As I sit here writing this, I’m looking out the window on the glistening snow — a Christmas snow, the first in maybe a decade. And it was a doozie! Torrential rain, high wind, and then the snow just dumped! If you didn’t have to drive in it, or have a hard time finding a place to stay warm, it has been beautiful.

This snow was not just pretty or treacherous or painful, depending on where you were. It was another “extreme weather event.” We can count on more of them.

Snow forms in clouds when temperatures are below the freezing (0-degrees Celsius, 32-degrees Fahrenheit), and water vapor in the atmosphere turns directly into ice without going thru the liquid stage. Once formed, it absorbs and freezes additional water vapor from the air, and grows into a snow crystal or snow pellet before falling to earth. The differences? Snowflakes are clusters of ice crystals that fall from a cloud. Snow pellets (a.k.a. graupel) are opaque ice particles that formed as ice crystals that fell thru supercooled cloud droplets, then froze to the crystals forming a lumpy, crumbly mass. Did you know it’s not really white?

How is snow beneficial to our planet? It’s an important component in the whole climate cycle. Snow, believe it or not, is a great insulator of the soil and the roots in it. When temperatures are very cold, and there’s no snow, the soil can freeze deeper and deeper, doing damage or even killing plant roots, bulbs, etc. Snow cover can also keep a sudden freeze/thaw/freeze from causing the soil to thaw and heave roots, which lead to more opportunities to freeze and kill later. Bare soil coldness will cause plants and roots to dry out (desiccate) and die. Consider snow to be winter mulch. Plants have adapted to the climate they live in, and are considered “native” or “naturalized.” Plants not adapted – considered “exotics” — may do ok until having to survive the extremes.

Slow melting snow has time to sink into the ground watertable instead of running off, conserving water for later. Did you know that snow is considered a mineral? Look it up! Nitrogen from the atmosphere attaches to snowflakes as they fall thru the air. It is often considered a “poor man’s fertilizer.”

Downsides to snow cover are the weight of the snow on branches and power lines, and sometimes large roofs. Have someone take a broom and knock the weight off bent over branches. Better yet, loosely bind tall, branching plants in the fall, in preparation for snow. If you run into ice, don’t bother it because you’ll do more damage than the ice can. Snow cover creates a great hiding place for mice, voles, and other plant-chewers to do their damage. Pull the snow back as you would mulch, so the lil guys are not as attracted to the plant.

Speaking of animals, snow affects their survival as well, whether they are wildlife or domestic. Most of them look for shelters during a snow. Thickets for the bigger animals, tall grasses for the birds, and man-made things will serve for wild or domestic. Where they’re adapted, wildlife knows to forage and tunnel into snowbanks to get to food and to get out of the wind.

Things not to do with snow: chemical products to melt the snow; salt of any kind. Not only is it deadly to plants, brutal to concrete, and anything that lives where the run-off goes, it’s also very bad for your pets (think licking paws). There are things you can use that won’t harm: kitty litter, gypsum, sand, alfalfa meal, coffee grounds, even rubbing alcohol. Basically, anything organic that will give stability or traction will work. Nothing chemical works when the surface temperature is around 10-degrees.

How about health benefits to a snowy day when you really can’t go anywhere? There’s plenty to do with a snow shovel! It’s great aerobic exercise for free, and you might meet a couple neighbors out there. A snowy day lets you be “lazy” and get that extra sleep you’ve been needing. How about snuggling in with a good book and some favorite music? Then there’s family time we all need. Get everyone together and go in the kitchen and cook up a truly homemade meal!

Maybe we’re done with the snow for this winter. If not, maybe you’ll be better prepared and not go grabbing that bag of chemical when you rush thru for your milk and bread. Oh! Don’t forget the toilet paper!

Sherrie Ottinger, aka: “The TN Dirtgirl,” is a regenerative Earth thinker, teacher, columnist, author and speaker. Her passion is all things “dirt.” She may be reached at with comments or questions.

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