The Joys and Sorrows of Snow

Carolyn’s Shade Gardens is a retail nursery located in Bryn Mawr, PA, specializing in showy, colorful, and unusual plants for shade.  The only plants that we ship are snowdrops and miniature hostas.  For catalogues and announcements of events, please send your full name, location, and phone number (for back up use only) to  Click here to get to the home page of our website for catalogues and information about our nursery and to subscribe to our blog.

My office, an historic carriage house, in winter

I love snow.  I am not sure that my garden is ever more beautiful than with a dusting of snow highlighting every branch and stem.  And to me there is really nothing uglier, in the garden anyway, than snowless frozen soil or mulch surrounded by the fences and houses that I can’t see when the leaves are on.

Snow on the branches of my 150-year-old London plane trees

My “signature” bird house in winter

Ice is very beautiful too (I can hear the groans, but if you can ignore the sounds of branches breaking and just stare at the ice, it is lovely.  On second thought, maybe you should only view ice from inside the house.)

My upright coral bark maple, Acer palmatum ‘Sango-kaku’: more vertical Japanese maples fare better in  snow and ice than weeping forms

White pine, Pinus strobus, is not suitable for ornamental landscapes as explained below

Winterberry holly, Ilex verticillata ‘Red Sprite’, looks beautiful encased in ice

Here in southeastern Pennsylvania, we had record snowfall during the winter of 2009-2010 with 70 inches.  The previous record was 1995-1996 with 66 inches, but over three feet came in one blizzard so there wasn’t consistent cover.  Before that you have to go back to 1898-1899 with 55″ inches.

My house, Wayside Cottage, the old estate gardener’s dwelling.

As the snow melts and temperatures warm, we get fog

During 2009-2010, the ground was covered with snow almost the whole winter, which hasn’t happened in quite a while here.  Snow cover is very important for plants, especially when the temperatures dip down into the single digits.  We are in USDA hardiness zone 6b with an average annual minimum temperature of 0 to -5 degrees F (-18 to -21 degrees C).  Snow insulates plant roots and keeps them at an even temperature, preventing the freezing and thawing that heaves them out of the ground.  Snow also provides much needed moisture over the winter and especially in the spring as it melts slowly and waters the emerging perennials.

My clump of yellow trillium doubled in size after a snowy winter

Cobra lily, Arisaema urashima, reached new heights

When my perennials came up in the spring of 2010 after the snowy winter, they were spectacular.  Struggling plants were suddenly big and glorious.  Newly planted areas looked well established.  Patches of slow growing woodland ephemerals doubled and tripled in size.  Asian jack-in-the-pulpits that hadn’t come up in years burst out of the ground and were twice their normal height.  I had given them up for dead.  Seeds of rare plants germinated and thrived in my woodland unaided.  I suddenly had a small hillside of the snow white jack-in-the-pulpit Arisaema sikokianum.  Trilliums, dogtooth-violets (Erythronium), and fumewort (Corydalis solida) proliferated in new combinations and colors.  The snow was very good to my perennials.

Serendipitous shades of self-sown fumewort, Corydalis solida

A new color form of dogtooth-violet, Erythronium, appeared in my woodland

I wish I could say the same for my shrubs and trees.  My very well established winter daphnes, Daphne odora, and my February daphne, Daphne mezereum, were bent to the ground by snow and falling limbs.  Although I righted them, they all suddenly wilted and died in the spring.  I think once the roots are damaged or disturbed, they are not resistant to pathogens and quickly succumb.  That may be the origin of what is known as sudden-daphne-dieback.

Damaged weeping Japanese maple, Acer palmatum dissectum: upright forms of Japanese maple fared better, they just bent to the ground and sprang back up

Voles, protected from my cats by the snow, ate my rare tree peony purchased from the old Heronswood many years ago.  I also lost my Chinese redbud, Cercis chinensis, both my white and my gold variegated Kousa dowoods, Cornus kousa ‘Wolf’s Eye’ and ‘Sunsplash’, my yellow rugosa rose, Rosa rugosa ‘Topaz Jewel’, and an old native rhododendron that came with the property in 1983.  My woody plants did not like the snow.

