Photo credit: Melissa Andersen
When I returned home after a weekend away at the start of April, I not only heard all about the big April Fool’s snowstorm that hit the Twin Cities while we were gone, I saw evidence everywhere. Much of the snow had already melted, but trees and shrubs all over the city were broken from the heavy snow and ice. I found large branches from the boulevard trees along with twigs from my own shrubs scattered in my yard, and in the days that followed, my husband and I pointed out the many trees being cut down in our neighborhood as we walked our dog.
With climate change comes unpredictable weather, making spring snowstorms like this one more common. In fact, the picture included in this article shows the result of a previous snowstorm this year, with heavy snow weighing down our lilacs almost to the ground and bending over the leads of our tall juniper tree. If you’re like me, you may have wondered how much of this snow damage our trees and shrubs can take, and deciding whether or not a tree is too damaged to be saved is a difficult question.
Important considerations include the extent of damage to the tree, its age, its condition before the storm and its location.
If the damage from snow and ice is minor, and the tree has enough strong limbs remaining, it is likely the tree can be saved. Young trees tend to recover quickly, as long as the leader is intact. Mature, healthy shade trees can usually survive the loss of at least one major limb, as long as it is pruned back to the trunk. Resist the temptation to prune too heavily, as the tree will need all the foliage it can get to produce the food needed for the next season. Never attempt to remove damaged limbs near utility lines, and always call for a professional.
Unfortunately, some trees are not likely to be saved. If a tree has already been severely damaged or weakened by disease, significant snow damage will likely only further hurt the tree. Other sure-tell signs that survival is unlikely include a split trunk or damage to more than half of the crown.
Additionally, there are actions we can take throughout the year to properly care for and help our trees and shrubs best weather these storms.
In the winter:
With the exception of conifers, it is not generally recommended to remove snow and ice from plants after a heavy snowfall, as the snow acts as an insulator against wind and sub-zero temps. Only do this for conifers as long as you can safely remove the snow/ice without breaking the branches.
If you have conifers, carefully add some of the snow from the first snowfall under the lower branches to give them a cushion and help support branches when ice or wet snow falls.
If you have damaged tree limbs after a storm, properly prune them to prevent further problems, such as severe dieback or the opportunity for disease to further damage or kill the tree.
In the spring:
As tempting as it is to get out and tackle yard and garden clean-up, do not take away mulch and leaves too early. It is important to wait until the chance of severe cold weather has passed.
Assess winter damage. Remove dead, dry, and damaged foliage. Cut broken branches back to the stem or to the first live bud you see. If a limb is bent toward the ground but doesn’t appear dead, you may prop it up to see if it recovers.
Follow proper pruning techniques to eliminate multiple leaders and weak branch attachments, which will reduce snow and ice damage.
In the summer:
Avoid late-summer pruning, as it stimulates new, tender growth and reduces the nutrient supply needed for winter.
Water young and newly-planted trees regularly.
In the fall:
Keep watering trees and shrubs regularly to give them the boost they need to encourage root growth and keep them from entering the winter under stress. Dry conditions in the fall can make plant tissues more susceptible to cold damage, as moist soil holds more heat than dry soil.
Wrap relatively small trees together or tie the leaders with strips of sturdy cloth, or nylon stockings two-thirds of the way above the weak crotches. For evergreens with an upright growth habit, such as arborvitae, wrap strips of cloth every few feet to provide the support needed. Be sure to remove the wrappings in the spring to prevent damage or girdling, and allow the stem to move freely.
For newly-planted trees and shrubs, cover roots with three to four inches of wood mulch by creating a donut of mulch (pulling the mulch about six inches from the trunk). This helps maintain more constant soil temperatures during the freeze-thaw cycles. Check for cracks in the soil and fill them with soil. Cracks allow cold air to penetrate and kill newly formed roots.
Photo credit: Melissa Andersen
Berg, Karna. “April - What to Do about Winter Damage.” Dakota County Master Gardener Volunteers, https://www.dakotamastergardeners.org/bythemonth/april---what-to-do-about-winter-damage.
Cregg, Bert. “Addressing Ice Storm Damage to Trees.” MSU Extension Landscaping, Michigan State University Extension, 27 Feb. 2023, https://www.canr.msu.edu/news/addressing-ice-storm-damage-to-trees.
Johnson, Gary R. “Protecting Trees and Shrubs in Winter.” UMN Extension, https://extension.umn.edu/planting-and-growing-guides/protecting-trees-and-shrubs-winter#snow-and-ice-damage-1264560.
“Storm Recovery.” The Arbor Day Foundation, https://www.arborday.org/media/stormrecovery/.
Melissa Andersen (she/her/hers) is an educator and a gardener, particularly interested in native plants and pollinator-friendly garden practices. She has been with the Ramsey County Master Gardener Volunteer Program since 2019.