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Snowfall, ice, low temperatures a mixed bag for local gardens

This year's late-winter storm may rob gardens of color and fruit — but not permanently.

On Sunday, Carol Carr-Smith of Abingdon tended to her garden, planting bright purple and yellow pansies to accompany her irises, daffodils, tiger lilies and bluebells, which were also in bloom, basking in the uncharacteristically warm March day. The forecast predicted snow starting Monday night, but Carr-Smith, 58, said she was skeptical.

Come Tuesday morning, she couldn't help but feel that she had jumped the gun. Her flowers, which she had covered in a bed of leaves to keep them warm, were buried in snow and ice; some, peeking through the white layers, bent over with the weight of accumulating flurries.

"Usually, I wait until the end of March when I am pretty sure that the frost and everything is pretty much gone, but because we had such warm weather, I was probably more robust this winter," Carr-Smith said.

And she wasn't alone. Daffodils, crocuses and other spring bulbs, which typically do well in cooler temperatures, have also sprouted up early around the Baltimore area, making many believe that spring came early, according to Jon Traunfeld, the director of the Home and Garden Information Center at the University of Maryland Extension. But this week's storm confirmed: Winter is still here.

Tuesday snowfall reports included 8 inches in Westminster, 5 inches in Cockeysville, 4 inches in Columbia and just shy of 2 inches at Baltimore-Washington International Thurgood Marshall Airport, according to the National Weather Service. Meteorologists reported less snow than predicted, but more ice: As much as a quarter of an inch coated pavements, vehicles and flowering trees. Temperatures in Baltimore were forecast to decrease to around 21 degrees for Tuesday's low and to 20 for Wednesday's low.

But while some fear how the snow will affect their gardens, especially with plants that have already blossomed, experts and avid gardeners say there are benefits to this week's snowfall and ways to protect plants from damage after the storm. The sporadic dips in temperature, however, could be a gardener's enemy.

Monday at Ladew Topiary Gardens, staff members were mulching the grounds. Tuesday, they were scraping ice out of the parking lot, according to Emily Emerick, the executive director of Ladew in Monkton.

"Our unpredictable Mid-Atlantic springs are getting even more so [unpredictable], I think," she said, but "snow like this now is not unusual, and actually, having snow on the ground is more insulating than a cold snap without snow."

Traunfeld agreed, noting that the snow may keep flowers that have blossomed safe.

Water that has frozen on open flowers "gives off energy, and it keeps the temperature around the flowers at a constant 32 degrees Fahrenheit and protects the flowers from freeze damage," he said.

He did foresee potential trouble for species such as lilacs and hydrangeas, if the previously high temperatures had accelerated their blossoms: "The things that will get damaged rather easily would be plants that typically don't bloom up in April."

The colorful blossoms of fruit trees, such as peach, cherry and plum, could also be in jeopardy, as their flowers are often killed in temperatures below 28 degrees, he said, while smaller fruit plants, like blackberry and blueberry, tend to hold up better, so long as they haven't started to blossom.

Flower buds can often withstand lower temperatures, whereas the flowers can die in temperatures below 31 degrees. If all of a plant's or tree's flowers are not in full bloom, it's possible to have more flowers, which can produce fruit later in the year, Traunfeld said. But if the plant is in full bloom in the colder weather, it's likely the tree or plant will be a "crop fail" that season.

Mount Washington resident Scott Smith, 56, a gardening hobbyist with dozens of fruit trees, said he has lost most of his apricot tree blossoms in the low temperatures. His pear and plum trees will likely be affected by the freezes over the next few days, too.

"I literally have plum blossoms that look like someone took a flame to them and crispified them," he said.

The only upside is his trees may bloom more plentifully next year since they don't have to work hard to make fruit this year, he said.

"They'll come back next year, but if the weather keeps doing this, they'll keep freezing every year, or maybe we'll get lucky."

"There's nothing you can really do," Traunfeld said, adding that it's important to look at the bigger picture.

"You can lose that early spring color depending on where you live and what kind of plants you have, but it doesn't mean the plants are going to suffer themselves. It's just their blooms," he said, noting that it depends on the stage of the plant and its flower blossoms.

Some plants, however, are "just holding back, waiting for the length of the day more than they are for temperature change," said Ladew's Emerick, who noted that snow will, in the long run, likely benefit plants that have endured Maryland's dry winter.

"What we really needed and what the concern for all gardeners is, is the drought, so the hope would be, even though we didn't get the inches [expected], we got snow," Emerick said. "We really need water in any form, so in that respect, it's very good."

And there are some ways to protect your plants throughout the rest of the winter, according to Brian Brannan, a garden shop manager at Valley View Farms nursery in Cockeysville.

Brannan, who has seen forsythia, daffodils and pansies abloom across the region, advised gently brushing off extra snow, sleet or ice that may weigh down trees and plants and cause structural damage. Adding insulation, like burlap or frost blankets, to trees can also help protect them from frost or wind chill.

Any material can be dangerous because it can crush plants, especially in the event of more snow, he said. But Brannan said for the most part, Baltimore area residents should expect their gardens to recover after the storm.

"Mother Nature always auto-corrects itself, so we'll be fine," Brannan said. "People are more worried than the plants are."

Traunfeld agreed.

"It's only March [14]. We got all kinds of crazy weather still to come. You just have to roll with the punches."

bbritto@baltsun.com

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Baltimore Sun reporter Scott Dance contributed to this article.

Helping your plants survive winter

Cover plants and trees with burlap or a frost blanket to protect them from wind or dramatic temperature drops. But don't do so before snowfall, "because that could crush the branches," said Brian Bannan, garden shop manager at Valley View Farms in Cockeysville said.

Spray water on plants in the lowest temperatures of the day. According to Mount Washington resident Scott Smith, a gardening hobbyist, this can help insulate the plant in ice and help it gain a few degrees.

Avoid putting salt melts on ground that can run into plant material. It could cause plant damage, Bannan said.

Remove heavy snow from bushes and plants to avoid limbs breaking or plants splitting. "The faster you get that off, the better," Bannan said.

Test whether your plant is still alive by running your fingernail on the thin bark. If there's green tissue, the plant will likely still produce leaves, said Jon Traunfeld, director of the Home and Garden Information Center at the University of Maryland Extension. If not, the plant might be dead, but don't cut things down right away, he said. "Give the plant a chance because sometimes they do come out a little later, so it's better to be prudent and wait until we're really into full spring."

For more information, visit the University of Maryland Extension's Home and Garden Information Center's website at extension.umd.edu/hgic.

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