Split native ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud, Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’: it should probably be grown as a single trunk

You may be saying, wow she really should be growing native trees and shrubs, and she wouldn’t be having all these problems, but you would be wrong.  The winter of 2010-2011 is gearing up to exceed last year in snowfall with 50 inches already and more storms in the forecast.  During last week’s 18 inch storm, which included sleet, I lost a large specimen ‘Forest Pansy’ redbud, Cercis canadensis ‘Forest Pansy’ (photo above), an old flowering dogwood, Cornus florida, a red spruce, Picea rubens (photo below),  and a lot of my large white pine, Pinus strobus (photo below), all native plants.  Apple trees, a very old specimen weeping Japanese maple, Acer palmatum dissectum (photo above), and my Chinese wax shrub, Sinoclaycanthus chinensis, were also severely damaged.  Last night’s ice storm is only adding to the wreckage.

My red pine, Picea rubens, just snapped off

Branches rained down from my white pine, Pinus strobus: white pine is not a good tree for ornamental landscapes because it sheds its lower branches freely, damaging the understory plants

Once I would have mourned the loss of my prize plants.  Now I choose to be more philosophical, learn the lessons inherent in the process (which I have tried to pass on above), and look forward to what new miracles my perennials will present to me this spring—my jack-in-the-pulpits have already risen from the dead.  The glass will be determinedly half full.  As my good friend Kim remarked when I told her about the specimen redbud’s demise: “Think of the opportunities it has opened up for you in the garden!”  I don’t think I can go that far.  I intend to plant another redbud in the exact same spot.

Please tell me in a comment/reply what lessons you have learned from snowy winters.


Notes: Every word that appears in orange on my blog is a link that you can click for more information.  If you want to return to my blog’s homepage to access the sidebar information (catalogues, previous articles, etc.), just click here.

Nursery Happenings: I am currently accepting orders for snowdrops, including  mail orders.  For the catalogue and order information, click here.  I am also taking reservations for Charles Cresson’s Snowdrops and Other Winter Interest Plants Seminar.  For the brochure and registration information, click here.

78 Responses to “The Joys and Sorrows of Snow”

  1. I have not learned that much from the snow but I have learned a lot from the cold. The more delicate semitropical plants that can flourish here die in very cold winters. My back porch does not hold enough warmth, after I bring in my favorite container plants. Oh and I lost a favorite ceramic birdbath to an unexpected rain and freeze.

  2. Mother Nature has “edited” our gardens with snow and ice! The loss of beloved plants does clear a path for new life in the garden. Ah, the bittersweet cycles of life . . . both human and plant!

  3. Last winters ice did in a 200 year old yew in my yard. The beautiful tree sized shrub protected our porch from the neighbors view and since we had raised the canopy provided me with a little tiny shade garden. The damage was severe and although we could still have some porch privacy my shade garden was reduced to 1/2 it’s size. Yesterday’s ice took out another 5 inch limb. I am not upset, the flip side is more sun on the grass around it and happier hosta. I have learned that the mess from and ice storm often provides opportunities for surprises. I hope the brunnera feel the same way!

  4. Ice storms can be brutal but oh so beautiful to photograph! I’m coveting your yellow trillium, Carolyn … where did you find them!

  5. I have learned not to plant anything remotely woody near our driveway and cul de sac. With our record snowfalls here this year the piled snow is 10 feet in some places. So all perennials around the edges where snow gets piled.


  6. I had no idea about white pine shedding branches – perhaps I shouldn’t have planted 3 of them this past spring?! Oh well, I love these trees but will be careful about what I plant around them now.

    • Marguerite, When we moved in one of the first trees I planted was a white pine to screen the neighbors. It continued to get larger and more beautiful and then about 5 years ago the bottom branches started to break off when there was heavy snow. If you observe old white pines they have massive branch-less trunks for most of their height. Even the old white pines will continue to lose branches only now they are the size of small trees. You are smart to be careful what you plant under them. Carolyn

  7. Marcia Meigs Says:

    Carolyn, Superb photography, especially the close-ups of ice kissed needles and berries.
    I am so sad about those losses. I fret my way through the winters here, especially re: the more easily fractured acers and cercis, but fortunately we do not get the ice storms so often as you do.
    What camera and lens do you use? I find my Canon Power Shot less than satisfactory, especially for close ups, but then I am pretty dim at anything but the most basic sort of photography. Wish my father’s old Leica still worked.
    Looking forward, as always, to the next chapter.
    Best, Marcia in a sunny 37 degrees with good snow cover.

