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Where does the snow go?

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Jim McColl Jim McColl | 08:15 UK time, Tuesday, 21 December 2010

melting snowman

"But Grandad, where does it all go?" I wonder how often that question will be repeated in the coming weeks and months.

The subject of the question of course is SNOW and because there has been so much of it already, there are now reports of flooding, which has come with the thaw. As we all know, the snowmelt either runs off into the drainage systems or it is absorbed by the soil and other porous surfaces to percolate away more slowly. It has been well documented that worryingly the increase in non-porous surfaces in the UK brings a serious threat of more frequent flooding to many parts of our land, something that planners and engineers have taken on board or have they? They still seem keen to build on flood plains!

Back to that original question, on garden ground, the snow obviously melts and percolates down into the soil. Have you ever stopped to think how much water is heaped up on your garden in the form of snow? I can tell you - one foot of snow (30cm) is equivalent to an inch of rainwater (2.5cm) or to put it another way, one foot of snow on one square yard of your plot amounts to over four and a half gallons of water. Our garden had 60cm of snow lying on it, that's almost 10 gallons per sq yd!

When that snow has gone, the soil is likely to be completely saturated and whilst root systems are in shut-down mode they can stand that for a time, however, if the condition lasts for a lengthy period, some plant losses will be inevitable. Last winter, the snow arrived with us on 16 December and we had continual substantial snow cover until the end of January. The real damaging sequence came next - snow melt followed by a period of severe frosts that penetrated well into the ground and when root systems were thoroughly encased in frozen soil, the snow returned to seal it all in for another month or two! That was deadly and it could happen again this season.

What can we do about it? Not a lot in the short term. We have to look forward to helping plants to recover come spring. We must avoid precipitate or hasty action, before the soil has started to dry out, then we can fork through the soil to aerate the surface layers, secondly by leaving established plants that appear to have succumbed to the adverse conditions because there may still be a spark of life there and thirdly be ready to apply a pick-me-up quickly followed by a fresh mulch of well rotted organic material.

There is the magic phrase - organic matter. The long term solution to help plants survive the vagaries of our weather is to build up the organic matter levels in the soil. Many will remember the disastrous situation in Eastern England back in the late sixties when the stock were banished from the fields, the fences came down, the ditches filled in and the land was devoted to arable cropping - asset stripping more like. When all the organic matter was used up, the land was almost impossible to cultivate, it had no structure. You have been warned; ignore the regular application of organic matter to your garden at your peril.

Jim McColl presents BBC Scotland's the Beechgrove Garden.

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