Can a Warm Winter Inhibit Spring Growth?

Winter Flower

Photo by Raymond Cocks.

So far, most of the United States has had an unusually mild winter. For some, this unseasonably warm weather means being able to spend more time out in the garden or working on landscaping projects. Others, however, worry about how bizarre temperature fluctuations might affect spring plant growth. As global temperature averages continue to rise, climate scientists have been compiling research on how these changes can help or hurt various ecosystems. Their findings show that warm winter weather may be a mixed bag for gardeners, benefiting some plants while harming others.

The success of spring growth depends on more than just temperature; plants are also effected by precipitation levels, soil chemistry, and other ecological factors. However, mild winters are often accompanied by dryness, and that, in turn, can effect soil chemistry. In the northeast, gardeners worry that dry, mild winters could endanger tulip bulbs and fruit tree productivity. In the south, gardeners worry that warm winters will hurt plants that need cold, dormant days to flower, such as peonies. Adversely, plants that do well in warm temperatures—such as magnolias—could thrive after warmer winters.

One big downside of a mild winter is an increase in pest populations come spring. Freezing temps push pests into hibernation or kill them off. When winters are mild, pests can multiply throughout the season, which can spell big trouble for gardeners. Just yesterday, I found a mosquito on the hood of my car. I don’t even want to imagine how many of them I’ll find in June.

Additionally, plants and animals that hibernate during the winter could become “tricked” by a couple weeks of mild temperatures and begin to grow or come out of hiding. Since winter temperatures often fluctuate, these plants and critters could be hit by a hard freeze or snow storm later in the season. Many plants and smaller animals—such as frogs or salamanders—can be killed by a bad freeze. An early winter mulching can help insulate plants against temperature fluctuations, insuring that their biological clocks won’t be stumped by unusual weather.

Enjoy the mild winter by spending more time outdoors, but don’t forget to check on your plants often. This year, you may have to take extra precaution to prevent against pest infiltration and late season freezes. If you stay ahead of the forecast, you should be able to stay in control of your garden.

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