For most of us, winter means taking a break from gardening and landscaping, focusing our attention instead on indoor tasks. (Okay, and also shoveling snow!) But while we’re cozied up next to the fireplace, our trees and shrubs are often enduring some harsh weather outside. With temperatures lingering below freezing and those howling western winds, some trees and shrubs in the Quad Cities metro area don’t stand a chance against winter damage. Don’t forget to give them some extra attention at this time of year—here’s how you can protect your yard, and how to manage damage if it does occur.
Protecting Plants for the Winter
It’s easy to assume that trees and shrubs can hold their own through the winter—they have been standing in the same spot for years, after all. But cold days and harsh winds can do a lot of damage, and even though your plants will often bounce back with time, why put them through that in the first place? A little bit of protection can drastically lessen their injuries.
Evergreens are especially susceptible to damage because they keep their needles all year long. A combination of extreme conditions, like dry air and frozen soil, limits your evergreens’ access to moisture. This desiccates, or dehydrates, the plant and leads to winter burn. We’ve already discussed how to prevent winter damage to evergreens but these tips can also help protect your deciduous plants. Even though they adapt to the chilly weather by going dormant and losing their foliage, they can still fall victim to damaging winds and dehydration if left unprotected.
During your winter prep, set your plants up for cold season success by giving them a good, thorough watering before the ground freezes. Follow with a generous application of mulch at the base of the plant to help conserve moisture. Mulch will also act as a sort of insulation to keep their roots as warm and as cozy as they can be. We also suggest applying Wilt-Pruf to evergreens, which protects their needles from winter burn and encourages them to stay green for longer.
Wrap your young, tender evergreens in burlap to protect them from the bright sun and eliminate the risk of winter burn. Similarly, wrap the trunk of young or tender deciduous trees and shrubs, including fruit trees, maples, and willows, with a paper wrap or a plastic tree guard. This will protect their bark from sun-scald and deter nibbling rabbits and rodents. To prevent the delicate branches of younger plants from splitting and breaking, consider sheltering them with wooden or mesh shrub cover, or a shelter made of natural materials.
Managing Winter Damage
Sometimes, even when we plan ahead to prevent damage, winter injury can still occur. This can include discolored, or burned, evergreen foliage, dead or broken branches, and elevated root systems. If you notice winter damage, don’t panic too much. It’s a natural thing, and your plants will likely bounce back on their own if it’s not too severe. However, there are some things you can do to treat their injuries and speed their recovery.
Dead or broken branches: Occasionally brush off heavy snow throughout the winter to prevent trees from bending or breaking in the first place. In the spring, remove any broken branches as they’re both a risk to your tree and an eyesore for your spring garden. The same goes for dead branches—your plant will still allocate precious resources to lifeless limbs as long as they’re still attached. If you’re unsure if a branch is completely dead, scrape the outer bark and check to see the color underneath. If you see green, there’s still life! You should leave that branch alone. Once the damaged branches are removed, your tree will instantly be refreshed and look healthier.
Fallen trees: You’ll be happy to know that many fallen trees with exposed root systems can be saved. While larger, more mature trunks are more difficult to recover and may need to be removed, you can simply cover the heaved roots of smaller, younger plants to keep them from drying out. Once the weather clears, stand the tree upright and secure it in place with guy wires or a plant cage. If the ground has already thawed, give it a good watering to help the roots settle back into the soil.
Winter burn: Treating winter burn will depend on the severity of the injury. If it’s not too bad, discolored needles and tips will eventually regain their color and the tree will begin to produce new growth. If any branches have succumbed to their injuries, remove them to encourage the tree to develop new limbs. The most important thing you can do to manage winter burn is to rehydrate your plants once the ground thaws. Keeping their roots adequately watered and applying appropriate fertilizers will have your plants back in good health in no time.
Rodent damage: With plants in their dormant state and a blanket of snow on the ground, food sources are limited for wildlife during the cold season. This can lead to some unwanted animals, particularly mice and rabbits, to turn to the bark of your precious plants. Keep an eye out for signs of visitors, such as tracks, droppings, or ground-level plant damage. Manage pest problems by wrapping tree trunks with guards or spraying it with an animal repellant like Plantskydd.
Salt damage: It’s important to keep an eye on plants that line your property and are exposed to road or driveway de-icers or salt runoff. Salt can directly damage your plants, so avoid piling snow from your driveway or walkway near them. In the spring, when salt spray is at its worst, wash off any trunks or branches that have been affected and flush the area to get rid of salt buildup. Salt can even change the composition of soil, so be sure to amend the area with organic matter to correct soil structure and eliminate the prolonged effects of salt damage.
When spring comes, assessing damage to your trees and shrubs may be an overwhelming task. While there are some telltale signs and remedies for bringing them back to health, don’t hesitate to consult with a professional. If you need to replace any plants this spring, drop into our garden center here at Meyer Landscape—just a short drive for anyone living in the Quad Cities area.