Poor Man’s Fertilizer


As I contemplate the task of plowing the driveway, I find it hard to see anything appealing in last night’s snowfall.  It seemed to me that we already had plenty of the white stuff, with a blanket some 14 inches deep.  However, I’m trying to console myself with the thought of all the benefits this stuff has for the garden. garden snow 2

“Poor man’s fertilizer” is what the old Yankees called snow and there is considerable truth to that expression.

Snowflakes as they form and fall absorb nitrates from the atmosphere and then release these nutrients into the soil as the snow melts.  Much is lost with the water that runs off across the frozen ground in early thaws, but still, I’ve seen figures suggesting that as much as 5-10 lbs of nitrates can be infiltrated into each acre of soil in this fashion.  This effect is enhanced where the air pollution is worse – nitrous oxide emissions from automobile and powerplant wash down in rain and snow, considerably boosting nitrate contents of urban and suburban soils.  A bad thing for the environment in many ways, but a plus for the nutrient content of garden soils in those areas.

Insulation:  snow, especially dry, powdery snow, helps to insulate the ground underneath it, protecting plants from the cycle of thaw and refreeze that they find particularly damaging.  In fact, it has been calculated that 10 inches of light snow can have an insulation value of R18, similar to a six inch layer of fiberglass insulation.

Gardeners have long understood this, at least intuitively.  I remember when I was a student at the New York Botanical Garden that after each snowstorm, Karl Grieshaber, the German born and trained curator of the rock garden, would march us students out to shovel the precious white stuff off the paths and onto his beds to protect his alpine plants against the vagaries of New York winter weather.  The plants appreciated this treatment; I did not.  But the memory helps me regard with more appreciation this winter’s seemingly endless snows.

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Thomas Christopher

My father was a compulsive tree planter, but it was my mother who taught me the finer points of gardening.

Her homeschooling was followed by two years in the New York Botanical Garden’s School of Professional Horticulture, and then ten years as horticulturist at an Olmsted Brothers designed estate on the Hudson River Palisades.

I’ve worked as a horticultural journalist for 35 years, contributing to publications ranging from Martha Stewart Living to the Journal of the Royal Horticultural Society and The New York Times.  My most recent book is Nature Into Art: The Gardens of Wave Hill, which is a tour of the lessons to be learned from that great public garden.  I’m currently focusing on my new podcast (at thomaschristophergardens.com) which features weekly interviews with leaders of environmentally-informed gardening.

My special enthusiasms include sustainable gardening, especially sustainable lawns;  heirloom chicken breeds; and recreating vintage New England hard ciders.


Contact Tom by email


  1. Thomas, thank you for sharing this! I’ve been gardening half my life and never fully appreciated some of these benefits of our NE winter season.

  2. Here in coastal Massachusetts we had very cold weather in January with no snow cover. I remember thinking that quite a few of my plants would not survive the freeze. Now that there’s 6 feet of snow covering everything, I’m not sure if I should be relieved. Predictions around here are that the snow won’t be gone until mid-April! I have a feeling we are going to go straight from winter to summer this year…

  3. Poor man’s fertilizer? That’s a new one- more commonly snow has been referred to as ‘Poor Man’s Mulch’. FYI

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