, even when the outdoors temperature is below zero.

indoor gardening in winter

By Gardening Rain

I have found myself gardening indoors these days in the winter because of the problems you are having. With the vast changes in weather the past ten years, there seems to be no consistency in hot or cold, mild or rainy. So folks, might be time to think of indoor growing or a hot house :)

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