Published in The Daily Journal print edition Dec. 28, 2011

Q: I use rain water, collected in my rain barrel, to water my houseplants in the summer. I was wondering if melted snow would work in the winter. I don't like to use tap water because of the chlorine and fluoride in it. -- Sandra

A: Rainwater is great for house plants, but I'm not sure you would get the same results with melted snow. Snow is slightly different at the molecular level than rain.

My son did a science experiment years ago to see if snow made a difference to plants. He bought nine identical-looking impatiens from a local nursery that propagated their own plants for annual cell packs. It was in March, so the plants were small, but healthy and robust. He placed them all in a south-facing window and watered three with collected rainwater that we had saved for houseplants, three with tap water and three with melted snow.

The plants watered with rainwater did best, followed by the plants watered with tap water. The plants that received melted snow were ever so slightly smaller and stunted.

Further reading led us to this conclusion: During a thunderstorm, lightning interacts with moisture to fix atmospheric nitrogen into the water. Rainwater also collects nitrogen from particles in the air caused by industrial pollution. Nitrogen is the element plants have the highest need for. In the absence of lightning, which is uncommon in winter, the water contains less nitrogen.

It is also reported that snow contains about 40 percent fewer water molecules with a heavier-than-normal form of hydrogen called deuterium than normal water does. For reasons having to do with the way that plants take up water molecules, this heavy water tends to slow down growth.

I would say that watering with melted snow is not harmful to plants, but not as beneficial as rainwater. If you allow tap water to sit for 24 hours, the fluoride and chlorine will dissipate. Don't use distilled water, as it has no minerals.


Q: I brought my potted rosemary, thyme and chives into my basement for the winter. It is about 50-55 degrees down there, and the herbs are in a south-facing, but small window. My question is, they are getting pale and the leaves are stretched out on the stems with lots of room between them; do they need fertilizer? -- Marie

A: No, it is best not to fertilize herbs because it makes them less-flavorful. What they need is light. Perhaps you could hang a shop light with fluorescent bulbs over them. Get the light source as close as you can and leave it on at all times. This still won't be sufficient for the herbs to perform as well as they did in the garden, but it will make a big difference. It will also make them dry out quickly, so you will need to water more.

Green thoughts

Stanley the squirrel came pecking at my window today, looking for a handout. Stanley has become a very handsome young adult. His fur coat is thick, glossy and impeccably groomed. He has handsome white tufts of fur behind each ear now and his tail -- oh my, what a tail! It stands at full curl, resplendent as mink, and he gives it a shimmy now and then to make sure it gets noticed.

My soft-hearted husband has been sharing peanuts through the kitchen window, telling me that they are for the blue jays. But when Stanley comes to collect them, Bill is pleased and puts out more "for the birds." Stanley's mother, on the other hand, looks as ratty as I'm sure she feels. She is thin, with a bedraggled looking coat and a skimpy tail that never looks full and soft, but rather as if it is always damp. She spends her days, as most mothers do, frantically finding food to bury for the long winter ahead. She runs up and down the fence, digging deeply into the compost for squash seeds and scratching under the bird feeders for the few sunflower and corn kernels she can glean.

Stanley rests and preens in the nearby silver maple, occasionally scampering down to collect his peanuts or something she has just buried and selfishly gobbles it down, leaving peanuts shells and other debris for someone else to clean up. She scolds and chases him back up into the tree. I look at him in his fine fur coat and it occurs to me that he will no doubt be giving her grandchildren this spring. I guess I'd better buy more peanuts.

Deb Terrill is a local horticulturist with 30 years hands-on gardening experience. Email her at