What will this winter’s crazy weather do to Ottawa’s upcoming gardening season?

The gardening season may still be a few weeks away, but green thumbs across the city are starting to wonder if this winter’s volatile weather will have an impact on the upcoming growing season.

Although not everyone loves the snow expected Tuesday, snow is actually beneficial for dormant plants, keeping temperatures at just below freezing and providing the roots with moisture.

Brian Smith, one of the owners of Brantim Country Garden Centre in Almonte, says the uncharacteristically warm winter weather shouldn’t have an impact on the growing season. Perennials were most in danger if icy temperatures came before a snowfall or if snow levels don’t remain consistent throughout the winter, he says.

“Normally the best protection for perennial plantings is a good snow cover,” Smith explains, “before it gets really, really cold and drives the frost deep into the ground.”

“If we don’t get sufficient quantities of dry, fluffy snow, we don’t have that insulation blanket, and that will affect some plants.”

Perennial shrubs such as primrose and hydrangea could become desiccated, he said.

To protect these plants from drying out from cold winter winds, people should have wrapped them in burlap sacks in late October, Smith says. He adds that it’s still not too late to wrap your prized perennials tight.

Unfortunately, Sunday’s thaw and overnight flash freeze may have some impact.

Smith says the worst thing that can happen is a January thaw, where it rains and melts the snow and then refreezes.  “It’s like a bloody hockey rink,” he says, “that’s what does most of the damage.”

Ed Lawrence, host of Ontario Today’s phone-in gardening show, says that only time will tell if damage was done before the snow cover.

“If we get a lot of freeze and thaw, then we can run into typical ice damage on trees and shrubs,”

If any plants and shrubs had come out of dormancy or had delayed their dormant state because of the nice weather, cold temperatures could kill some plants, he says.

Another problem could be if the soil had become waterlogged from the rains.

“With a hard freeze, that means that the water expands or the soil expands and it can crush things a little,” he says. “You get the ice squishing into things and breaking cells, effectively.”

While Lawrence doesn’t think many plants were affected by these problems, if the snow cover doesn’t stay, gardeners could discover these maladies in the spring.

David Dunn, owner of Rideau Woodland Ramble in Merrickville, says the warmer temperatures may have affected tender flower and fruit buds in southern Ontario, but that it didn’t last long enough in Ottawa to cause damage.

Dunn says he’s heard some anecdotal stories about plants like primrose and hellebore flowering in the mild weather next to house foundations and protected areas.

“We’re sort of lucky that things have started to cool off and maybe we’re shifting to a more normal set of temperatures,” Dunn says.

The horticulturalist with the operation, Robert Caron, has 45 years of experience with all things green and leafy. He says there has been a trend towards “false springs” in the last few years. May deep freezes damage blossoming trees in orchards and shrubs and plants in the garden.

Lawrence agrees that seasons in Canada have changed over the years.

“This is the new normal. Change means unpredictable,” he says. “We’re starting anew.”

“Winter used to be our longest season, and it may become one of our shorter seasons.”

Although it’s still too early to tell if the warmer weather had an effect on the upcoming growing season, garden pests may be an issue.

Alex Rice, an Ottawa horticulturalist, said in an email that Ottawa residents should expect more unwanted critters this spring.  Squirrels and other garden pests have had the chance to grow fat and numerous with the higher temperatures.

He adds that now is the perfect time for Ottawa residents to protect their evergreens.

“When people put winter protection on their evergreens it’s usually done too early and could suffocate the plants on a warm sunny day. Air circulation is good to have.”

He waits until the ground freezes before wrapping, as frozen soil can’t provide moisture and the evergreens are more likely to be dried out by wind, sun and salt.

None of the gardening experts could remember a winter like this one. Smith says that in 71 years and two decades of business, 2015 has been an anomaly.

Still, Lawrence says gardeners shouldn’t worry too much.

“It’s time to sit back and relax and take a deep breath, look out at the blank canvas under the snow that they have to work with now,” he says.

“Everybody’s going to start dreaming again, and we’re going to try another year. That is the joy of gardening. You just never give up, and there’s always next year.”