A Study of the Winter Kill Phenomena


By Anne Wieland

Passed on from Ellen VandeVisse, a member from Palmer AK.


Dear Homer friends who garden,

Back in June you may have taken the time to enter data in the Winter Kill survey.  It’s been quite a while since then and some amazing things have happened demonstrating the resilience of nature – the spectacular fireweed bloom, the resurgence of pushkis for better or worse, reseeding of some perennials which were thought to have died, and the amazing regeneration of some trees and shrubs that we gave up for dead including Todd’s and my large Norland apple tree which we pruned way back and is now covered with robust shoots.

One of the purposes of the survey was to let us know what happened to our friends and neighbors’ yards and gardens across the community to give a larger picture of the losses and survivors and possible causes of the damage.  The summary of the data as of June 29 is below. I also tabulated the variety of perennials and native plants that were lost or damaged and the most frequently mentioned are listed below.

As of June 29th 82 people had responded to the Homer Winter Kill survey from the southern Kenai Peninsula and 17 from elsewhere whose responses are not included in this summary.  A few more responses came in up until July 9 but did not change the results.  The survey seems to have given us a chance to vent about the many diverse, significant, and often very painful winter damages that our gardens, yards, orchard and lawns even overwintered plants in high tunnels and greenhouses experienced. The substantial investment loss to landscaping, beautification and food and flower production in the community has also becoming apparent.

Although 82 responses were received about half of whom gave their names, none answered all of the questions as most questions were not applicable to every situation.  Almost 70% of us garden in town, on the Homer Bench, or out East Rd. all the way to 15 mile and beyond.  Others garden from the top of the ridge (11%), the west side of town, in Anchor Point or on Old Sterling Hwy.  A couple responded from across the Bay.

Almost 3 out of 5 gardens are located from 250 to 500 foot elevation and from 750 feet and up, largely due to terrain, canyons, etc. in between.  About  a third of the gardens are between sea level and 250 feet.  As you might expect 7 out of 8 gardens mostly face south.

There were not many responses from people who garden in High Tunnels or Greenhouses as there were few losses to report, although some did occur in all categories except shrubs. The greatest amount of damage was reported from yards, orchards, and gardens.  Although not a choice on the survey, lawns seem to fare the worst, with dead spots extensively suffered area wide.  One individual had wintered his 3′ by 16′ covered “Chicken Tractor” on his lawn, and noted that very little snow blew under it.  That covered area of his lawn is fine, convincing him that it had to be the ice on the rest of the lawn that killed it.

Beside lawns, perennial flowers were hardest hit, and shrubs and trees close behind.  Plants in all the categories including trees, shrubs, vines, flowers, herbs and vegetables  experienced damage from slight to a significant number that died.  Damage occurred not just to the newly planted but to dear old friends, trees, shrubs and perennial flowers that had been there for decades.  Along with the cultivated and domestic plants, a large number of native Alaskan plants died or were damaged, notably Elderberries, Potentila shrubs especially around the library (appeared to have died but some are in bloom now), nettles (turned out to be very late) some alders, wild blueberries and Rusty Menziesia across the bay.  One person commented that a winter that killed so many native plants had to be very exceptional.

Respondents expressed a lot of discouragement with all these losses, especially as we have already had plenty thanks to the snow shoe hares over the last few years.  Some people say that they just will give up and not replace some of the plants that they lost.  The list of damaged or dead plants is very long and diverse.  Notable losses beside lawns were strawberries even the bomb proof varieties, raspberries 2012 primacanes intended to bear this summer, fruit trees young and old, peonies, roses, poppies and many more.  Fortunately many of the damaged plants even fruit trees are now showing signs of attempted recovery.

When asked “What do you believe caused the most damage in your situation?” (Choices were cold 2012 summer, wet 2012 fall, early 2012 frost, deep hard 2012 freeze, ice cover/suffocation, and late 2013 frost), most responders checked more than one cause, some checked all choices. There was considerable agreement that the ice cover on yards was the most likely responsible for suffocation death of lawn and strawberries, but short cold wet 2012 summer and wet fall, the early frost and deep hard frost along with the lateness of spring along with untimely thaw not mentioned in survey, were all seen as responsible, in effect creating a perfect storm of adverse conditions that took perennials that had experienced a poor summer into a winter that just finished them off.  Here are some long time gardeners’ comments:

“Born here, so a history of nearly 60 years. 2012 was the coldest wettest summer I can remember, then early winter, sub zero temps, without sufficient snow coverage until January. not the coldest winter by any means but without the proper depth of snow cover, there was no protection.”

“Been here 40 years and have never seen grasses freeze this bad area wide. I think it was the long winter rain and thawing the hard deep freeze. Higher up where some snow held it does not seem so bad.”

“Been gardening here since 1985 in this location. Never seen anything like it.”

“Gardened in town since 1993.  This past 14 months was the worst for gardens by far”

“This is the worst I have ever seen in the 45 years our family has lived in Homer. ABSOLUTELY THE WORST looking lawns, shrubs and flowers.”

So if you are a newcomer and thought you did something wrong, take heart!  And thank you to everyone who took the time to respond to the survey and to carefully help document this singularly devastating event.

Here are some of the most often mentioned casualties with the most frequently named first:  Perennial flowers : Peony, Poppy, Columbine, Ligularia, Lilies, Delphinium, Trollius, Blue Poppy.  Shrubs:  Roses, Raspberry, Lilac, Honey Suckle, Strawberry.  Trees: Apple trees, Amur Cherry, Mountain Ash, Choke Cherry.  Including all categories, more than 55 varieties were mentioned at least once.

Anne Wieland

August, 2013