Protecting trees and shrubs against winter damage
Minnesota's harsh climate is often responsible for severe damage to landscape plants. Winter sun, wind, and cold temperatures can bleach and desiccate evergreen foliage, damage bark, and injure or kill branches, flowerbuds, and roots. Snow and ice can break branches and topple entire trees. Salt used for deicing streets, sidewalks, and parking lots is harmful to landscape plantings. Winter food shortages force rodents and deer to feed on bark, twigs, flowerbuds, and foliage, injuring and sometimes killing trees and shrubs. All is not bleak, however, as landscape plants can be protected to minimize some of this injury.
Cold temperatures can damage plants in several ways. Plants that are not hardy in Minnesota will be killed or injured during the winter unless protected in a microclimate. Plants that normally grow in hardiness zone 3 (northern Minnesota) and hardiness zone 4 (southern Minnesota) may also be injured if winter conditions are abnormally severe or if plants have been stressed by the environment. Injury is more prevalent and more severe when low temperatures occur in early fall or late spring, when there is little or no snow cover during the winter or when low temperatures are of prolonged duration. Pronounced fluctuations in temperature can be extremely detrimental to plants throughout the fall, winter, or spring.
Sun scald is characterized by elongated, sunken, dried, or cracked areas of dead bark, usually on the south or southwest side of a tree. On cold winter days, the sun can heat up bark to the point where cambial activity is stimulated. When the sun is blocked by a cloud, hill, or building, bark temperature drops rapidly, killing the active tissue.
Young trees, newly planted trees, and thin-barked trees (cherry, crabapple, honey locust, linden, maple, mountain ash, plum) are most susceptible to sun scald. Trees that have been pruned to raise the lower branches, or transplanted from a shady to a sunny location are also sensitive because the lower trunk is no longer shaded. Older trees are less subject to sun scald because the thicker bark can insulate dormant tissue from the sun's heat ensuring the tissue will remain dormant and cold hardy.
Sun scald can be prevented by wrapping the trunk with a commercial tree wrap, plastic tree guards, or any other light-colored material. The wrap will reflect the sun and keep the bark at a more constant temperature. Put the wrap on in the fall and remove it in the spring after the last frost. Newly planted trees should be wrapped for at least two winters and thin-barked species up to five winters or more.
To repair sun scald damage, cut the dead bark back to live tissue with a sharp knife, following the general shape of the wound, rounding off any sharp corners to facilitate healing (Figure 1). Wrap the trunk in subsequent winters to prevent further damage. Do not use a wound dressing. Spraying the area with a fungicide may help prevent fungal infection of the wound.
Figure 1. Repairing sun scald damage.
Winter discoloration of evergreens
Browning or bleaching of evergreen foliage during winter occurs for four reasons:
- Winter sun and wind cause excessive transpiration (foliage water loss) while the roots are in frozen soil and unable to replace lost water. This results in desiccation and browning of the plant tissue.
- Bright sunny days during the winter also cause warming of the tissue above ambient temperature which in turn initiates cellular activity. Then, when the sun is quickly shaded, foliage temperature drops to injurious levels and the foliage is injured or killed.
- During bright, cold winter days, chlorophyll in the foliage is destroyed (photo-oxidized) and is not resynthesized when temperatures are below 28°F. This results in a bleaching of the foliage.
- Cold temperatures early in the fall before plants have hardened off completely or late spring after new growth has occurred can result in injury or death of this nonacclimated tissue.
Foliar damage normally occurs on the south, southwest, and windward sides of the plant, but in severe cases the whole plant may be affected. Yew, arborvitae, and hemlock are most susceptible, but winter browning can affect all evergreens. New transplants or plants with succulent, late season growth are particularly sensitive.
There are several ways to minimize winter injury to evergreens. The first is proper placement of evergreens in the landscape. Yew, hemlock, and arborvitae should not be planted on south or southwest sides of buildings or in highly exposed (windy, sunny) places. A second way to reduce damage is to prop pine boughs or Christmas tree greens against or over evergreens to protect them from wind and sun and to catch more snow for natural protection.
Winter injury can often be prevented by constructing a barrier of burlap or similar material on the south, southwest, and windward sides of evergreens (Figure 2). If a plant has exhibited injury on all sides, surround it with a barrier, but leave the top open to allow for some air and light penetration.
Figure 2. Protecting evergreens from winter burn with a burlap screen.
Keeping evergreens properly watered throughout the growing season and into the fall is another way to reduce winter injury. Never stress plants by under- or overwatering. Decrease watering slightly in September to encourage hardening off, then water thoroughly in October until freeze-up. Watering only in late fall does not help reduce injury.
Anti-desiccant and anti-transpirant sprays are often recommended to prevent winter burn. Most studies, however, have shown them to be ineffective.
If an evergreen has suffered winter injury, wait until mid-spring before pruning out injured foliage. Brown foliage is most likely dead and will not green up, but the buds, which are more cold hardy than foliage, will often grow and fill in areas where brown foliage was removed. If the buds have not survived, prune dead branches back to living tissue. Fertilize injured plants in early spring and water them well throughout the season. Provide appropriate protection the following winter.
Deciduous trees and shrubs can incur shoot dieback and bud death during the winter. Flower buds are more susceptible to injury than vegetative buds. A good example of this is forsythia, where plant stems and leaf buds are hardy, but flower buds are very susceptible to cold-temperature injury.
