Winter Thaw Discoveries

– Posted in: What's up/blooming

Even in a cold, snowy climate, there are often thaws, periods where it warms up (that means, above freezing), the sun shines, and you may even lose snow cover. In my case, while Oklahoma was getting buried under a record snowfall, it was raining here, and then, on this past Sunday, the sun came out. The pull of the moderate weather was irresistible, and I went out to see what I could see. I learned a few things, too.


My first stop was the vegetable garden. You would think everything would be dead by now, but you would be wrong.

image of Deer-gnawed Broccoli

Deer-gnawed Broccoli

We had harvested dinosaur kale and broccoli into the first week of December, when the weather finally got pretty cold. Most of the broccoli was dead, but not all. The deer had been harvesting every bit of green off the stalks.
image of Deer-gnawed Kale

Deer-gnawed Kale

And they had done the same with the kale. Until we saw this damage, we didn’t even realize that deer had visited the vegetable garden. The ground must have been frozen when they came, because we didn’t see any tracks.

Deer vs. Rabbit Damage

How did I know it was deer damage, and not rabbit damage? The biggest clue was the way the ends of stalks were shredded, not cleanly cut. Rabbits use their front teeth like scissors to cut something off and then chew it. Deer bite and pull at the same time, leaving shredded ends of fibrous material. Also, the tops of these stalks were pretty high for a rabbit to get at. And I’m pretty sure I saw deer poop in the area. We haven’t seen damage on our woody plants–yet.


image of weatherbeaten snapdragon

One tenacious snapdragon

In more southern climates snapdragons are a winter annual, grown in a similar fashion to pansies. I believe this snapdragon sprouted in late summer from seed scattered by plants I neglected to deadhead. It’s trying its darndest to be a self respecting winter annual, but it’s got a tough job ahead of it. I don’t try wintering over pansies, either, but I wonder what would happen if I direct sowed the seed in late fall. Would they get an earlier start in spring?
image of poppy seedlings

Poppy seedlings

We grew several kinds of annual poppies in the vegetable garden this year, and these are self-sown seedlings. In a warmer climate, they would definitely bloom next spring. Around here, a lot depends on the reliability of snow cover in winter and the severity of freeze-thaw cycles during mud season.
image of Cyclamen purpurascens

Cyclamen purpurascens

Cyclamen purpurascens keeps its leaves throughout the winter, though by early spring they are in pretty bad shape, in my experience. This was the first cyclamen I tried because Seneca Hill Perennials suggested that C. purpurascens was the hardiest cyclamen species. It has been growing slowly but steadily in my garden since 2005. I just might give Cyclamen coum or Cyclamen hederfolium a try next.
image of colchicum foliage emerging from the ground

Colchicum foliage emerges from the ground

Quite a few of my colchicum species and cultivars poke their leaves up in the fall or early winter, and remain that way until the soil thaws and warms up in spring. It’s possible they all do it; I didn’t think to systematically check when I was out this past Sunday. It makes me wonder if they would completely emerge quite a bit sooner in their native habitat. The tips of the leaves look pretty horrible by winter’s end, but the rest of the foliage emerges just fine and the plants don’t seem to be the least set back by it. I find it vexing. They would look so much nicer in the spring if they would just stay below ground for the winter.
image of snowdrops emerging from the earth


It never vexes me to see snowdrop foliage, even though I know they won’t bloom until March. Out of my huge patches I only found this one clump poking through the earth. I have concluded that these passalong snowdrops are Galanthus nivalis, which is smaller and later blooming than G. elwesii, which I also have. Why do these snowdrops emerge first? I believe the water table is very high here, and keeps the soil warmer from below than would usually be the case.

Take Your Own Winter Thaw Walk

You never know what you’ll learn when you go out on a winter walk. I guarantee you this: it’s never as dead out there as it first appears. And the sunshine will do you good! What have you other cold climate gardeners discovered?

About the Author

Kathy Purdy is a colchicum evangelist, converting unsuspecting gardeners into colchicophiles. She would be delighted to speak to your group about colchicums or other gardening topics. Kathy’s been writing since 4th grade, gardening since high school, and blogging since 2002.

In its own way, frost may be one of the most beautiful things to happen in your garden all year . . . Don’t miss it. Like all true beauty, it is fleeting. It will grace your garden for but a short while this morning. . . . For this moment, embrace frost as the beautiful gift that it is.

