(This article was originally published on February 2, 2010. Your comments are welcome, but please be aware that authors of previously published articles may not be able to respond to your questions or comments.)
It was winter in the mountains and I had tolerated the mounds of snow for what seemed to be ages to a little girl. I spent long hours wondering what was going on with the flowers of summer that I could no longer see, buried deep beneath the snow as they were. And I was craving strawberries.
I had craved strawberries so often, I’d depleted Mom’s stash she’d frozen the summer before. I ate all the strawberry jam she’d stored in the cupboard as well. We were fresh out of strawberries and it was only February.
I knew strawberries came up every year in the same place in our back garden, and I thought perhaps I might give them an early start if I could get the snow off that little patch of land. One day, when I was about 6 or maybe 7, I dressed myself in my long red coat, my hat, scarf and matching mittens and my tall red rubber boots. I grabbed a broom that Ninna used to sweep the snow off the back porch, and I went outside.
In those days the snows started in early November and sometimes we didn’t see the ground again until perhaps April. I could not wait till April for the taste of strawberries. I found where I thought the strawberries grew and I started sweeping the snow. I swept and I swept that snow, but it was crusted and I wasn’t making any headway at all until I thought of my dad’s shovel. I made my way to the tool shed in snow that was up past my knees, but I found the shovel. It was bigger than I was.
“What are you doing out there?” I heard from the back door.
“Building a snowman, Mama,” I answered.
“Don’t you get too cold!”
The door shut and I dragged that shovel to the strawberry patch. It wasn’t easy, but little by little I got the top crust of snow removed and then I continued with the broom. That wasn’t easy either, and I was called in to supper before I ever got down to the strawberries I was searching for.
I worked on my strawberry project for a day or two, but as I remember, I only struck dirt in a few places before it snowed again and I had to start the process all over.
We must have been out of school for a few days because of the depth of snow all over the county. It wasn’t unusual for me to be outside during snowy days, and the strawberry patch was out of sight of the house in the back yard, but well within hollering distance, so my mother did check by calling to me quite often. I wonder now why she never came to see the snowman it was taking me days to build.
On about the third or fourth day Aunt Bett came trudging up the walkway to the back door. She must have caught a glimpse of my red coat because instead of going inside the house, she came around to where I was sweeping the snow off the strawberry patch.
“Why are you sweeping the snow,” she asked, “what’s buried down there?”
“Strawberries, Aunt Bett, that snow’s covering up the strawberries. I thought maybe if I got the snow off the strawberry patch, the strawberries would grow faster. I’m surely craving strawberries and we’ve already run out. I’m just moving the snow away so they’ll grow ‘cause I really need some strawberries.”
She took one look at what I was doing and quick as a wink she grabbed up that broom and started sweeping the snow right back over the place I’d just cleared. It nearly broke my heart because Aunt Bett never ever undid anything I was trying to do. I didn’t understand, but I knew something was wrong, so I knelt in the snow and with my mittened hands I helped put the snow cover back over the strawberry patch that I’d spent days clearing.
When we were finished, she called through the back door: “Doris, I’m taking Sharon down to my house for a little while, I’ve got some things need doin’ and she can help.”
We walked through the snow down the holler to Aunt Bett’s house. She pulled up a chair and we warmed ourselves in front of her fireplace. She taught me a lesson that day that I never forgot. I’ll share it with you, just in case you ever start craving strawberries in the middle of winter.
“Snow,” she said, “keeps the cold off the strawberries. It protects those plants from the cold of winter. It’s like when you sleep, your body gets the rest it needs to grow another day. If you didn’t rest, you couldn’t play and you wouldn’t grow. Plants got to have the same rest, and the snow is just like your blanket. It keeps them warm.”
Aunt Bett was right. Snow does keep the soil warm. Temperatures beneath the snow are about 20 degrees warmer than is the air above the snow’s surface. The air just inches above the snow is warmer too, because the friction, as wind blows across the earth’s surface, slows it down, making it a little warmer than the air that is a few feet above. The dormant plants are snug beneath their blanket of snow, compared to the chaotic weather above it. Some underground warmth also comes from the earth’s core and snow helps keep it there, warming the dormant plants.
It was only a small lesson I learned that wintry day, but it has served me well. A little mulch, a few unraked leaves and a foot of snow might be all your dormant plants need to survive a long cold winter.
All that information sure doesn’t dampen my craving for strawberries in February, though.
The thumbnail is a photo of one of my paintings, the photo of the child is my grandson, who looks much like me, though he wears blue and I wore red when I was 5. The photo of the strawberry in bloom is that of DG member GardenGuyKin, and the photo of the strawberry is that of Evert. Both photos appear in Plant Files. Thank you so much for the use of your photos.