    • Marcia, It’s sunny and warm here today too. I am glad you like my photographs. I use a Nikon Coolpix P5000 (Nikon’s top of the line point and shoot), and I love it. It takes great close up shots; landscape shots are a little trickier. Carolyn

  8. You were not kidding on the severity of the storm to hit PA. In fact what was supposed to hit us this week actually veered south. Sorry to send more snow your direction. We were also to expect ice and wind and nada.

    My nurseryman will not grow Red Bud, one for the reason you showed, and it is very particular about directional location. I personally love them and put them in my designs. I have not lost one yet. So sad to see your Cercis split.

    I do use white pine in large landscapes and they are requested quite often for the open structure of the tree. But, they do have to be sited properly. I especially like the needles. They are light and delicate looking in comparison to other pines, like Austrian. The pine mulch is used on the nursery often. Good for acidifying the soil too. My posts on conifers will show many different varieties, some many will not know. Check it out!

    • Donna, Thanks for giving me a chance to expand on the white pine comments. I do not think they are a good choice for ornamental landscapes when you intend to layer with small flowering trees and shrubs. They are very majestic and irreplaceable in a landscape where you can give them the room they need and the free space underneath to drop their branches. We run around the neighborhood collecting the white pine needles that other people put out with their leaves. I use them on all my paths. I adore redbud and would not be stopped from buying it by the splitting. I do think it needs to be a single trunk—my single trunk redbuds have never split. And now they come in all kinds of interesting variations. There is even one with orange leaves this year. Carolyn

  9. Carolyn — Last winter we lost a lot of branches on our Forest Pansy, so did some hard pruning and it came back. Our 10yr. old Acer pseudosieboldiana split down the middle, so in the spring my husband bolted it together and it leafed out and seemed to recover. Another snowy winter here so we will see how everything fares this time.

  10. Carolyn, what I have learned is to stop complaining about the snow in the UK which is so meagre in comparison to what you get. Yellow Trillium, didn’t know you got such a thing, I have white and red but no, never seen a yellow.

  11. I live with 120 average inches of snow…some ice and very cold temps…I have learned to not become too attached to anything…replace it if the voles, rabbits, deer or Mother Nature get it…I mourn and move on…I have said many times you have to be hardy and a survivalist in my garden…you are on your own once I plant you…so like you I am happy when I see what Spring has in store and replant my losses….and I have lots of natives11

    • Donna, I consider myself a farmer because I grow 50% of the perennials I sell. Once you start growing crops, you really have to let go of the idea you have any control over nature. It sounds like you have reached the same conclusion because of your extreme conditions. But really it is a happier way to be. Carolyn

  12. gardeningasylum Says:

    I agree, woodies are a lot more vulnerable, native or not – perennial roots are generally safe and sound. Unless, of course, the voles have made a happy hideout in the snow, which has happened here in years past. I grow and love the a.palmatum Sango-kaku – for the red bark now and the chartreuse leaves in spring.

  13. This is my first winter as caretaker of a garden, and I don’t know if I’ve learned a lot yet. I suspect that I will learn more when I have a milder winter to compare it to.

    Still, I have picked up a few tricks; taking care of flat roofs and near-horizontal branches by getting rid of the snow on them! Piling snow from the roofs and branches in places where you WON’T be walking! Using snow as a cover and insulation for sensitive plants!

    And – perhaps most importantly – I have learned what the garden looks like when all colour is gone and there’s only shapes and sizes to consider. Under the snow, the garden becomes a 3D diagram of itself; a meta-garden that explains some of the effects that are more effective but less clearly readable during summer when all is colour.