~Philip Harnden in A Gardener’s Guide to Frost: Outwit the Weather and Extend the Spring and Fall Seasons

Comments on this entry are closed.

Gloria Bonde January 4, 2010, 12:49 am

Hi Kathy – great pictures. I look forward to a winter thaw.(zone 4b) Last year the side garden was thawed early enough to make a new very early veggie bed. This year I am anxious to get out there and dig out some hops vines. Gloria

Lynn January 3, 2010, 6:09 pm

Wonderful tour, Kathy, and great to remember that the little plants are out there still doing their thing. We were away for the thaw, but back to the NY for the big snow! It’s pretty, and pretty windy, and I can barely see the tops of the leeks overwintering out there. Can’t wait for snowdrops! Happy New Year 🙂

Helen Yoest @ Gardening With Confidence January 1, 2010, 7:46 pm

I haven’t seen any sign of my Galanthus. Last year, they were a puny showing. This year is not looking any better. Happy New Year, Kathy! H.

Shelley December 31, 2009, 12:09 pm

I don’t even want to know how cold it is out there, but I am looking at cold weather vegetable seeds to start. We are in northern Utah, and the deer don’t even want to be out there. Happy New Year!

Ramble on Rose December 30, 2009, 9:45 pm

Everything here is under about 10 inches of snow, so I’ve had precious little to look at! I would love to be able to take a peek under the snow blanket and see how everything is doing. At least the garden should be well insulated at this point. Happy New Year!

commonweeder December 30, 2009, 11:07 am

My winter walk these days is just out to the hen house and back – being careful not to slip on the ice underneath the snow. We had rain too, then the lowest temperatures yet and more snow. Today it was 5 degrees and windy, but now I’ve got to gird my loins and water those chickens!

Neil Moran December 30, 2009, 10:16 am

The snow here in Northern Michigan has blanketed all but the tops of the Brussels sprouts. The snow came late for here though and as a result my rutabagas froze before I could get them dug. Last year I got lucky and dug rutabagas into January!

I’ve never grown the cyclamen in this climate. I’ll have to give the one you mention a try.

Layanee December 30, 2009, 8:19 am

No thaw here yet but I did peak at the garlic under the straw mulch and there seems to be a bit of activity there. Must get out more.

Teresa December 29, 2009, 5:47 pm

I took that Sunday walk also. I couldn’t resist our wonderfully spring like weather. Although I glanced into my gardens and did see a few green leaves, I didn’t get a chance to investigate… my dog would have none of that. A well needed walk was in order so off we went. It does do one good to breath the fresh air again and wish spring was making a mistake and coming really early for this year. Ha! That was last sunday and here it is Tuesday and it is like 8 degrees. I am glad I fit in the walk because I am afraid there won’t be another spring like walk for quite some time. I have never tried cyclamen here because I didn’t think it would survive the winter. You have given me hope, I will have to get some of this hardier type this spring and see if it will survive the frigid winter along with the rest of us. Happy New Year Kathy.

Dee/reddirtramblings December 29, 2009, 4:48 pm

Everything is beautiful and alive under there. What a testament to nature and the glory of it all. Thanks for the link love Kathy. We still have snow and may get more tonight. Ugh. I’ve decided I don’t really like snow.~~Dee

Mr. McGregor's Daughter December 29, 2009, 4:40 pm

Lousy rotten deer! They are such pigs. But it’s great to see your plants again. I urge you to try Cyclamen hederifolium. I grew them at my old garden and they were wonderful. I tried to grow them here once, but the squirrels devoured the corms shortly after I planted them.

Jenn Fowler December 29, 2009, 4:37 pm

Ah-it was a lovely and balmy 45 that day. Too bad it plunged right down to 12 and windy today 🙂

cityslipper (home kitchen garden) December 29, 2009, 4:14 pm

It is so cool to find food still waiting in the garden once winter has set in. I was surprised the first year some young cilantro plants got buried in snow in my garden. I was able to harvest well into January, and new growth emerged as the rhubarb burst out of the soil in March.

Thanks for taking us on your tour.

Lynn December 29, 2009, 4:11 pm

Great post on a frigid and windy winter day. I am so envious. I’d take a walk if Jack Frost weren’t nipping. Soon enough. Happy New Year, Kathy!

Kathy Purdy December 29, 2009, 4:25 pm

It is snowing and blowing here today, too, but I took the walk and the pictures on Sunday!

Dan Eskelson December 29, 2009, 4:07 pm

Wonderful that you can find and enjoy some of your plants!