We know that cold, rainy and unseasonable weather in summer can harm our plants. Bloom time can be set back and pollinating insects are unable to fully complete their jobs when flowers become a soggy mass because of constant rains. But we seldom consider the harm caused by unseasonably warm weather in winter.

The worst and most obvious problem caused by lack of typical winter conditions, desiccation can kill even robust perennials and shrubs. Snow makes a great insulator and it also prevents drying winds from sapping moisture from plants. But lack of snow exposes our plants to biting, winter winds, the result often being death or partial destruction of the plants.

Mulching can prevent this, but sometimes it’s hard to mulch everything in the yard and garden. Wooden enclosures, made of two sheets of plywood fastened together by a hinge and set over the plant, can save shrubs from desiccation, but for those with lots of shrubs, it’s a Herculean task to protect everything.

A good, old-fashioned winter with lots of snow prevents wind damage to our plants. By an old-fashioned winter, I mean a winter with snow that persists throughout the season, not the occasional snow that quickly melts during the next warm spell. We haven’t had a consistently cold winter for many years now.

Frost heaves

We all suffer from them. Frost heaves wreak havoc on motor vehicle’s suspension systems. These used to show up toward winter’s end, but now, with too-frequent warm spells throughout the winter, frost heaves can appear a month or more ahead of schedule.

The same process that causes frost heaves on our roads also serves to push plants partially out of the ground. What happens next can utterly destroy the plant. If the plant doesn’t fully settle back into the ground after being heaved out, and temperatures drop below freezing, the plant can literally freeze to death.

Those tender roots and rootlets are not meant to be exposed to moisture-sapping winter winds. The only solution for this is to go out and check for heaved plants. As soon as you spot one, reset it in the ground, being careful to properly tamp all around it so as to firmly anchor it in the soil.

Many a plant that would have otherwise made it through the winter unscathed has died from being heaved out of the ground by the motion of frost heaving during warm times, left to freeze and die when cold weather returned.

And then we have early growth, prompted by warmer-than-normal conditions. When flowering shrubs sense the onset of cold weather, they produce buds that will become the following year’s blooms. These tightly packed buds protect what’s inside, but when they open up due to warm weather when there should be no warm weather, problems occur.

If the bud does not fully open and if it fully closes when normal, cold conditions return, it will probably not suffer. But if it remains open, or even half-open for too long, the nascent blossoms inside will die.

One positive aspect of the warming trend is that some hardy herbs offer a winter picking. I have picked chives in January and February, and they were twice as flavorful as those picked during the warm season. Some other herbs may put up new growth in winter, so keep an eye on the herb garden.

Winterkilled lawns

This lawn will need reseeding in spring. Tom Seymour

If your lawn became scorched during last summer’s heat and went into winter brown and lifeless, an “open,” or snow-free winter will only add to its woes. At this point there’s nothing much we can do about it, but when spring arrives and the ground dries out, you may need to re-seed the worst hit areas.

Weird winters mean problems for our plants. We must do the best we can to help them through.

Tom Seymour, of Frankfort, is a homeowner, gardener, forager, naturalist, registered Maine Guide, amateur astronomer, magazine and newspaper columnist, and book author.