    • Soren, If the snow doesn’t come down too hard or all night and the tree or shrub isn’t too tall, shaking the branches is very effective. Thanks for mentioning that. Unfortunately, we were getting 1-2″ an hour during the dead of night. I gave up. Another great point: the snow takes away all the distractions, and you can focus on the big picture, what people call the bones of the garden. Carolyn

  14. I admire your philosophical acceptance of the effects of winter on your beautiful garden. I wish I could be that way when the fox damages mine.

    • B_a_g (it’s funny to call you that but I like to use names if I can), After totally losing my cool over the redbud (you can imagine how I reacted when my husband said he didn’t know why I was so upset because he would be digging the hole for the new one), I became resigned and then on further contemplation, philosophical (much further contemplation had to take place). There really isn’t much choice in the matter, and I really do look forward to my perennials this spring. We have lots of foxes, but they don’t seem to damage anything. Carolyn

  15. I’ve learned to appreciate the beauty God gave in winter… most of the time I’m wishing for spring, but there is nothing so heartbreakingly beautiful as a fire sunset in February, surrounded by a pale pink watercolor sky.

  16. Oh, I’m so sorry to hear about your ‘Forest Pansy’ Redbud. We lost one several years ago when it uprooted because of receiving an inordinate amount of rainfall one spring. As you saw on a recent blog entry, I just purchased another ‘Forest Pansy’ to plant in my backyard. It’s in a different spot than the first one, but I’m excited to have one in my garden again. Yes, sometimes these unexpected changes do present opportunities to try something new, but when you have found something that is just right — if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it 🙂 (I guess it is physically broken, but if the design works, keep it). I hope you get your redbud replacement soon.

    • Toni, I really do like where I had my redbud. It was on a slope above my rock garden and shaded out all the weeds in a nasty part of the ornamental beds that we had been wrestling with for years. When leafed out, it also screened out at least part of the neighbor’s new hideous chain link fence. I will replant—I have already ordered a 15 gallon size from my wholesale shrub supplier. Carolyn

  17. My last two gardens have both been in Zone 5. The only difference between the two is my newest one gets 3-4 feet snow cover every year. My plants are so much happier and also much hardier. The only drawback is my snowdrops are slower at blooming.

  18. Wonderful post Carolyn! To me there is no way to be philosophical about losing your lovely red bud or the damage to your pine and weeping J. maple. In the scheme of things it is a small tragedy but a tragedy none the less to the gardener who loves these trees. One does get over this sort of thing rather quickly though, for nothing can be done about it . . . except as you say . . . plant another one. Snow can be lovely and a joy to see and play in but ice . . . nothing good to say about it. I am sorry for your losses. Your home and office look charming. Beautiful photos.

    • Carol, It may be easier for me to be philosophical because right now I am spending most of my time inside at the computer. It is difficult to even walk in the garden with deep snow covered with ice. But I have to ask, would I give up the magic things that happened with my perennials to get my trees and shrubs back. I am not sure. I kind of enjoy the cycle of life when it’s only plants at stake. Carolyn

  19. I don’t have much to add in terms of advice from snowy winters; albeit we have had snow the past two years in Georgia. I just grin and bear it. But, your yellow Trilliums are gorgeous! I love your ice and snow pictures but am so sorry about all the loss in your garden from Old Man Winter!

    • Karin, That trillium has really made an impression. I have had very good luck with it when I have not succeeded well with the white large-flowered trillium, T. grandiflorum, which is supposed to be the easiest to grow. My woodland is difficult: an old carriage way with compacted rocky clay soil with construction rubble and old slate shingles dumped on top. Any plant that survives there is a keeper. Carolyn

  20. It’s overused but I do see the bones of the garden. I have a terrible
    habit of moving young trees and shrubs based on what I see in winter

    Bummer on the Forest Pansy, I love them.

  21. What an eloquent post Carolyn. I am sorry for your losses in such extraordinary weather, and excited for you to see how your perennials bounce back. Replacing old friends and introducing new ones will make Spring exciting but perhaps expensive? Do younger shrubs and trees fare better or worse than their elder brethren? I suppose the snow can wreak more dramatic havoc with the larger plants whilst the younger may bend and flex rather than breaking? Beautiful photographs of snow and ice.

