Salisbury, MD. When the Gardening Grannies were growing up in various parts of the mid-Atlantic, "Snow is the poor man's fertilizer" was an expression often heard uttered (or, perhaps, muttered) by their parents and grandparents. Now, why would those old timers refer to snow as fertilizer? And, specifically, why poor man's fertilizer?
The answer is simple. Snow, like rain, contains more than moisture. It contains nitrogen and trace elements of phosphorus and sulphur, among others. These elements are "washed" out of the atmosphere with the snow and land on our fields, yards and gardens. Studies show that the presence of these trace elements is actually increasing as by-products of industrialization and emissions. And they are absolutely free to gardeners!
So, how much nitrogen do you actually get from snowfalls over the course of a year? The answer to that would depend on where you live and how much snow you get. Generally speaking, it would be about seven pounds of nitrogen per acre, plus or minus five pounds. Considering that farmers might spread a hundred pounds of nitrogen per acre, two to twelve pounds isn't a lot, but the key word here is "free". Since we didn't have to take out our checkbooks to get it, nitrogen is a very nice side benefit to the beauty of a snowfall. Studies show that these elements are actually increasing and, assuming that you haven't damaged microbial action in your soil with harsh chemicals, snow now would be more valuable than ever.
While rain and lightning also contain nitrogen, snow has a few clear gardening advantages over these two sources:
1) Snow stays around awhile, setting free its nutrients in a "slow release" form
2) It helps insulate plants from fluctuations in temperature which can causing heaving and related problems from frequent freezing and thawing
3) It makes small plants such as strawberries less visible to hungry critters
4) In the springtime, it helps prevent plant growth from starting too early
5) Unlike snow, a lot of rain can actually leach nutrients away from the roots of your plants.
According to The Dictionary of American Regional English, residents of Nova Scotia break their spring snowfalls into three categories: 1) the Robin's Snow (just after the robins migrate back), the Smelt Snow (when smelt are running in the rivers near the coast) and 3) Poor Man's Fertilizer which comes on the freshly plowed land in the spring. Now, those folks get a whole lot more snow up there than we do here on Delmarva, so we suppose it stands to reason that they might have more names for it. No word, however, on what they call their first snowfall of the year.
In this last week of 2010, with credit card bills right around the corner, the Gardening Grannies think that it is right nice that Mother Nature blessed us with free anything…and we are most appreciative!
The Gardening Grannies, a mature group of avid and Master Gardeners, live, love and garden on the Delmarva Peninsula. We can be reached at email@example.com and we look forward to hearing from you.