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Gardening Tips: Dealing with Winter Burn and Frost Damage

Winter burns and frost damage are quite common in many gardens. The extent of the damage will vary due to the differences in climates and plant species between regions. Unfortunately, there is no real way of avoiding winter damage especially if you did not prepare your garden beforehand.

The fact is, sudden weather shifts are hard to predict and it's almost unavoidable to completely shield your garden from winter damage. This goes especially for growers who live in places that get a lot of snow. Winter damage tends to force plants to use up the remains of their food reserves to replace damaged parts. As the spring season sets in, the plants have no reserves left to produce new growth, which makes the plants vulnerable to diseases. The sudden drop in temperature could also cause barks to split, branches to break/fall, and delicate stems to freeze. Certain types of evergreens turn a distinct yellow or bronze when exposed to the intense cold and dry winds.

A plant damaged by snow

Permanent winter damage occurs when the severe weather conditions are prolonged or severe. Sometimes, sudden drops in temperature cause the damage too. Plants could sustain tissue deaths, scorched leaves, winter burns, and frost damage during the winter season. Apart from knowing how to deal with winter burn and frost damage, you need to take precautionary steps to avoid severe and irreversible damages to your plants. Here are some tips:

How to Prevent Winter Damage

Wet, cold and windy weather can cause severe damage to trees and shrubs. Weatherproof your garden and prevent any kind of winter damage by:

Using Plant Coverings

Any type of plant cover-ups will be useful during the winter season. Old sheets, plastic films, recycled pots, all these barriers will be effective in shielding plants from harsh weather conditions. You want to set up the plant covers early to prepare your garden for the winter season. Be sure to remove any types of coverings once the weather warms up!

Laying the Mulching

Mulching helps insulate the plants in the midst of the winter season. It enhances the soil’s ability to hold moisture by keeping evaporation to a bare minimum. Start by amending the soil with organic compost or manure during the fall season and then lay a generous layer of mulching to the soil before the winter sets in for best results.

Cluster Container Plants

You want to store your potted plants in a sheltered spot to keep them away from the punishing cold. We recommend moving your potted plants near your home. Group the plants together to minimize the exposure to extreme cold while retaining heat. For tropical plants, you may have to move these indoors because these will not survive the intense cold! Warm the tropical plants up gradually to prevent shock by placing them on a sun porch.

General Tips for Winter Damage

Water Generously

Watering generously is the best way to help plants recover from the bitter cold. Hydration provides nourishment for growth and healing but try not to over-water the plants because standing water may cause rot and diseases to set in. You can use a sprinkler during the dry periods of fall to keep the shrub and tree roots strong and resilient.

Add Fertilizer

Adding fertilizer to the soil is recommended early in the spring, just as the rain comes in. The rain will dissolve the fertilizer, helping the plants absorb more of the nutrients from the soil. As the plants grow strong during the spring and summer season, they become resistant to harsh weather changes during the fall and winter season.

Prune Only as Needed

You might think heavy pruning is essential when getting rid of browned, damage foliage but it’s really not. You may worsen the damage if you are too heavy handed with the pruning. Prune only as needed. When you prune too hard, the foliage becomes more vulnerable to future frosts and hard freezes. Our advice is to wait until the plant has recovered enough from the damage and it started picking up its normal growth pattern. And even then, you want to prune gently because intense pruning will only stress out the plants.

Plants damaged from cold weather and snow

Wait it Out

Before making repairs and dealing with winter burn and frost damage, make sure the threat of frost or winter is truly over. That means waiting for new growth to appear before pruning the trees and shrubs. A tree or a shrub that appears lifeless may not be dead. Winter damage affects the leaves first, followed by the small stems, the branches, and eventually the roots. Stems and branches that are killed by frost damage will no longer sprout new growth. As long as you are seeing new growth, wait it out before pruning.

Once you are seeing growth, lightly prune the damaged stems and branches only. If the majority of the plant’s upper growth has been damaged by frost, you have to prune the affected area within a few inches of the ground. The plant roots and base are the least vulnerable to winter burn so the plant should grow back despite the intense pruning.

Spotting Winter Damage and How to Fix Damaged Plants

Frost Damage

Frost damage occurs when ice crystals form within the plant tissues. As the ice crystals penetrate the plants from the inside, their cells are damaged. Usually, the leaves and new growths are the first to incur frost damage but eventually, the damage will spread to the rest of the plant tissues. Frost damage is quite common during the early spring or late in the winter season.
The sign of frost damage is the browning of new plant growths. Dead or dying buds, delayed leaf developments or blackened leaves are also signs of frost damage. You want to wait until the threat of frost has passed before pruning the browned or blackened foliage. Pruning encourages new plant growths. Even if the plant sustained significant frost damage, it’s quite possible to bring it back to life by gentle pruning.