    • Janet, Yes, you understood what I was saying: I am looking forward to an exciting spring. I learned a lesson from writing this article. I should have discussed the “sorrows” first and ended with the “joys”. As it was, readers were left with a sense of loss that wiped out the benefits of snow. Nothing could replace the joy I felt when I discovered my dead rare jack-in-the-pulpit erupting from the ground. I went back and stared at it every day.

      You are right, younger shrubs do better in snow. The more branching a plant has, the more snow and ice it catches, and the more likely it will snap off. That’s why weeping plants are hit hard. Also the limbs of white pines stick out horizontally whereas many other conifers slope down so the snow can slide off. Carolyn

  22. Oh my, what carnage. I hope this winter will end up being kinder to your garden.

  23. Dear Carolyn, Your snowy landscape does indeed look magical and, as you say, so much more preferable than dreary drizzle and brown, muddy earth. That is pretty much the picture in London at present.

    As for the gains and the losses, I agree that one does have to be philosophical and although one’s mind often tells one not to try a particular plant again……the heart often wins!!

    • Edith, I am sure that London, which is one of my favorite cities in the world, is wonderful even in mud. Redbuds are one of my most loved trees, and I couldn’t do without them. I would like to add a white-flowered cultivar and the new introduction with orange new leaves. I’m an addict when it comes to small flowering trees, my favorite plant group. That’s how I ended up with all this shade. Carolyn

  24. Wayside Cottage is a beauty in the snow. I guess it will look even more interesting in a few months time.

    • One, That is the first time I have used the name of our house, which I just discovered on an old survey. On the road above us is Wayside, the estate house (not very fancy though), which dates from the 1600s when it was an inn for travelers. Below it is the carriage house for Wayside, and the gardener’s house, Wayside Cottage. The land was all subdivided a long time ago, but I think we got the best part. In one month more or less, the snowdrops and hellebores will be in full swing and winter will be forgotten. Frankly, I am enjoying my little rest at the computer. Carolyn

  25. Louise Thompson Says:

    Add fothergilla to the list of small trees that may not fare well in too much, especially wet, snow with ice added on top. Last winter our beautifully-formed fothergilla, the centerpiece of one of our two small sunny beds, was diminished by 1/3 when the snow broke off one of the main big branches near the ground. We kept the rest because it would be awfully destructive of the plants around it to dig it out, but if more goes this year, we’ll have no choice. Sad.

  26. Your garden looks amazing all covered like that. For us still no snow, hopefully a bit this month

  27. Wow, what beautiful photographs! It’s hard to believe anything could be alive under all that snow (especially 70″ — my goodness)! I like your let-it-go philosophy. 🙂

    • Eliza, Well the 70″ didn’t come all at once, and we were on St. John in the Virgin Islands during the 3′ plus blizzard. I am so glad you like my photographs. I honestly don’t think of myself as much of a photographer, but the comments are giving me a swelled head. A let-it-go philosophy is all we have available because anyone who thinks they have control is sadly mistaken. Carolyn

  28. Carolyn, You got some gorgeous photos of the snow and ice – I had beautiful drives to work after our recent snow and ice storms – not fun, but beautiful! I’m sorry to hear about your losses – we didn’t have any major damage this time. Redbuds are one of my favorite flowering trees – so sorry about yours. I would replace it if I were you, too.

  29. Oh, Carolyn, you have lost a lot in the last two years. My heart broke just a teensy bit over the loss of the redbud and the dogwood — especially in the same time frame. That’s rough. I am glad your glass stays half-full, though — and my hat’s off to you for keeping positive and watching your perennials thrive in this unexpected weather pattern.

