Protecting Trees During the Winter

by Nancy Penrose

During the winter, cold temperatures, snow, excessive sun and strong winds can harm trees. Types of winter damage include broken branches from snow and ice, as well as damaged bark, branches and roots. Newer trees are more prone to injury than older, more established trees.

Soil expands when it gets wet from rain, snow and ice, and contracts when it dries. Frequent changes in soil moisture can damage tree roots. Placing a layer of mulch around a young tree can help keep soil conditions more consistent. The mulch also acts as an insulator. It will keep the ground beneath it warmer for longer periods of time, and can prevent cold air from reaching the tree’s roots.

Snow and ice will also bend and break branches. One way to avoid snow damage with small trees is to prune weak branches and wrap the tree for the winter.

A strong winter sun can cause bark damage, particularly on newer trees and thin-barked trees such as maple and mountain ash. Older trees generally have thicker bark, which enables them to withstand intense sunlight. Look for sun damage (dried, cracked and dead bark) on the south side of a tree. Wrapping more vulnerable trees can help protect them from the sun’s rays.

Deer, rabbits, mice and other foraging animals can harm your trees as well. In the winter, they will eat twigs, bark, leaves and buds.

The extent of “deer browsing” will depend on the severity of the winter. Once deer run out of preferred plants, they will browse other types of foliage. Deer are attracted to willow, dogwood, pine and acorn-bearing white and red oak trees. They will generally avoid beech, birch and ash trees. Rabbits will eat the branches and bark of young trees, including various maples and white oak.

The most common method of protecting your trees against wildlife is fencing and wiring. The fence will need to enclose the entire area around your tree, and should be specifically designed to protect it from deer and other wild animals. Various repellants can also be used to discourage deer and rabbits from nibbling and eating foliage. They have a bad taste or smell and are non-toxic.

While the winter months can pose some risk to newer and smaller trees, most will recover quickly from any damage they incur. Bad weather conditions and hungry animals will have less of an impact on larger, older trees. Winter is also the best time to transplant trees because they have become dormant. A transplanting specialist can help you select the right tree for your project and determine if any protection will be needed after it is in the ground.

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