What a Mild Winter Means

Reader Contribution by Jason Akers

 When we moved further south and west this year I mentioned to my wife that if this year was as snowy and cold as it was last year I was going to be very upset!  As if I could do anything about it!

I love the mildness of this winter.  We’ve had days in the 70’s and up until just a few days ago here in Kentucky we hadn’t had a real snowfall.  I didn’t really think about the true consequences of the mild winter until I read the garden column in the Chicago Tribune (online of course).  In a recent Q/A, a reader wrote in to ask just that:  “What does a mild winter mean?”.  The columnist answered well but dedicated most of the answer to the pretty flowers you might find adorning an upscale home in Chicago.  I don’t think the answer was comprehensive enough.

So I started thinking about true consequences for us…you know, the homesteaders.  Other than some nice weather to get our work done what will the results be?

1.  More insects – whether you call them pests or simply realize they are part of the world we inhabit, there very likely will be more bugs this year.  Now there are some exceptions to my prediction. 

If you live in a part of the country where clay soil is prevalent then you will see more.  If you live in area with sandy or silt soil or loam you likely will see slightly more. 

Here’s the logic.  Insects overwinter in most cases through migration or freeze avoidance.  Migration is pretty explanatory but there are a good deal of insects that evolution has smacked on the head – they don’t migrate.  Instead they burrow into the soil and lay eggs as deep as possible.  A mason bee, for instance, digs a hole, lays an egg, provisions the nest with pollen, then seals it off with mud.  If everything goes right the larvae will hatch, eat the pollen, pupate and emerge in early spring.

Well what happens during a winter in many cases is there will be a severe period.  Bugs, being simple creatures after all don’t always guess right and their depths may be off by a little.  Not every egg will freeze and burst.  But during most winters there are some eggs that simply do not hatch because they weren’t deep enough or protected well enough.

A mild winter means that a greater percentage of eggs will survive.

Now this could be bad or good depending on how your system is built.  For a livestock owner we can count on more worms, more mites and parasites and should be on the watch for these things.  In the garden there will obviously be more insects.  If you built a good resilient system with plenty of beneficial insect habitat and you saw populations last year you will very likely not notice an increase.  If you did not then you will be fighting a war of attrition that the insects will likely win during spring.  Plan for the habitat now, and introduce beneficial insects when the time comes if you need to.  The good news is that there will be plenty for them to eat!

2.  Quicker growth for perennials – if the winter stays mild right up until the start of spring then you can expect a quicker start to new growth set on your perennial trees, bushes, shrubs and vines.  This is great news.  However if you have trees that blossom early be prepared to protect them if its possible.  The warmer weather could mean growth and blossoms before the last frost.  That is never a good thing.

3.  Less natural new plant life – with stratification officially on hold with this nice weather its very possible that nuts and some wild plant seeds will simply not germinate well.  It won’t be the end of the world but if you’ve put something in the ground with the hopes that it will stratify I hate to say it but you might want to dig it up and use your freezer instead.

4.  No flooding – and after last year its well deserved.  In my region (which flooded early and severely) farmland was affected in a tragic manner.  I live a few counties east of the levies that were blown up the Army Corp to save the city of Cairo.  Unfortunately this sacrificed farmland and crops in process. 

Will any luck that will probably not be the case this year.  It was a wet fall but winter is well below the 271% above average winter precipitation we saw last year. 

You can find my writings and podcast at www.theselfsufficientgardener.com