    It can be difficult to roll with the changes in the garden, especially when they are dramatic and so fast-moving. But I also think it is good for us somehow, that it makes us more flexible, more resilient, even more creative. Maybe we won’t split off in the next “ice storm” of our life, but only bend gracefully to the ground, show off our sparkly side, and zing right back when it warms up? 😉

    • Meredith, I think you truly understood what I was trying to say in my post, and you expressed it so beautifully. I so want to bend gracefully to the ground and zing back up. Years of contrary training have to be overcome, but the garden is a great lesson. Thank you so much, Carolyn

  30. I mourn your losses Carolyn, those were some wonderful trees (some I dearly covet). In my area the cold winters with lack of snow is a problem (not this year), and plants will die for no apparent reason other than the roots freezing in the ground. Sometimes heavy snow will bend branches of the junipers and cause the to tear.

  31. Dear Carolyn, This cold and icy winter has taught me to appreciate the fireplace in the den, and an endless supply of garden books and magazines! But it is beautiful out in my garden. Yours is lovely!

    Sorry I haven’t visited for a while, but I was in the hospital longer than expected. Thank you for your kind wishes prior to my hospital stay! I am home now and feeling well. I’ll post soon. P x

  32. I was about to beg you to send some of your snow to me here in the Deep South, until you started talking about your shrubs and trees! I’m afraid my winter ground is covered with soggy, half-frozen brown leaves. Not pretty at all! Plants usually survive our half-hearted winters, but the real test is our summers and intermittent scorching draughts. Like you, I have learned to be adaptable. We had many spectacular, mature trees surrounding our lawn when a tornado took most of them out in 1990. I grieved a long time for my trees, but my current garden was born out of that disaster.

    • Deb, It is all relative. If a tornado came through and took out my trees, I would not be philosophical for quite a while. But in the end, we can’t control any of it so why bother trying. We are getting these hard winters, and this past summer we had record breaking heat and drought so we now have both. Carolyn

  33. I’ve learned that my garden is much tougher than I always think it is, even when our winters have been dry. I’ve also learned that rhodies do not do well in storms and have lost several of them due to ice. I have perennials that have already put out a few tiny leaves near the roots once our snow from last week started to melt. I guess they were thirsty!

  34. Hi Carolyn: I would do the same thing — plant a new Redbud in the same spot. And I would be sad to lose mine, too. This is a wonderful post — reminding us that we control some things in our gardens, but not others. On another note, I hope it’s OK that I linked to your recent post about Hellebores in my “plant of the month” post. Thanks for your expertise. I’m learning so much from you! Beth

  35. Carolyn your Winter post is stunning. As I read to the end I must admit I feel your sorrow for the loss of your beloved trees and shrubs. Winter is so beautiful and I feel blessed to live where I can enjoy it’s stunning beauty, but it can bring such heartache as we lose trees that we have nurtured and loved for so long. I have a Forest Pansy Redbud that I wish I had planted in a different place in my gardens as it always seems to feel the wrath of the Winter winds the most. Somehow it survives. So glad I visited here this morning. I will surely come again.

  36. I love snow too and the beautiful scenes it creates though we dont have snow here in the tropics!..But Ive experienced it when I went for holidays overseas, it was so amazing! just like your photos, on the rooftop of houses, in the trees and plants in the garden. Well, maybe I dont have to live with it for months and months like you all there…thats why I can appreciate the beauty and excited about it…

  37. Mother nature knows better than us, we just plan and the rest is back to nature. even it’s damage some of it, I’m sure after this, your garden is more better. I had once experience with bad winter in the Salt Lake City mountain, even it’s gave some effect to the forest, it’s still looks so nice when it covered full white. I love that snow and that is priceless experience for me for entire life. Since I lived in tropical weather. Even your garden like that, it’s still beautiful.

  38. I have several huge cherry laurel bushes. they are fairly resilient but their thinner woody branches get stressed with dense snow and ice. I have tried to gently loosen them from snow before the snow hardens, shaking branches with a broom from below. One of the dangers is that i can be stepping on the branches in really deep snows (unwittingly). I think that my best strategy is to just let mother nature take care of it and roll with whatever happens

  39. I fully agree with you Carolyn! Even if i haven’t seen snow and winter in person, most photos before and now in blogs really assured me of its beauty. However, i cannot agree with the feelings yet, as i still have to experience it. But your photos are all informative and amazingly informative. I love all of them as well as your descriptions. I specifically love the red-barked Acer which really glows with snow! I wonder how it looks like when lighted at night.

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