Preventing Winter Damage to Shrubs and Trees

Charlie Metz
Frederick County Master Gardener Program

The heavy snowfall last week reminded me of times my gar-den and landscape sustained damage from frozen precipitation. So, I came up with some winter strategies to ensure my trees, shrubs, perennials and groundcovers make it to spring in good shape.

Although winter is vital to the life cycle of landscapes in our temperate climate, it is also a time of stress on plant life. If conditions are different from normal, there can be problems. There are things we can do to minimize damage from the wild weather we have here in winter.

The heavy, wet snow caused numerous branches of my ever-greens to sag. The natural inclination is to go outside and brush off the snow. However, I recently learned this is not a good idea.

When snow piles up on a shrub or tree, it does so gradually. Because plants have a certain amount of flexibility, they can withstand the strain. If we knock snow from a snow-laden branch, the branch pops back into place. This rapid recovery can cause a stretching and breaking of the circulatory system of the plant. The problem doesn't show up until spring, when certain branches don't thrive and is especially apparent in boxwoods, arborvitaes, yews, pines and hollies.

Last December's ice storm was devastating to many trees and shrubs. I lost some key branches in my dogwoods and redbud, These could have been prevented or minimized with pruning. Weak tree branches should be pruned away before winter. Interior branches with no real aesthetic value can be eliminated. Branches that

extend far from the trunk can be shortened to lessen the weight of the branch when ice builds.

The use of salt for melting ice is stressful on adjacent plant material. The buildup of salts in the soil leads to yellowing, stunting and sometimes death of plants and lawns next to side-walks and roadways. In some instances this is unavoidable, but if you use ice-melting chemicals, try to prevent problems with your shrubs by piling shoveled snow away from them.

There are ice-melting chemicals available that won't damage soil.

Probably the worst chemical you can use for melting ice is fertilizer. It works, but it can cause major disruptions to nearby plants. There is a delicate balance of nutrients in the soil that becomes dangerous to plants when fertilizer is added as an ice-melting method. In addition, when the ground is frozen, much of the fertilizer can be washed away and enter the tributary system of the Chesapeake Bay, causing further problems. Fertilizer is also extremely corrosive to concrete.

Another potential problem is firewood storage. I receive numerous calls about insects coming in the house in firewood. Many are beetles, but ants, spiders, termites and roaches can also be found in firewood.

As long as they stay in cool temperatures, there is no problem. But once wood is brought inside for more than a few hours, these insects come out of hibernation. It can be quite troubling to see a roach race across your living room floor in the middle of winter. The best strategy is to keep firewood in a cool place out-side under a tarp or in the

garage where it can be kept dry. Bring in only enough firewood to use at one time.

Remove all wood after the season to ensure insects and spiders don't take up permanent residence in your house. Some people introduce termites into their home by leaving firewood in the garage or stacked against the house all year. Black widow spiders can be frequently found in firewood left in a garage all year. When you clean the garage, wear gloves to minimize expo-sure to this spider.

These minor chores and practices can make your winter pass without major problems. You can sit back and just let it snow.

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