Connecticut’s unpredictable winter weather, with temperature swings, heavy snow, freezing rain, and the occasional nor’easter, can wreak havoc on trees and shrubs. That’s why winter tree care is a critical part of any garden maintenance schedule.
While the showiest and most productive seasons of the year have passed, they will come around again before long. And winter is when you— and your trees – prepare for them.
For more winter tree care tips, see these articles:
Benefits of Winter Tree Care
Winter is the season of rest, hibernation, and dormancy, which makes it the ideal time to evaluate, prune, and protect your trees and shrubs.
The spring leaves and flowers and the summer fruits, nuts, and seeds that our trees provide benefit pollinators, wildlife, and all of us, so it’s important to keep your trees vigorous and healthy.
If you’re on the fence about the value of tree care in winter, here are some things to remember:
- In winter, trees and shrubs are dormant, so pruning won’t stimulate their growth response
- Winter pruning now means rejuvenated trees and vigorous growth in spring
- Insect pests and pathogens are not active, so they won’t be spread by pruning
- Bare branches make tree evaluations easier
- Vehicles and machinery can drive over the frozen ground without damaging soil or roots
A Quick Winter Tree Care Checklist
In short, you should keep your trees:
- Prepared for and protected from severe weather
- Well pruned to handle snow and ice loads
- Away from utility lines, your neighbor’s property, or any place a fallen branch or tree will cause damage
- Ready for spring growth
Inspect Your Trees
The best place to start is with a visual evaluation. Here’s what to look for when evaluating your trees:
- Broken, damaged, or oversized branches that could break during a winter storm or under the weight of snow and ice
- Existing cables or braces in trees should be inspected by an arborist every few years to check for wear or breakage, and determine whether anything should be adjusted to accommodate the tree’s growth
- Diseased bark and
- Overwintering insect larvae or egg masses that should be scraped off (such as spotted lanternfly or gypsy moth egg masses)
- Branches overhanging your home, sidewalk, or neighbor’s yard
- Tree crowns encroaching into overhead utility lines that may need to be professionally pruned so they don’t cause a power outage
These things are important to check, as their condition can mean the difference between staying cozy inside and sorting out a tree-damage winter emergency!
Protect Trees & Shrubs from Snow
Depending on the size of your tree or shrub, there are several options to protect them from cold weather, heavy snow loads, or layers of ice that could damage or break branches or even kill the plant.
Wrap Them Up
For young, small trees and evergreens, protection from winter may include a protective burlap wrap. These wraps do several things:
- Protect tender leaves and twigs from road salt damage
- Protect young or thin bark from winter sunscald
- Protect bark and foliage from deer damage
- Keep heavy snow loads from accumulating in evergreen foliage.
If you didn’t get your winter wraps in place before winter arrived, it’s not too late (although it’s not as much fun when temperatures drop below freezing!). Make sure your wraps cover the plant from the ground up and are tied securely so winter storms can’t dislodge them.
Burlap wraps can stay all winter, until temperatures warm and snow melts. As soon as the weather warms and snow turns to rain, remove the wraps. You don’t want moisture trapped in foliage or held against branches once temperatures are warm enough to encourage fungal and bacterial growth.
Build a Shelter
A simple protective structure can protect shrubs and small, ornamental trees from broken branches. These are a great choice for:
- shrubs planted under the eaves of your home (where snow can slide off the roof onto the plants),
- newly-planted trees and shrubs in areas where drifting snow piles up
- anything planted where the snow gets dumped or thrown from shoveling, snowplows, or snow blowers
All you need is two pieces of plywood (not MDF or particleboard!) or planks attached at the top to form an A-frame that can be placed over your plants. It’s a good way to use up spare pieces of wood and the parts can be easily stored for reuse next winter.
Tie Them Up
Multi-stemmed trees and large, fountain-shaped shrubs are easily damaged by snow and ice loads. You’ve probably seen them split apart and broken after a heavy snowfall. Sometimes they recover but it’s best to prevent damage in the first place by tying them up.
Use rope, cables, or (for smaller shrubs) twine to hold the branches together tightly enough to prevent them from bending outwards but not so tightly that you break them. Remove these temporary supports in spring after the last chance of heavy snow has passed.
