Start Now: Protect Your Garden From Winter Damage!

Worried about your rose bushes this winter? Need to deice but fear for your ornamentals? Check out these tips to prevent winter damage to your garden!

Are you worried about your roses bushes or rhododendron surviving the upcoming winter? Severe winter weather and the ways we tackle it can do a number on your delicate ornamentals, trees, and shrubs. Try these solutions and protect your plants from the damage caused by Mother Nature’s wrath.

Winter Desiccation

Problem: Winter winds, bright sunlight, and freeze and thaw cycles will cause conifers and broadleaf evergreens such as azaleas, boxwood, holly, and rhododendron to lose moisture. Plants with tender stems, such as roses, may also be affected. Because the ground is frozen, water cannot move from the roots to the branches. This will cause foliage to discolor and dry out. Any plants with south or southwest orientation will suffer most.

Solution: Anti-desiccation sprays, which coat the cuticles of the leaves in wax, are often used. The application should take place in late fall or early winter. Do not apply the sprays too early in the season, as they will inhibit the transpiration of water from the leaves and possibly cause damage to plant tissues. Bear in mind that there are no guarantees that anti-desiccation sprays will work; they are also expensive and may be difficult to apply if the tree is large.

A better option than sprays for smaller trees, shrubs, and large herbaceous perennials is to erect a barrier made of burlap and stakes around the exposed sides. Be sure to leave the top of the tent-like structure open so that light and precipitation can reach the plant. A temporary covering made from floating row cover or frost blankets can be staked into the ground to protect plants such as hydrangeas, hostas, and weigela. Styrofoam rose cones can also be used for smaller shrubs and ornamentals. Be sure to remove all coverings in early spring.

The best thing you can do for all of your plants to prevent desiccation is to water them deeply and regularly until dormancy.

Salt Injury

Problem: Using ice melt products containing salts such as sodium chloride on slippery sidewalks and driveways can harm plants situated nearby. Conifers and broadleaf evergreens, in particular, may show signs of browning and drying from exposure to salt. If possible, do not pile snow mixed with de-icers onto plants.

Solution: Try alternative traction aides, such as sand or small gravel. Some plants, such as elm, hawthorn, lilac, mallow, Mexican heather, and candytuft are less susceptible to salt damage than others.

Snow Load

Problem: Heavy, wet snow (especially from early season storms where the leaves are still present) can critically weigh down branches of trees, shrubs, and perennials and lead to breakage.

Solution: As soon as possible after a huge snowfall, take a broom and gently knock the snow out of branches that you can reach – if the bend isn’t too severe, the branches will usually rebound. In areas where this type of snowfall is common, homeowners may wish to hire a certified arborist to cable and brace trees in the autumn in preparation. If you grow hedges such as cotoneaster and alpine currants, prune them so that the crowns are less dense than the base; this will keep the snow from piling heavily on the top and damaging them.

Ice Storms

Problem: Thick coatings of ice can be extremely damaging to plants. Softwood trees and those that suffer from weak branching are most affected. Evergreens tend to hold up better during ice storms.

Solutions: Setting up a regular pruning schedule and using the correct pruning techniques before a storm hits can help prevent damage. Consult with a certified arborist if your trees are large or if you are uncertain how to make the proper cuts. Make sure diseased or dead branches are removed. If your tree is situated near a power line, make sure it does not pose a safety concern.

Properly siting new plants can also minimize the damage from ice storms: do not situate shrubs and perennials beneath the eaves of buildings, where water can collect, freeze, and fall.

Should an ice storm occur, do not try to knock the ice from plants that are covered. Allow sunlight and warmer temperatures to melt the ice. Do not prune any wet or damaged foliage until spring arrives; it is easier during that time of year to determine how much to remove.

Additional Troubleshooting

Above all, keep plants as stress-free during the growing season as possible; they will be more resilient in the face of extreme weather. Maintain a regular watering and fertilizing schedule (but stop the fertilizer applications before the plants enter dormancy). Make sure your soil is well-drained. Monitor for pests and diseases and treat them, if necessary. Mulch the base of plants with shredded bark or chopped dried leaves to retain moisture, as well as to provide winter protection during freeze and thaw cycles.

Healthy plants will be better equipped to survive harsh conditions—not only during the winter but throughout the rest of the year as well!

Sheryl Normandeau

Sheryl Normandeau, BA, is a Master Gardener and writer from Calgary, Alberta, Canada. Her articles and short stories have appeared in several international publications. She is the co-author (with Janet Melrose) of the Guides for the Prairie Gardener series.

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