Becky seemed hesitant when I asked her over for coffee and dessert. “Do you want me to bring something? A fork, maybe?”
“We’re having brownies.” I replied. “Besides, I have plenty of silverware.”
“So we’re not turning compost.” she said. “You need a saw or a hammer?”
“My last batch of cookies was a little hard,” I admitted. “But I remembered the baking powder this time. We can cut them without the heavy equipment.”
“I’m confused, then. You said there were some big projects going on in the garden. What are they, and how do I have to help.”
“There’s a lot going on,” I said. “But all we have to do is keep putting wood on the fire. The rest will take care of itself.”
And it will. Bitter as these temperatures are, winter is doing us gardeners a favor, and not just by giving us a guilt-free break from garden chores.
For one thing, without winter chill, we wouldn’t be getting much fruit next year. Most deciduous fruit needs anywhere from a hundred to well over a thousand hours spent below forty-five degrees. The exact amount of chill hours needed varies by type of fruit, and even by specific variety of each. Low-chill varieties of peaches, apples and other fruits are available, but we scarcely need them here.
Fruit trees and many other deciduous trees need chill time in order to break down the growth inhibiting hormone, which deciduous trees typically produce in the fall as a response to shortening days. The hormone keeps trees in dormancy during the winter, so they aren’t sucker-punched by a few nice days in the middle of the winter. Once sufficient chill hours are reached, lengthening days and warming temperatures encourage a tree to resume growth.
If trees don’t get adequate chill, they may not produce fruit, or the fruit they do produce will be poor in quality. I wish it were the case that the colder the winter, the better the fruit the next summer. We’d have candy apples without dipping them in caramel.
The extremely bitter weather we’re enjoying in Northern Nevada won’t actually help fruit production. In fact, we will probably get less fruit than we would if our winter were milder. But these sub-zero temperatures aren’t without a few benefits for us gardeners.
Cold weather inhibits some plant disease. Some sources estimate that eighty percent of plant diseases are caused by fungi. Although the precise sequence of conditions favorable to each specific fungal disease varies, some of them are less prevalent after exceptionally cold winters. This winter qualifies.
We might face fewer insect pests after a really cold winter as well. The pests commonly lumped together as “cutworms” are actually the larval stage of many different moths. Most cutworms hatch in late summer and spend the winter in a larval state. Really cold winters decimate many species of cutworms.
Grasshoppers overwinter as eggs, so their populations aren’t reduced as dramatically by winter cold. However, if our cold winter is followed by a cool, rainy spring, we will have fewer hoppers.
Best of all, really cold winters kill off my arch-nemesis, the squash bug. They over-winter as adults, and really cold winters check them nicely. I won’t mind if the hair in my nose freezes stiff, as long as I know squash bugs are frozen equally stiff–and dead.
So I’ll bake another batch of brownies. I’ll put on a pot of coffee, and a sweater. I’m not going to stop complaining about the cold–that would take the fun out of winter. But I’ll be secretly a little bit glad to see those minus signs in the forecast.
When Teresa Howell isn’t chillin’, she teaches English at Great Basin College.