Rescuing Plants and Trees from Winter Storm Damage

winter storm damage rescueWinter takes its toll on exterior landscaping. Winds, snow, and ice are all detrimental to plant life and a full accounting of the damage they wreak often isn't fully apparent until the spring thaw. The best gardening advice for owners of winter, storm-ravaged plants and trees is, “Keep calm and wait.” Unless your tree has lost a very large limb, the trunk is split, or it poses a safety concern, it will probably heal on its own.

The good news is there are curative steps you can take to rescue damaged plants and trees. Begin by trimming broken tree branches, but resist the temptation to prune heavily or cut down a tree due to winter damage. Next, remove ripped or ragged bark with a clean sharp knife to prevent insect invasion.

A good rule of thumb is that a tree needs 50 percent of its limbs for survival, which is a good guide for deciding the fate of a tree. Consult a professional arborist when in doubt. Commercial property managers and owners are best advised to leave the work to a qualified commercial landscaping company.

Cover the exposed roots of any trees or shrubs that have been uprooted. The goal is to keep the roots from drying out. A covering of dirt, sand or even plastic should do the trick.

Consult a garden guide for information about when a tree or shrub would normally need pruning. Flowering trees and shrubs fall into different groups and pruning times vary. Some flower on “this year’s wood” and will bloom regardless of pruning or bad winter weather.

But some bloom on “last year’s wood” and pruning these after a winter storm may strip the plant of this summer’s flower buds. Some examples are lilac, spirea, azalea, forsythia, and rhododendron.

Warm snow blankets

If plants and shrubs were healthy and well-watered in the fall, that winter blanket of snow is actually great insulation – the one instance of a harsh element of winter providing a benefit. It protects against sudden thaws and snow will not harm landscaping plants, provided they are hardy in your USDA hardiness zone.

It also might be tempting to knock that coating of ice from those drooping shrubs, but resist the temptation! Let the ice melt naturally. Breaking the ice can break or split a branch or even uproot the entire plant.

Cleaning up the leftovers

Any landscape plant leaves that are translucent, unsightly or mildewed, should be removed from the yard and garden. And while a layer of old leaves may seem like good mulch, a thin layer of leaves or debris can mat down and trap water, causing rot and disease. Identify lawn debris containing leaf spot or white mold and discard it.

winter plant damage leaf spot

Tiptoe around the perennials

Many garden experts suggest leaving dry perennial stems, flowers and seed heads for winter visual interest. They also provide a haven and food source for birds and other backyard creatures.

Another reason to leave last season’s perennials standing is to better determine what is dead and what is not. The “crown” of the plant, where the stem meets the roots, is also where new growth will start in the spring. Some plants “awaken” later than others and often new growth is hard to spot. Soggy soil due to winter thaws makes it easy to damage the crown while walking, gardening or cutting dead growth. Leaving these plants untouched now may turn out to be more rewarding in the spring.

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