Install Cabling or Bracing
For larger trees, cabling or bracing can be used to prevent branches from crashing down under the weight of snow or ice. You’ll need an arborist to install these supports for any trees with:
- long, heavy branches, particularly those overhanging your home, car, walkway, or near power lines
- narrow, V-shaped crotches (branches attached this way are prone to breakage)
- cracked, split, or damaged branches (alternatively, these can be pruned off)
Trees that were planted within the last year will usually benefit from winter watering, especially if we’ve had a dry summer and/or fall.
Connecticut winter weather often oscillates between deep freezes and warmer temperatures. When temperatures rise above freezing, check on your recently-planted trees. If the ground is clear of snow cover and dry, water thoroughly. As long as the ground isn’t frozen, the tree can take up moisture to keep it hydrated through the winter.
Just be sure to disconnect and drain your hose before putting it away again!
Inspect for Deer and Rodent Damage
We all know that deer cause enormous damage to plants, especially in winter. Hungry deer will eat almost anything (even “deer-resistant” plants!), leaving you with nothing but torn branches, peeled bark, and dead plants by the time spring arrive. If you don’t have deer fencing in place, try:
- wrapping vulnerable or valuable shrubs and small trees with burlap,
- draping deer netting over or around them (if the ground isn’t frozen, it’s best to use sturdy stakes to hold the netting in place so deer can’t reach through it to the tasty treats inside), or
- spraying deer repellents when temperatures are above freezing.
Despite your best efforts, deer may still find ways to feast on your plants so check them regularly throughout the winter. Call an arborist for an evaluation if you notice any serious damage to trees or shrubs.
Rabbits, voles, and rodents also damage trees in winter. As the snow recedes in spring, you may notice that the bark is torn or chewed off around the base of your trees. Hungry animals often eat the bark in winter, protected from predators under a layer of snow. Plants that have been girdled (where the bark is removed around the entire circumference of the trunk) usually won’t survive.
Pull back snow from around the base of trees and shrubs to check for damage and to make the plants less appealing to bark-chewing pests (they’re less likely to nibble on plants when they’re unable to hide). You can also wrap trunks with wire mesh or burlap to deter rodents. Be sure the wraps go all the way to the ground and remove them after the snow melts in spring.
Respect Snow and Ice
After a heavy storm, it may be tempting to knock the snow and ice out of your trees; resist the urge! Shovel your walk or make a snowman instead.
Here’s why you shouldn’t try to remove snow or ice from trees:
- Snow and ice loads can be heavier than you might imagine, and where and how they fall can’t be controlled. It could be onto your head.
- Electricity passes through water and ice, so stay well away from trees entangled in overhead lines.
- Winter’s cold reduces branch flexibility and makes tree branches brittle and susceptible to breakage.
Warming daytime temperatures will naturally melt snow and ice, and trees are designed to withstand heavy weather. While tree branches may bend under snow loads, a well-pruned tree can almost always bounce back as the snow melts. Whacking a branch, on the other hand, can damage it permanently.
Don’t use power tools, like a chainsaw, to cut downed trees or branches after a storm. Slippery ice and snow plus power tools plus underestimating risk equals an accident waiting to happen!
A Few More Things To Do …
- Winter is an excellent time to prune trees. Fruit trees, especially, will benefit from late winter pruning to maximize fruit production.
- Perform rejuvenation pruning on overgrown shrubs. This drastic pruning method essentially means cutting the entire shrub to the ground so it can regrow into a more manageable size. It also helps improve appearance, health, and flowering. Late winter is a good time to do this for most shrubs.
- Spray anti-desiccants on broadleaved evergreens to protect them from drying out. If you applied it in late fall, you’ll probably need a second application in about January. Wait for a calm day when temperatures are above freezing.
- Consider tree removal. Removing a large tree when the ground is frozen lowers the risk of landscape damage from heavy equipment and can sometimes make the job faster.
A Final Word
Our trained and experienced crews work year-round, except when weather conditions are dangerous. If you have large trees or large property and can’t do all your winter tree care yourself, we’re here to help. And if you have an unexpected tree emergency, we’re here to help with that, too.
Give us a call!
What's Going ON?
Things change quickly in CT when it comes to pests, weather events, and other things affecting your trees and landscape. Stay in the know with our monthly newsletter. No spam - we promise!