Preparing Trees and Shrubs for Winter

preparing trees and shrubs for winterNow that snowy metro DC landscapes are a reality, and not just a nostalgic memory, it’s time to think about preparing the home landscape for winter. The Farmers’ Almanac predicts that the winter of 2018-2019 will be colder than normal with above normal precipitation. December will be one of the snowiest months, so attacking yard chores over the Thanksgiving Holiday may be in order.

The following preparations for winter can prevent tree and shrub damage:

  • Mow tall grass and vegetation
  • Rake and mulch around trunks
  • Protect trunks from sunscald
  • Install mesh trunk guards and burlap wind breaks
  • Repel deer and other wildlife
  • Prune select branches
  • Continue to water until the ground freezes

While it is now too late to fertilize, and watering in the late fall is not particularly effective, be sure to water deeply until the ground freezes entirely.

November mulching and pruning

Spread four inches of bark mulch, wood chips or straw around the base of trees and shrubs. This insulates the ground against repeated freezes and thaws that can heave plants and don’t pile mulch up against the trunks, as this can cause rotting.

Pay particular attention to newer tree plantings by using six to eight inches of mulch. Fill in any cracks in the soil around the planting hole.

Prune dead and diseased wood from blighted trees and shrubs. Be sure to cut a good six inches above diseased areas and trim any branches that obstruct walking or snow shoveling pathways. And be sure to practice good plant hygiene and clean pruning tools with one-part bleach to ten parts water to prevent the spread of disease.

fall tree pruning

Except for crossed branches and summer blooming shrubs, most other tree trimming is best done later in the winter when limbs are dormant and easier to see once leaves have dropped.

Yard damaging wildlife during winter

Rabbits, mice, voles, and deer can cause significant winter damage to home landscape plantings. High grass and mulch are enticing habitats for rodents that also feed on bark, twigs, buds and leaves when food becomes scarce.

Mow the grass one last time and rake fallen leaves and excess mulch. Also remove brush piles and fence off other wildlife hiding places.

Install wire mesh guards around tree trunks vulnerable to mice and other rodents. These are easy-to-assemble cylinders made of quarter-inch hardware cloth a foot or two in diameter. The other dimensions should be 18-24 inches above the anticipated snow line extending 2-3 inches into the ground. For smaller trees, plastic guards sold at garden centers are also effective.

wildlife in winter

Deer looking for winter food also pose a real threat to trees and shrubs. Thwart them with commercial repellents or smelly, spicy or bitter DIY concoctions. Just one repellent application should be enough for the entire season. Or, consider burlap, deer mesh (black plastic) or more permanent fencing.

Prevent sunscald and wind damage

Paint the trunks of young and south and southwestern-facing trees with white latex paint (1:1 mix of paint and water). This reflects the harsh winter sun, which can damage bark or split the trunk.

winter wind and sunscald and trees

And finally, create shrub wind barriers by driving wooden stakes around shrubs, wrapping with burlap, and stapling the burlap to the stakes. Make sure to leave the top open for some air and light penetration. Taking these preventative steps now will ensure that your trees and shrubs will survive the harsh conditions of winter and emerge green and healthy when spring rolls around.

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