COLUMN: Tips for gardening in cold climates


Gardening in downtown New York can be a challenge. Our weather can be unpredictable and the season may be shorter than we would like. It’s frustrating when the plants we love the most struggle to survive or die completely. Instead of just using trial and error, here are some tips to help you have a more successful garden in our cold climate.

snow is good

It can be hard to say, “snow is your friend.” However, snow protects plants from wind and cold and insulates the soil to protect plant roots. Spring snowmelt provides moisture for rapid growth. Winters with little or no snow can sometimes be more problematic for plants than winters with adequate snow cover.

Snow removal piles

Snow piles – whether from shoveling, snow blowing, or snow plows – can be problematic. The weight of snow, or just the plow blade itself, can damage plants.

Excessive snowmelt from piles creates wet areas, which can be lethal to some plant material. Note where these areas are and avoid planting there or find plants that can tolerate excessive moisture.

Perennials versus shrubs or trees may be an option. Selections such as daylilies, Siberian irises, or hostas will be out of harm’s way and will not emerge until the snow clears.

Cold hardy but not buds

Knowing a plant’s cold hardiness zone is only one consideration when selecting a plant. Microclimates as well as temperature fluctuations in early spring can wreak havoc on some shrubs and trees whose roots may be cold hardy but whose flower buds are not. A specimen may be hardy to our zone 4 or 5 conditions, but a spring temperature swing can damage early flower buds, leaving a flowering plant with all foliage and no flowers.

Do your research before buying a flowering shrub or tree and consider varieties that bloom later in the season.

Salt tolerance

Many plants, trees and shrubs cannot tolerate road salt. The leaves and needles of plants in contact with salt spray are brown and dry. Other plants will struggle with too much salt in the soil, causing lack of plant vigor, delayed bud burst or branch dieback. Look for salt-tolerant plants such as Austrian pines, blue spruces, ornamental grasses, or sedums, to name a few.

Consider the view

It’s actually a good time to look out the window or take a walk in your garden. What could you add to improve the view or make your garden more interesting? Garden catalogs and websites are ready to be browsed for ideas. Consider adding a structure such as a statue; garden texture by adding plants with different foliage shapes; coloring the garden by adding plants, painting a fence; or adding a focal point with more color.

Check out a cold hardiness map and see what other parts of the country are in the same zone as us; then check their state’s Cooperative Extension Service website for ideas. Of course, your best resource is our own Oneida County Cornell Cooperative Extension; visit our website at and click “Home and Garden” at the top of the page to find Garden Fact Sheets. With these tips and a little research now, you’ll be ready to take on our gardening challenges in midtown New York. Start your planning now. Happy gardening!

If you missed your registration for the current volunteer master gardener training, we can put you on our list for the next upcoming training. For more information, call us at 315-736-3394 ext. 100 or go online to and click on the Facebook and YouTube icons at the bottom of the page for great information on the research and the garden.


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