Animals may reel while plants cope

An intricate web threads through a garden, with elements that check and balance one another. When one is up, another is down. So it's unlikely any garden can be said to have an all bad, or all good, winter. This sharp shinned hawk's livelihood may rely more heavily on the existence of good perches, density of the local songbird population and absence of feral cats, than on air temperature. 

Other consequences of warm winter

Dehydration, premature bloom, insect upsets, rodent romps, well fed birds of prey, spoiled soil  and one big question mark!

 Ongoing discussion at the Forum

Water shortage

Dehydration is indirectly related to winter warmup. An evergreen planted where the soil's dry can dehydrate in a warm winter because the leaves or needles are photosynthesizing at an unusual rate and there's none in the soil to replace it. Watering evergreens or shading them can alleviate this.


Early bloom

Some bulbs may bloom ahead of schedule because, "Well, we are up, no stopping now." The bloom may last, or not, but that's not a big blow to the plant. Even if it loses flower, flowering stem and leaves, it's already benefited from their photosynthesis, may have more greenery yet to arise from below ground, and has added that to the starch reserves in its bulb. It'll be back.









Close to the warmth the Earth is always exhaling, these daffodil leaves will be fine, even though they're up a month early. Flowers should follow.

For bulbs that keep on coming and bloom early, the story's different.
See Zoned Out Over Hardiness.


Insect outings

Insects "count hours", often in close step with the plants that are their hosts. The insect develops inside its egg or pupal case during every hour when air around it is above 50- or 55°F. Too much warm weather can result in early emergence. Those that took shelter under the siding on a building in fall often come out through interior cracks during winter; if they were human they'd be saying, "What am I doing up at 3 a.m. and where's breakfast?"


An insect that emerges early in the outdoors, ahead of its food plants or mates, might freeze or starve. However, it's hard to kill an insect with cold. We don't even wish for that in most cases, since early warmth that draws out bugs may also call plants back to life. Both risk freezing.


Rodent romps

Rodents such as meadow mice (voles) and chipmunks may be more active in a warm winter. That can mean perennials and grasses lose more roots and crowns by spring, while woody plants have more bark chewed, underlying cambium consumed and trunks girdled.

Below, left: Seems to us that chipmunks always look a bit guilty when they realize we're looking at them!

Recently, B.C. reported spending "...a couple hours on the nature trails between UM-Dearborn and the Henry Ford Estate... It was gorgeous. The usual birds. Rabbit, deer, squirrel, mouse and muskrat tracks. ...I had chipmunks under the bird feeder this morning. The first chipmunks I've ever seen in Michigan in January."  We, too would comment if we saw a chipmunk  in winter. We've never seen that. Great Uncle Axel told us about one that tunneled up through deep snow to beg at the back window at his house in Michigan's Upper Peninsula. But then, he often had snow into May...

Below, right: Chipmunks like fruit. This one laid claim to a serviceberry (Amelanchier grandiflora) and defended it fiercely against all comers, including us. It looks cute here, stuffing its face with berries, but you'd probably step back as quickly as we did at its irate charge out along a branch. We suspect it was a little drunk all through serviceberry season that year.

ChipmunkFrzs3703s.jpg  ChipmunkAmel3679s.jpg



Avian feasting

When there is less snow, hawks and owls that hunt rodents may have easier pickings. Late winter is nesting season for many birds of prey, and ample food then can mean bigger broods, and healthier young.

Right: A sharp-shinned hawk posed for Steven as it staked out our bird feeder. Its fortunes probably change more with local sparrow populations than temperature, because its diet consists almost entirely of birds.  It'll settle for frogs and we've seen it perched as here, shredding a garter snake held under one talon. However, there is another bird of prey that hunts our yard which might have a different take on the weather. The red tailed hawk eats rodents and other small mammals, critters that may be better able to hide under snow than on a bare field.

Did you know that the technical term for the way this bird and others take prey, by leaping from a stationary postion, is called  lunging? See the rest.


Soil stomps

Wet, ice-free soil gets abused in a winter if people are accustomed to doing things that put extra weight on it during that season. Woodlot managers who expect to be able to cut and drag over frozen ground face harder pulls and create more ruts. Farmers who cut stubble, spread manure, shift equipment, and tend irrigation lines face a dilemma: forgo essential work or do it and ruin the soil, leaving it compacted to the point where it will grow poorly for years. In conversations overheard last weekend in the surprisingly lively corn-belt towns of Palestine and Robinson, Illinois, there was much comment on this fall-out from a warm winter.


A whirling world

Everything turns on the weather, and everything affects something else. We can fill out some of the balance sheet when the pluses and minuses are visible. Meanwhile, me might have no clue or can guess but not measure weather's impact on bacteria, fungi, seeds and much more that's pivotal in an ecological system. That is our world, and yours: the garden, an ecological system so complex we can each spend a lifetime to learn even the thin layer we can see.

Isn't it fun!?