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by Henry Lind

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Weather events in our region and why they happen
 

Poor man’s fertilizer

By Henry Lind
Tuesday, April 22, 2014

Last week’s snow was a surprise to many but welcomed by those of us who are tilling the soil in gardens or farms. Late season snow has been called “poor man’s fertilizer” for generations but we may not realize that it really deserves the name, with perhaps the gender specific reference as an exception. In fact, any moisture falling from the sky contains nitrogen, the single most important element for plant growth. When it arrives in the form of snow, the added benefit is what we can describe as slow release fertilizer. Unlike a rainstorm, the nitrogen in the snow stays put on the soil as the snow melts, and does not run off quickly.

As every gardener or farmer knows, the key question is how much fertilizer are we talking about? Too much and the plants will burn, but not enough and they develop slowly. Again, “poor man’s” description is correct – there is not an awful lot of nitrogen on average although it is increasing as we continue to pump chemicals into the air with fossil fuels and automobiles. The amount that drops from the sky is estimated to be only a few pounds per acre, where applications of hundreds of pounds per acre are recommended for commercial agriculture. Chemicals, however, come with a price tag and Nature’s gift is suitable for the poor person’s budget.

Many landscapers will confirm that even with a gentle rain event there is benefit, and argue that no amount of irrigation from a well can help plants get started as well as the sky’s faucet.

There is a down side of course — often a snow or rain event will contribute more nitrogen to a river or stream than can be used by the plants living there and algae blooms will result. As plants are beginning to leaf out the snow may crush the plant down. The best advice from the experts is to leave these plants alone and the warm April sun will melt the snow quickly. Rather than risk more damage by efforts to shake it off remember that last week’s snow was gone by the next morning.

 
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