The Sky Cloche, Or Why Snow Probably Shouldn’t Scare You

In Seattle there is less than an inch of snow on the ground. At my house, further North, we got a dusting. Local media outlets call events like this “BLIZZARD WATCH 2012″ and “SNOWMAGEDDON.” People who went to college in Minnesota or grew up in Maine get their chance to drone on and on about how Seattlites can’t drive in the snow. (This is true, we can’t, but we totally own puddle driving.)

Snow on the ground universally means cold. It’s a visual reminder than temperatures drop below freezing, and that can give year-round veggie gardeners the willies. But, in the Pacific Northwest at least, snow rarely comes with plant-destroying low temps.

There are exceptions, of course, but in general the thick, low, heavy cloud cover that tends to brings in the heavy, wet snow typical for this area acts as a sort of “Sky Cloche,” trapping in whatever meager warmth managed to accumulate over the day and preventing night time lows from dropping too painfully low. Snow itself acts as a mulch, of sorts, too, moderating temperature changes over the course of the day. And generally, what snow we do get is gone quickly.

No, what we cold-season veggie gardeners really need to be careful of are the cold, clear days. They aren’t as common in this land of silver drizzle, but occasionally we get a winter day that looks just sparkling: blue skys, one or two high, puffy clouds, sun streaming low but bright into the windows.

With a mania likely induced by Vitamin D deficiency, we pour outside into the sunshine, convinced spring is finally here and it must be fifty-five degrees out (that’s running shorts temperature in Seattle). We stare at that unfamiliar glowing orb, only to realize, “Hey! it’s damned cold out!” It’s snot-running-down-our-red-nose cold. It’s even-my-latte-can’t keep-my-hands-warm cold. It’s why-the-hell-didn’t-Cliff-Mass-tell-me-it-was-this-cold? cold.

So back inside we hide, feeling just a bit tricked. Half of us go skiing. Half of us use the cold as an excuse to add bourbon to our coffee. We all feel better, but meanwhile, our plants are dying.

The combination of deep cold and dry air will take down all but the hardiest coles and semi-hibernating garlics. Everything else is at risk. Root crops that freeze hard will often rot as they thaw. Leaf crops can tolerate only so much, and they’ll go to mush too. Overwintering favas will die back. If they return, they’ll be severally weakened. Herbs that normally grow like weeds in the protected Maritime Northwest will give up the ghost – I’ve lost rosemary this way.

The weather people are saying we Seattlites will see additional snowfall for the next few days. If you’re still nurturing a winter garden, take comfort that if it’s made it this far, the high-20s/low-30s temps that will accompany this upcoming blast of white probably won’t do your garden in. The one thing you want to watch out for is heavy snow crushing your plants, collapsing your cloches, or blocking light into your greenhouse.

This is another advantage of tunnel cloching your plants: the protection from direct contact with snow, pounding rain and hail provided by the cover. If you do see major snow buildup on some prized trees, herbs or vegetables, just brush it gently aside while you’re outside making a snowman with your kids.

And as we enter the final stretch of what has, up to now, been a very mild winter, keep your eyes out for those clear, cold snaps. They’ll knock your garden down to the mulch faster than any Seattle snowfall. Let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

If everything does go white on us, drive safe out there. Or better yet, don’t drive at all. Even if you know how to handle snow and ice, chances are the guy next to you doesn’t.


  1. says

    Interesting to read about this from a different point of view. We have lots of sunny, cold winter days here (well, in a normal year…this one has been mild). Even though we aren’t winter gardening, I dread the clear, still mornings because of all the frost I’ll have to scrape off the vehicles. There is rarely any frost on overcast (or very breezy) mornings.

    • says

      I hate car frost. I was running really late to get the kiddo to school one day and couldn’t find the scraper and the car was iced over and the morning was just a mess…so I cracked open one of my 3-gallon containers of emergency water and poured it all over the car to melt the frost. Hey, it was an emergency…of a kind!

  2. tim williams says

    hey, if it’s really cold then snow is a good thing. It insulates. It’s the sub-freezing temps. and clear skies that’ll kill stuff. That and maybe a drying East wind……….leastways, that’s the scenario here just above the 45th. parallel……S NOWMAGEDDON!! lol. And it’s always the same poor schmo reporting from the worst spot on the drive-time local news.

  3. says

    You call this snow? lol Im always amazed when people panic because of a little snow. While I understand where we are they powers that be are not prepared to handle it…..salting or plowing (Im on the coast), everything else to me is nothing. I grew up on the east coast so to me even a couple inches is just a dusting. :) Ill just stay in till the rain comes and melts it :) Heck, winter garden? I havent even put the chicken manure I have out there yet lol

    • says

      There was a YouTube video that made the rounds last year of a guy who had done rally racing or something in Minnesota while in school. The video was him navigating Seattle ice and snow and traffic mayhem in his little Honda. His car control was amazing…it was like watching a machine dance. Seeing that made me realize that when people say we, in Seattle, have no idea how to drive on the ice….well, it’s true! :) But I figure, at least I know that and just stay home.

  4. says

    We’re up on the plateau, just before you enter the pass over Mt. Rainier. We have just about as much snow as you lowlanders, but the roads are frozen. Not very fun to slip and slide around town, so we’re staying mostly in. Mostly. The chickens did not know WHAT all this white stuff was, and it was funny to see them all gathered around the door, looking up and clucking nervously at the falling snow. Reminded me of Chicken Little–the sky is falling!

    • says

      It’s falling ‘for real’ on the coop for the first time right now….will be fun to see how the girls react when I go let them out for the day.

  5. says

    We rarely see snow on the east coast of Australia- but my farm is at the same elevation as Perisher on our mountains further south- so we can expect two or three good snowfalls a year if the weather stays cool enough long enough and the wind is still enough and the moisture is just right (and I hold my tongue just so…)
    Pity is every great christmas card snow we have had -I have not had a decent camera to capture the scene and prove to my work colleagues that its true!
    Yes, clear cold nights and frost are our enemy here-this is one of the few parts of Australia that does have four true seasons…..least ways did before climate change became obvious- after 10 years of severe drought I must say I am not unhappy with our cool (some days cold!) wet ‘summer’. I don’t mind it -I work much better in the cool- although the garden does not know which way is up and we are unlikely to get much of a crop from anything really. Still- now I have plenty of guilt free time to build up soil health again after such a long dry spell followed by destructive flooding and a growing seasons rest will do the soil biota no harm.
    Do you have any favorite cloche designs? Cloches are a new factor here and not something that is easy to buy ready made (I am thinking of those gorgeous glass ‘lamplight’ cloches from England)- something a little decorative, even garden art rather than just a utilitarian plastic tunnel….of course totally out of budget ad unnecessary really……
    Love the new format Erica- easier on the eye reading I think.

    • says

      MaidenFarmer – so wonderful to have you commenting over here, too! Thanks! I do go for those utilitarian tunnel cloches or low tunnels, as they are often called, more than the pretty little Victorian bell cloches. Though the toddler would think it great fun to smash a bell cloche. : ) I make mine by looping PVC hoops (will be moving to metal as the PVC degrades over time) about every two or three feet, and stretching builders poly (4 or 6 mil) over that framework. The thing that works well with PVC is we build in a top-bar “spine” that keeps the poly from slumping in the middle when the rains come. I secure with giant binder clips, like from an office supply store, and rope-and-bungee around the bottom. You can see details here:

  6. says

    I always remember in Little Town on the Prairie (Laura Ingalls Wilder) when they felt unusually warm and cozy despite their house not being done yet and woke up with a blanket of snow over the quilt. Snow can be a good insulator.

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