Repairing and preventing winter damage

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Updated Jan 15, 2024
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Winter can prove to be one of the harshest and most unforgiving seasons, leaving behind frozen and damaged landscapes and rusted equipment.

Depending on your region, the damage could range from a total disaster to just a mild annoyance. No matter the weather severity, winter damage is unavoidable, but with a little bit of foresight and preparation, major issues can be avoided.

Unfortunately, the most difficult part of winter preparation is the inability to truly predict how intense the weather will get until it’s upon you, but preparing for the most common types of winter damage may help give you a leg up when the more disastrous issues arrive.

Frost damage, frost heave

New foliage that was pruned and fertilized in the late summer or early fall is unable to acclimate before the temperature drops, which causes it to turn black or brown. Once the temperatures start warming back up, plants will break out of their dormancy, but unexpected cold snaps can still take their toll on the new growth.

To remedy this, you can go ahead and prune the damaged leaves and flowers if they don’t drop on their own. Pruning will help encourage new growth, and if the buds and branches haven’t been injured too severely, they can usually produce new leaves.

To try and get ahead of this issue, avoid pruning and fertilizing the plants in the late summer or early fall. This can help prevent the new growth from suddenly pushing through. If it seems like the plants are desperately in need of some fertilizer, try using a slow-release or organic option.

Again, if you feel that pruning is required, do so sparingly, and wait until the plant reaches full dormancy. When springtime rolls back around, wait until the plant has broken out of its dormancy and the cold temperatures are long gone before attempting pruning.

When periods of soil freezing and thawing occur, frost heave prevents the plants that are pushed up from having a firm contact with the soil, which leaves the roots exposed to wind desiccation.

If you find that your customer’s plants are suffering from frost heave, be sure to replant what’s upheaved as soon as the soil thaws. For those plants that have a root system small enough, it’s possible to push the plant back into the soil carefully. To prevent this from happening, use mulch as a buffer for the soil, as it reduces the amount of thawing and freezing the soil is able to do.

Desiccation and broken branches

Desiccation occurs most commonly when the tissue of a plant dries out from wind, chemicals, lack of soil and air moisture or the plant being placed in the wrong location. Evergreens are especially susceptible to this due to the fact that their leaves lose water, even when they are dormant. The damage will be noticeable on the foliage when the leaves evaporate more water than the roots are taking in.

To fix this if it’s already occurred, the leaves can be stripped away by hand or pruned if the leaves have not already fallen off on their own. If they are pruned prematurely, it can expose the inner leaves and increase the damage.

To prevent it, make sure the plants are well watered, especially in dry conditions. If they begin showing signs of winter burn, water the frozen ground on the warmest day possible. Also try to keep a 2- to 3-inch-thick mulch layer to reduce the loss of water.

Covering the evergreen leaves with a waxy coating can also help contain the water they store, and laying down layers of burlap, canvas or other like materials can help cut down on wind exposure.

Extreme winter weather, such as hail, wind, snow and ice, can cause branches to break, which leads to aesthetic issues as well as safety and productivity issues.

Unless the branches are causing a safety or productivity hazard, it’s best to wait until the end of the season to prune all broken branches back to the branch collar of the nearest live branch or to within one quarter inch above a live bud.

Pruning will give the plant a new shape, as well as help stimulate new growth in the next season. If you want to try and get ahead of this problem, consider removing the parts of the plant that will be the most susceptible before winter really sets in. If a branch looks weak or is already dead, early removal is the best option. 

Rodent damage and salt burn

For all of the small, furry visitors frequenting your customer’s yard, there are a few simple fixes and preventative measures to keep them at bay. Mice, rabbits and voles will chew off the bark of trees at ground level and below, and they can sometimes completely remove the tree’s base bark and cause the plant to die.

If the plants have already been visited by these furry friends, the damage will need to seal and heal on its own. To prevent this problem, keep mulch away from the base of the tree, and keep a close eye on the base of the tree for signs of biting and chewing.

Putting up a guard is an easy and effective prevention method. Try using a strip of galvanized screen or mesh around the entirety of the trunk, and keep it secure with a twist wire to keep the mesh from unrolling. Push the end of the roll into the ground to keep the animals from going below the surface of the soil; this kind of guard should last indefinitely and can be kept there year-round.

For plants plagued by salt burn, there is a simple solution. When runoff containing dissolved salt is unavoidable, the area around the plants should be flushed in early spring. Apply about 2 inches of water to the area over a two- to three-hour period, and repeat this process three days later.

To try and prevent this, don’t pile any snow that may contain salt around plants or trees or put it where runoff can reach the plant roots. If possible, find a way to direct salty runoff away from the plants. If this isn’t an option, select plants that are salt-tolerant to go in that area instead, or install a low wall or hedge of salt-tolerant evergreens around the area.

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