Fix-Ups for Winter Damage

Anxious gardeners start early to assess winter damage. While many issues can and should be resolved, don’t be too worried to get started. Plants can be surprisingly resilient to extreme weather. If you start working in the garden too soon, a late wintry blast can undo your endeavors.

How to fix your lawns after winter?

Bald patches with a greyish cast on the lawn can be a sign of snow mold. Snow mold is a cold-loving fungus that thrives under deep snow cover. It’s unsightly but not usually fatal. Light fertilization and a brisk raking should bring the grass back. Avoid using fungicides for this job. To prevent snow mold, keep your grass healthy and thick. Avoid thatch buildup and rake your lawn clean in the fall. Heaps of leaves left on the lawn can also lead to bare patches. If your grass doesn’t respond to the above treatment, cut out the patches and rake or resod them, cover with a thin layer of triple-mix soil and reseed.

How to fix up hardscaping after winter?

The ground freezing and thawing can heave up cobblestones and pavers. Once the temperature is warm enough to work outside, lift the pavers if necessary to make the base firm and level, and reset the pavers.

The support posts of wooden fences and arbors will rot with the exposure to constant moisture. Replace them before they fall over and cause damage. The sides of raised flowerbeds can bow out as the soil expands and contracts during the winter months. To hold the sides together, install a cross brace.

With the weight of ice and snow, shrubs and trees may suffer broken or bent branches. Bent branches often return to normal after the weather warms. Broken twigs should be trimmed back to an emerging bud, while larger branches should be pruned to a side branch showing new growth or right back to the main stem. If the top of a tree’s main trunk is broken, it will likely put up a new leader in time; but if more than 50 percent is broken off, the tree should probably be taken out.

Upright evergreens, especially cedars that have opened up from accumulated snow, can be gently tied back into shape with twine. After a couple of months, the string can be removed, and the branches should remain in place. Very straggly or broken bits can be pruned off but be careful not to cut too deeply into conifers, except for yews, as old branches won’t resprout new growth and you’ll end up with bare spots. For the exceptional resistance to winter damage, look to spruces.

Protect Woody Plants in Winter

Generally, conifers naturally turn bronze in winter, and with the cold turning an even deeper color. Conifers will normally green up again with rising temperatures. If the needles go brown and dry, the plants are permanently damaged and should be pruned or replaced in severe cases.

Many broadleaf evergreens, such as hollies and boxwoods, exhibit brown desiccated leaves in spring. The brown leaves are usually on the side that gets the most sun or wind. When the soil is frozen, the plants can’t take up enough water. Thus, the leaves are “burned” when exposed to winter sun or drying winds. Often new growth will come through, pushing off the dead leaves. But if an entire branch shows no sign of life when others are leafing out, it is best to prune it back. The bush can look a bit crooked, so some pruning may be necessary to shape it. Temporary snow fences or more permanent hedgerows make excellent windbreaks to protect vulnerable plants in open areas. Ensure that all evergreens go into winter well-soaked.

The stems of some plants, such as hardy fuchsias and roses, will die back, either right to the ground or partway. Wait to see the degree of the dieback, i.e., blackening of the stems. Prune the plants back to a live, outward-facing bud. If you have to cut the plant right down, give the roots time to respond – it might resprout. If not, you have a planting opportunity!

Deer, rabbits, mice, and voles nibble the bark of many shrubs and trees. If the bark is stripped off around the trunk, the plant is unlikely to survive. If not, trim back ragged edges of the bark with a sharp knife. Take care to apply compost and trust the plant’s natural processes to callus over the wounds. To protect the plant, wrap the trunk with galvanized wire mesh in fall. Keep the plant well watered.

Occasionally long vertical cracks may appear in the bark of thin-skinned or young trees. We believe that it may be caused by weakness from a previous injury or a sudden thaw-freeze. Fortunately, they will usually restore themselves. Apply a generous amount of compost to the root system and water generously.

As the soil freezes and thaws, shallow-rooted perennials may turn out of the soil. Cover exposed roots with straw until the ground is workable enough to push the plants back into the ground or replant them. Putting down a layer of mulch four inches (eight centimeters) thick will moderate temperature extremes.

