Winter damage problems to look for on clients’ properties

Updated Feb 1, 2024
Photo: WikipediaPhoto: Wikipedia

Winter storms can pose a threat to your clients' landscapes...particularly their trees. 

Below are some of the common problems that can come from winter storms and the general prevention tips you can pass along to homeowners.

Frost cracks

When Mother Nature decides to be bipolar with cold and warm weather, this can lead to frost cracks on trees.

This occurs when the tree trunk expands and contracts too rapidly, leading it to split vertically. The crack compromises the tree’s structural integrity while making it vulnerable to insects and disease.

Frost cracks generally occur on the south or southwest side, but they can be found on any side. Young or older trees with smooth bark are the most susceptible. To prevent this from happening, tree trunks should be wrapped in paper tree wrap or burlap.

If a crack has already appeared, there is very little you can do to remedy the situation. In the spring, the tree should grow a callus over the crack. Extension agents advise lending your customer’s wounded trees a helping hand by fertilizing and spraying a liquid fungicide on the crack to guard against diseases.

Snow and ice buildup

The most common issue your customers can expect from this storm is an abundance of snow. It may look like a winter wonderland from the warmth of the indoors, but it’s more like a weightlifting nightmare for the trees suddenly inundated with heavy snow piles. When smaller limbs take on additional weight from snow and ice build-up, it can make them more likely to break (particularly in the wind).

While a homeowner may be tempted to help a tree out by shaking snow or ice off tree branches, this should only be done if the snow is light and fluffy. Heavy snow falling on a person can be a risk. It's best for homeowners to try to keep up with preventing snow build-up. For instance, if they go out and gently shake their shrubs a couple of times during a storm, it can prevent build-up in the first place.

Advise that clients never stand on a ladder or try to address snow on tall trees. This is simply too risky.

Meanwhile, knocking ice off should be left alone as most experts agree that this leads to more breakage of limbs.

Salt damage

As snow removal crews hit the road clearing paths of snow and ice so people aren’t stranded, extensive amounts of salt tend to be used as well. Dissolved salt can be sprayed on nearby plants from passing cars or it can leach into the soil, both resulting in problems for your customer’s landscape.

Salt spray that lands directly on the plants can cause desiccation on the plant leading to browning, bud death, and branch dieback on the side exposed to the road, while salts in the soil can reduce the water available to plants and affect the soil quality.

The degree of damage that can occur will vary depending on the type of plants exposed, the type of salt used, when they were applied, and more. The symptoms of salt damage include delayed bud break, reduced plant vigor, discolored foliage, early leaf drop, and even death if the exposure is severe enough or if the plant is already weak.

Clients can spray plants down and/or irrigate the soils to leach salt out of root zones.

General prevention

They say the best offense is a good defense, so if your client has had trouble with storm damage this year, take the time to let them know about the importance of selecting the proper plants and keeping up with regular tree pruning.

Cabling trees can also help them be more likely to withstand high winds, ice, and snow. Providing plenty of water before winter and blanketing the trees with mulch can help the tree’s roots stay warm and hydrated.

Trees with wide crotch angles also reduce the risk of bending or breaking limbs from heavy snow coverage. Plants adapted to your client’s region are also less likely to have issues with winter storms. 

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