Plants freezing

Prevention is always better so prep your garden accordingly. Harden off the plants early in the season to give them more time to mature once the cold months arrive. Time the pruning well. Try not to prune your plants, even hardy ones, late in the summer or early in the fall. Pruning too early in the spring season may force some shrubs or trees out of dormancy too early, making them vulnerable to frost damage. Use organic fertilizer so the nutrients are slowly released into the soil. We do not recommend adding fertilizers to trees or shrubs after July but do it if the plants need a boost of nutrients.

Winter Sunscald

This injury occurs when the tree bark cracks due to the sudden temperature changes from cold to warm climate – such as a sunny winter day followed by a hard freeze at night. This leads to permanent and discolored fissures on dormant trees' barks. The light reflected by the snow to the trees also causes sunscald.
As the weather continues to warm up, the fissures contract and expand, killing active cells. As the active cells of the trees die, the dead bark falls away. This exposes the heartwood of the trees to the elements, which may cause the trees to die.

Thankfully, sunscald is easy to spot. Watch out for sunken, discolored, or dead parts of the tree bark, particularly on the side that’s exposed to the sun. You can protect these spots by wrapping the trunks with burlap and other protective coverings. Trees with thin barks require more protection. If you have maple trees, tulip, ash and/or crab apple trees, you have to attach protective coverings to the trunks early on. For the affected trees, leave them to heal on their own. As long as the exposed trunks are protected, the trees should recover from this injury.

Broken Branches and Stems

This injury is common after a snowstorm when the tree branches are weighed down by snow, sleet, or ice. Evergreens, shrubs, and multi-stemmed plants will also sustain broken branches and stems. In some cases, the plants would lean or bend to the other side due to the weight of the snow. Broken branches are easily preventable. Just fluff the snow covered branches up to ease the weight off the trees and shrubs. Avoid beating ice-covered branches because this will cause the branches to break off. Instead, prop up the ice-covered branches and leave the ice to melt on its own.

When it comes to dealing with broken branches, prune the foliage once the weather improves. You want to prune the main stem gently and carefully to promote healing and stimulate new growth. Diseased or weakened branches should be removed early in the fall or winter season to reduce the damage to the plant. To prevent this kind of winter damage, you have to add a supportive structure of some kind to delicate branches. Use heavy rope and twine to prevent branch breakage, especially to evergreens.

Plants with broken branches and stem

Winter Desiccation

This type of winter damage occurs when the amount of moisture that the plant absorbs is not enough to sustain it. It means the plant is drying out. This injury occurs when the ground freezes or heats up too quickly and the plant is losing more water through its foliage. During the winter months, dry and cold winds, direct heat, and fluctuations in temperature increase the risk of moisture loss in plants.

New plants, budding plants, or evergreens with young barks are most susceptible to winter desiccation. Signs of this injury include brittle or burned-looking foliage, dried leaves in places where the sun or wind hits, as well as browning on evergreens. Usually, the damaged foliage will fall off on its own or is pushed off by new plant growths. You can speed up the plant’s recovery by gently pruning or stripping the damaged foliage as soon as the severe weather conditions have passed. Doing this too early will only worsen the problem as new growths are more vulnerable to winter desiccation!

A closeup of a plant that is damaged by cold weather

To prevent this injury, you need to water your plants deeply and regularly before the winter season sets in. This goes especially during dry spells when strong winds tend to dry out the plant foliage. If you are seeing subtle signs of browning, water the plant on mild weather. Just make sure the weather is not cold enough to freeze the water to the ground so the plants could absorb the extra moisture.
Adding 2 to 3 inches layer of mulch is also a terrific way to minimize evaporation. Mulching helps the soil retains more water while also insulating the plants and protecting their delicate root systems from the elements.

Infestation from Burrowing Animals

Burrowing animals tend to make their way into the garden in search for food during the winter season. This happens when food is scarce and the freezing temps drive rodents deeper underground. Rats and rabbits will usually nibble on tree bark for tender eats while mice prefer to burrow into the ground to score more tree bark. As these nibbling critters feast on tree bark, the tree dies gradually.

When it comes to dealing with burrowing animals, humane strategies are the best way to go. Keeping your lawn or garden grass-free, for instance, will naturally drive small rodents away because grass-free places leave them exposed to the elements. Surrounding your trees and shrubs with mulching is also a humane way of preventing rodent infestation. However, do not mound the mulch near the trunk, give the tree base a few inches of breathing room.

A garden showing an infestation from burrowing animals

You can also protect the bases of the trees in your garden by wrapping the trunk with screen wire or hardware cloth. If the trees sustained damage from rodent infestation, there is not much you can do but leave the trees to heal and recover from the injuries on their own.

Winter damage may be inevitable especially during a particularly long and bitter winter season but you can reduce its effects by preparing your garden in advance. Tune in for more gardening tips by subscribing to our newsletter!

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