Winter Tree Care 411
Give your trees some winter TLC to keep them healthy and strong.
Covered in winter snow, it’s easy to view trees as sleeping giants snoozing through the chill until warmer weather arrives. But trees are doing more than hibernating as winter cold holds fast—they actually experience the full impact of winter weather.
Things like thick, woody bark and extensive underground roots help established trees withstand winter conditions. Newly planted trees lack these natural defenses and definitely benefit from a little extra care during the chilly season. Learn what you can do to help your trees sail through winter and kick off spring with strong growth.
A thin mulch layer (less than 3 inches thick) helps insulate soil over tree roots. Apply mulch underneath the dripline of the tree, that area covered by leaves during summer. In coldest regions, wait to add mulch until after the ground freezes. In every climate, avoid piling mulch directly against a tree trunk.
Winter limits food sources for critters like rabbits, voles and field mice. These small animals like nothing better than chewing on tree bark, especially young, thin bark. Protect your trees with a plastic tree guard, which you wrap around the trunk. Just be sure to work from the base upward, and wrap it to end well above the potential snow line in your region. You can also encircle trunks with chicken wire or hardware cloth to keep chewing rodents and rubbing deer at bay. As trees mature and bark develops fissures and a rough texture, small animals lose interest.
Create a makeshift shelter for young or small trees prone to breaking under the weight of snow, like Japanese maple, Acer palmatum ‘Hanami Nishiki.’ With larger trees, use a broom to gently knock snow from branches as it accumulates. Brush snow off using an upward motion. If ice coats tree limbs, avoid trying to break it off, or you run the risk of breaking branches.
Continue to water newly planted trees as long as soil isn’t frozen. In coldest regions, give new trees a drink during seasonal thaws. Apply water slowly and gently, allowing it to seep into the ground instead of running off.
Sunscald is a condition that occurs in tree trunks due to daytime sun warming and thawing bark, followed by nighttime freezing. The alternate freeze-thaw can rupture bark cells and cause a crack in a tree trunk, especially with young trees. The most susceptible trees are planted on the south or west side of your home. Use tree wrap or a white plastic tree guard to protect tree trunks. Apply wrap from the ground up, stopping just above the first branch.
Take time to inspect trees during winter, especially in regions where leaves fall. Winter provides the ideal chance to see a tree’s structure and outline and make decisions about any branches that need removed. Dormant pruning is a great option to minimize disease spread and protect existing plantings beneath trees.
Select ice melt products that are listed as pet or plant friendly. Sodium chloride (rock salt) is a bad choice for use near trees or any plantings because it interferes with water uptake by roots. For minimal impact on trees, look for ice melt that contains calcium, potassium or magnesium chloride.