Bare December garden at sunset. Photo by Tom Atwell

I miss snow. Part of it is my own fault. Career and marriage brought me from Farmington, my childhood home, to a job and Portland and a house in Cape Elizabeth, which even a half a century ago was much warmer than I was used to.

Even in Greater Portland, though, a white Thanksgiving occurred occasionally and a white Christmas was likely, if not a sure bet. No more.

It’s not just nostalgia and my sometimes faulty memory that says snow is later and the days are warmer. The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Nov. 15 released an updated map of horticultural zones – showing which plants are most likely to thrive at a location based on the average annual extreme winter temperature – and Cape Elizabeth and Portland are now Zone 6a, formerly the cooler 5b, and Farmington, formerly Zone 4b, is 5a. There are still some Zone 3 spots in western Aroostook County, but Maine is definitely warming up.

Come spring, this officially certified warmer climate will allow us to expand our options for ornamental trees, shrubs and perennials. But planting season is months away, and I am worried about now and the few weeks ahead – not to mention the long-term health of the planet.

Winter yards are ugly without snow. The leaves we left behind are packed under shrubs and against fences, and sometimes blow around. The lawn is yellowish if not exactly brown. Flowers are non-existent. The berries – winterberry, viburnum and holly – and foliage on the evergreens show up best with a dazzling carpet of snow. Even the shadows of tree branches are camouflaged against the snowless landscape.

Snow also provides winter entertainment – sledding, cross-country skiing and making snowmen and fancier snow sculptures. Without those escapes, our mental health is threatened by too much screen time.


Plants also are hurt by a lack of snow. Temperatures are warming, on average, but extreme cold still happens. The lowest recorded in Portland last year was 14 below zero, and temperatures hit 25 below inland in early February. That’s temperature, not wind chill, which was much lower.

Snow and ice are great insulation.

For Maine gardeners, snow protects the plants that are above ground and the roots below the ground from extreme cold. That is probably one reason it is sometimes called a blanket of snow.

Leaf-covered strawberries. Photo by Tom Atwell

A prime example is strawberries. The leaves remain green above the ground throughout the winter, and many of the buds that will later become berries are formed in the fall. Both can be damaged by extreme cold, at least reducing the amount of berries produced next summer and perhaps killing the plant.

In a year with good snow, the plants are insulated from the extreme cold. Without snow, something else is needed.

Our strawberries, without any help from me, have captured a layer of oak leaves that will provide some protection, and I will add some raked up pine needles. Many people use straw for the same purpose.


It isn’t only the parts of plants above the ground that can be damaged. Recently planted specimens – blueberry bushes, ornamental shrubs and perennials – that have yet to send their roots more deeply into the ground can suffer damage from freezing.

Even the roots of established maple trees can be damaged by a deep freeze, which could reduce the amount of sap and syrup produced.

You probably left at least some of your fallen autumn leaves in your gardens, which is good inaction on your part and will help insulate your plants. However, if we do not receive several semi-permanent inches of snow, and your leaves are getting blown out of your gardens, you might want to put some fallen, or deliberately cut, branches over the leaves to keep them in place.

After New Year’s Day, cut your Christmas tree branches and add them to your gardens as another layer of insulation.

Yes, snow is tough on driving and has to be shoveled or plowed so people can get in and out of their houses. But it has some benefits.

Tom Atwell is a freelance writer gardening in Cape Elizabeth. He can be contacted at:

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