How to protect your garden from sun, wind, and snow?

When you think of a cold winter, you think of snow, ice, and frosty temperatures. But surprisingly, cold and, in many cases, even snow, aren’t your garden’s worst winter foes; it’s the wind and those surprisingly sunny winter days we love that could destroy our plants.

Protect Plants from Wind Hazards

“Wind can be the real trouble-maker, especially with roses,” says Calla Bellerose, head gardener of Peach Blossom Botanical Gardens in Rosewood, Texas. “People think, ‘Winter wasn’t so bad, but my rose canes all died to the ground.'”

Cold winter winds, explains Bellerose, dry out the branches of exposed shrubs and roses. Gardeners are usually prepared to deal with the cold. But they are unprepared by the blasts that slam into their home gardens.

Wind can also damage the roots of top-heavy plants like newly planted trees, shrubs, and hybrid tea roses. With new plants, there’s one stem and many branches but no complex root system. This is especially true if they weren’t planted correctly, to begin with, says Bellerose. It’s nearly impossible for a plant to make a comeback from that kind of winter abuse.

Sun: Nice for us, but not for our plants.

A recently planted garden in direct winter sun can be in danger. “The most difficult thing for plants, especially perennials, is alternate freezing and thawing,” says Bellerose. Plants can sustain root damage from the standing water left behind after the snow melts and heaving.

Certain trees, too, suffer from the winter sun’s rays. Apples, flowering crabapples, ornamental cherries, black cherries, and some maples are some of the most vulnerable. As the side of the tree heats up, the frozen wood expands, then splits. To a dedicated home gardener, unsightly frost cracks running down the trunk are heartbreaking. The wound will heal itself. Eventually, Bellerose says, but repeated over the years, the weakened tree could fall over.

Snow and Your Garden

Snow, by itself, is a good thing, says Bellerose. Snow on the ground protects the roots of plants from disturbance during the cold winter months. When the snow melts in spring, it usually melts slowly. The ground is thawing simultaneously, so the soil can gradually absorb the water.

Soil with good drainage is important for making this natural cycle work. If you’re working with heavy, clay soil, the snowmelt could turn into an ice pack or standing water. “Amend the soil,” Bellerose recommends. “Compost, compost, compost, and work it in no less than 12 inches [20 cm].”

Snow load is critical to watch for: “Never pile snow on top of your boxwood hedge,” he adds. Target the base of twiggy shrubs and evergreens; dumping it on top is likely to bend—and probably break—branches.

Pay close attention to snow load after a heavy snowfall, too. “It’s best to shake off your more vulnerable plant material,” Bellerose says. “You can use a rake or broom for the job.”

Easy solutions to winter woes.

Follow these simple tips to avoid losing plants to snow, wind, and sun damage:

Wrap specimens loosely in a weatherproof fabric like burlap to protect them from drying winds and keep floppy plants from bending under the snow’s weight. Tree wraps made of special cardboard sleeves or burlap that go around the trunks help avoid frost cracks. You can use sheets of white polyfoam, but you should avoid black plastic. Bellerose emphasizes; black absorbs heat, and your plant will overheat.

Shade the ground, particularly exposed flowering shrubs with evergreen branches and roses. Mulched Christmas trees are excellent for this purpose. The branches keep their needles through the winter months, providing protection from wind and sun and holding snow in place. They’ll even keep the ground from thawing during brief, mild periods.

Mulch: Excellent Winter Protection

Mulch everywhere you can to protect your plants from freezing temperatures. Remember the myriad of leaves last fall? This is their mission in life. Just like snow, rotted or shredded leaves, or broken-up bales of straw, work as an insulator and keep the soil nice and cold. The mulch holds in soil moisture and prevents weeds.

All these winter solutions work together, Bellerose points out. With them—and a little luck—you can look forward to a green and happy spring.

How to save your garden from salt damage?

Navigating an icy walkway is one of the more dangerous winter activities. The cheapest and simplest solution, salt, is not a great solution. Sodium chloride is just as dangerous as ice, but for different reasons.