Little can be done to protect trees and shrubs from winter dieback. Plants that are marginally hardy should be planted in sheltered locations (microclimates). Plants in a vigorous growing condition late in the fall are most likely to suffer winter dieback, so avoid late summer pruning, fertilizing, and overwatering. Fertilize in the spring on sandy soil or in the fall on heavy soil after the leaves have dropped.
Roots do not become dormant in the winter as quickly as stems, branches and buds, and roots are less hardy than stems. Roots of most trees and shrubs that grow in Minnesota are killed at temperatures at or below 0 to +10°F. These plants survive in Minnesota because soil temperatures normally are much higher than air temperatures and because soil cools down much more slowly than air temperature.
Many factors influence soil temperature. Moist soil holds more heat than dry soil, so frost penetration will be deeper and soil temperatures colder for sandy or dry (drought) soils. Snow cover and mulch act as insulators and keep soil temperatures higher. With newly planted trees, cracks in the planting hole backfill will allow cold air to penetrate into the root zone, reducing fall root growth or killing newly formed roots.
To encourage fall root growth and to reduce root injury, mulch new trees and shrubs with 6 to 8 inches of wood chips or straw. If the fall has been dry, water heavily before the ground freezes to reduce frost penetration. Check new plantings for cracks in the soil and fill them with soil.
Repeated freezing and thawing of soil in fall or spring causes soil to expand and contract, which can damage roots and heave shrubs and new plantings out of the ground. A 4- to 6-inch layer of mulch will prevent heaving by maintaining more constant soil temperatures.
Snow and ice damage
Heavy snow and ice storms cause damage by bending and breaking branches. Multiple leader, upright evergreens, such as arborvitae and juniper, and multiple leader or clump trees, such as birch, are most subject to snow and ice damage. Relatively small trees can be wrapped together or the leaders tied with strips of carpet, strong cloth or nylon stockings two-thirds of the way above the weak crotches (Figure 3). These wrappings must be removed in spring to prevent girdling, and to allow free movement of the stem. Proper pruning, to eliminate multiple leaders and weak branch attachments, will reduce snow and ice damage. For trees with large wide-spreading leaders or large multi-stemmed trees, the main branches should be cabled together by a professional arborist.
Figure 3. Protecting trees from snow or ice-damage.
Salt used for deicing walks and roads in winter can cause or aggravate winter injury and dieback. Salt runoff can injure roots and be absorbed by the plant, ultimately damaging the foliage. Salt spray from passing autos can also cause severe foliar or stem injury.
To prevent salt damage, do not plant trees and shrubs in highly salted areas. Avoid areas where salty runoff collects or where salt spray is prevalent, or use salt-tolerant species in these areas. Burlap barriers (Figure 2) may provide protection to some plants from salt spray.
Mice, rabbits (rodents), and deer can all cause severe damage to plants in the winter. These animals feed on the tender twigs, bark, and foliage of landscape plants during the winter. They can girdle trees and shrubs and eat shrubs to the ground line. Deer can cause significant injury and breakage by rubbing their antlers on trees during the fall.
Trees can be protected from rodent damage by placing a cylinder of ¼-inch mesh hardware cloth around the trunk. The cylinder should extend 2 to 3 inches below the ground line for mice and 18 to 24 inches above the anticipated snow line for rabbit protection (Figure 4). Hardware cloth can be left on year-round, but it must be larger than the trunk to allow for growth. For small trees, plastic tree guards are also effective. You can protect shrub beds from rabbits by fencing the beds with chicken wire; however, check such fenced areas frequently to ensure a rabbit has not gained entrance and is trapped inside.
Figure 4. Protecting trees from rodents.
If you have many trees or shrubs to protect, using screens and wraps may be too expensive and time consuming. In such situations, repellents may be the best solution. Remember that a repellent is not a poison; it simply renders plants undesirable through taste or smell.
The most effective repellents for rodents are those containing thiram, a common fungicide. You can either spray or paint repellents on trees and shrubs. Repeat applications are necessary particularly after heavy precipitation.
If these methods are ineffective, commercial baits containing poisoned grain are available. However, baits may be hazardous to humans, pets, and beneficial wildlife. Injury or death can result for animals that eat the bait directly and for animals that consume bait-killed rodents. Shelter or containerize baits so they stay dry and are accessible only to targeted rodents. Beverage cans laid on their sides work well for this purpose. Trapping and shooting, where legal, will also control rodents.
Deer feed on and damage terminal and side branches of small trees and shrubs. Repellents containing thiram provide some control if feeding pressure is not extremely heavy. Plants can be sprayed or painted with the repellent; however, the most effective procedure is to hang heavy rags near the plants to be protected that have been dipped in concentrated repellant. Repeated plant applications or dipping of rags is necessary. Deer can also be successfully excluded with fencing. To be effective, fences must be high and constructed properly. If deer are starving, there is little that will prevent feeding. Providing a more palatable forage may help, but it may also attract more deer.
Although plant cold hardiness and winter injury are common concerns associated with Minnesota winters, appropriate plant selection, selecting the proper site, proper cultural practices, and preventive maintenance will significantly reduce or prevent severe injury or loss of landscape plants.
Even though plants respond differently to winter stress and each winter provides a different set of stressful conditions, plants possess a remarkable ability to withstand extremely severe winter conditions. Minnesota winters should not discourage planting of traditional or new plant species.
Learn to take advantage of microclimates to enable interesting or different plants to be grown. Minnesota's list of landscape plant species needs to be expanded, not reduced.
Bert T. Swanson, Professor
Department of Horticultural Science, University of Minnesota
Richard Rideout, City Forester
City of Milwaukee, WI
Department of Horticultural Science