Tips for keeping your trees, shrubs, and perennials protected from typical winter damage casued by Wisconsin weather and creatures.

If you haven’t noticed, we’ve gotten a lot of snow and ice this year, more than we have in recent years, and there’s probably going to be more damage because of it.  I know I’ve seen plenty of it around my yard.  I have a couple of burning bushes and arborvitaes with broken branches and what look to be like a couple of stressed tree limbs on my apples.  I’m sure I’ll find more as spring approaches.  So what can we do to aid our poor plants as the growing season approaches? 

First, I’d like to start with what we can do to prevent damage.  I know it’s too late for this year, but what can we do to prepare for next winter.  The proper pruning of existing plants, the correct placement of new trees and shrubs, and keeping our plants healthy throughout the growing season are the main factors to consider.

Proper pruning, at the appropriate time, is very effective in preventing damage.  It is particularly important to remove any weak, narrow- crotched, or crossing branches.  It is also a good idea to remove any dead branches that might simply collect snow and add more weight.  Also avoid any late season pruning that might encourage new, tender growth.  This growth is too weak to survive the winter. 

When placing new plants in your landscape; always keep an eye out for potential problems.  It’s silly to plant something at the edge of an overhang and not expect some kind of damage as the snow falls from your roof.  And be careful in placing plants next to areas where you normally pile, or shoot, snow during the removal process.  During the summer, when it’s nice outside, we normally aren’t thinking of these potential winter problems, but we should.  It will save us work, and our plants, in the long run. 

Keeping your plants healthy is probably one of the most important things you can do.  A healthy plant is a stronger plant, both in stature, and in its ability to heal itself after injury.  Make sure you’re watering and fertilizing correctly, and are managing any disease or insect problems that may arise during the growing season.

Now that we have an idea of what we should do for next year, what can we do to fix the damage from this year?  First of all you may not notice any damage at this time, some symptoms may not show up till spring; so what should you be on the lookout for.

First, if you have heavy snow resting on your plants, remove it, but be careful.  Never rake or pull down on the branches; that will stress them even more.  Try to push up to free snow, and do this gently.  The goal is to try not to injure them any more.

Besides broken branches, keep an eye out for discolored, burned evergreen needles or leaves, dead branch tips or whole branches, and sagging limbs.  At this time, or in early spring, only remove those branches that are broken, severely damaged, or are obviously dead.  It is best to wait till spring to see the full extent of the damage.  As the new growth appears you can better determine the extent of the injury.  At this time prune all dead branches back to within one quarter of an inch above a live bud, back to an existing branch, or back to the trunk if necessary.  Make sure pruning cuts are done properly and with a sharp, clean cut.

On severely damaged plants, an application of fertilizer and a good watering in spring will give it a good jump start.  It is also important to keep an eye out for these plants as the drought of summer arrives.  These plants are weak and susceptible to further injury and should be watered well during this time.

Other damage to keep an eye out for is rodent, rabbit, and deer activity.  Mice and rabbits can cause serious damage to trees and shrubs.  They chew at the bark, and in serious cases, can actually girdle the plant, causing its demise.  This mainly happens in winter because it is the only food source available to them at this time.  Inspect your plants often throughout the winter for signs of nibbling.

Mice can be controlled by baiting or trapping, but if this isn’t for you, do your best to make the area less appealing to them.  Pull back mulch and leaves so you aren’t giving them a place to nest and stay warm, and try using repellents containing garlic or onion oils.

Rabbits on the other hand are a little easier to control.  Because if deterrents don’t work, there’s always fencing.  I have to fence my roses every year or the bunnies will chew them right to the ground, thorns and all.  Wire mesh placed around the trunks of trees and shrubs is also very effective.  Even paper wraps can sometimes be enough of a deterrent.  You have to find what works best for you.  If you do use fencing or wire, make sure you remove it in the spring so the plant has room to grow.

There is one last thing to keep in mind.  If you used a lot of salt during the winter to keep your sidewalks and driveway clear, keep an eye out for salt damage, early leaf scorch is a good symptom.   Salt changes the structure of the soil, making it easier for the soil to compact, which in turn restricts the amount of water, nutrients, and oxygen available to your plants.  It is best to try to restrict your salt use if at all possible.  In areas where you might expect salt damage to occur, flush the area by applying about 2 inches of water over the area for about 2-3 hours, and repeat this process about three days later.  You may also want to wash the plants down if you detect any salt on the plant itself.

Hopefully you didn’t receive much damage, but if you did, these practices should help bring your plants back to good health.  Hey, what can we do?  This is Wisconsin.  Every year brings out a new challenge.  But I wouldn’t trade it for the world.  Happy Gardening!   


Michael Timm

Ebert’s Greenhouse Village