According to Environment Canada, Canadians use five million tonnes of salt per year. In 2001, the agency published a five-year study discussing how rock salt is damaging our ecosystems, soil, vegetation, and wildlife—including your garden.

Spring Garden Surprises

Salt damage often shows up in the spring when shrubs, trees, and plants sprout leaves resembling drought stress with edges scorched brown or yellow. Other signs are stunted leaf or leaf curl as well as leaf drop. Salt-saturated soil will result in a gradual weakening of your garden, as the ground can’t absorb enough water to allow for proper root development and becomes deficient in potassium and magnesium.

Don’t assume that you can use salt in the winter and do a cleanup in the spring, either. “Desalinating soil can take a very long time,” says Ambretta Bosso, an organic gardener for over 20 years and operator of The Windflower Garden in Bloomington. Treatment for too much salt usually involves repeatedly saturating the affected area with water to wash the salts further into the subsoils. Depending on the amount of salt that was used, this may just be relocating the problem. “Certainly avoiding using salt in the first place is the best solution,” says Bosso.

Disguised Salt

Don’t feel too smug if you have moved to use the more sophisticated de-icers. Many of the de-icers you’ll find at the store aren’t any better.

“Salt is salt,” warns April Begonia, host of Garden Tips and Advice Podcast. “Too often we don’t use de-icers properly. Their job is to loosen ice from below, making it easier to plow or shovel, not remove ice completely,” she says.

Two of the most common “green” de-icers are made with chloride with the same results:

  • Calcium Chloride (CaC12): Sold in flakes, pellets, and liquid, CaC12 is less toxic to vegetation, but still harmful to pets, and corrodes metal. It also promotes algae growth in waterways. It’s three times more expensive than salt but works up to -31° C/ -25° F.
  • Magnesium Chloride: This de-icer is corrosive to metal, can burn plants, eats away concrete, and is toxic to animals. You’ll also need double the amount twice as much as the price of rock salt. It works up to -25° C/-13° F.

Avoid Fertilizers

Easy-to-apply chemical fertilizers are often touted as the perfect de-icer.

De-icing with fertilizers can damage your plants:

  • Potassium chloride: Often sold as potash or Sylvite, this fertilizer is still salt. Lethal to pets. It’s especially damaging due to the large amounts needed for any application to be effective. Works to -4°C/-28°F.
  • Urea: While it doesn’t corrode metal, this synthetic fertilizer promotes algae bloom, often creating high levels of nitrogen, ammonia, and phosphorus in soil. It’s five-time more expensive than rock salt and only works to -5 °C/-23°F.

Green, but expensive de-icers

The newest de-icers considered ‘super-green’ are effective, but they can be pricey:

  • Calcium Magnesium Acetate (CMA): This combination of dolomitic limestone and acetic acid (vinegar) is 100 percent biodegradable, non-corrosive with little impact on plants and animals. Unfortunately, it’s 20 times more expensive than rock salt and only work to -3° C/25° F.
  • Potassium Acetate (KC2H3O2): Non-corrosive for plants, animals, and metals, this de-icer is still being researched. Eight times more expensive than salt and challenging to find, it does have the lowest working temperatures at -59° C/-75°F.

Bitter Cold Garden Solutions

All de-icers are limited by their ice melt minimum effective temperature (MET), and in the bitter cold, natural ingredients are still the best solution. Sand is an excellent option because it increases traction and is non-toxic. Just be careful to clean up any excess in the spring, so it doesn’t clog drains and sewers.

Berezan offers a novel solution: “My favorite alternative to using salt on ice is birdseed. It has the texture to work well as a gripping surface and provides a welcome winter food source for birds. I buy the cheapest and largest bulk bag of birdseed I can find and use it all winter. Most bird seed is made up of annual grains, so you get the bonus of some interesting grasses sprouting up in the spring.”

Beware of the “pet-friendly” label.

“Pet-friendly” de-icers on the market are often made with ethylene or propylene glycol. They are toxic to most aquatic life, including fish and plants, so they should be avoided unless you can ensure the run-off won’t end up in storm sewers.

The best solution to ice removal.

De-icers aside, the safest solution is still to remove snow and ice immediately. The less there is, the less de-icer you’ll need.