Spring Fever: How to Handle Winter Damage in the Landscape

April 11th 2019
Four Seasons

Damage to Plants in the Winter

Winter damage can come in many forms. From damage due to dehydration, broken branches, frost heaves, frost damage to new buds, to salt burn, winter can significantly affect the garden. Homeowners are wondering how the severe weather will affect their landscape, and we are here to help.

Our Michigan Winters

It is not unheard of for Michigan to have cold and snowy winters. However, the polar vortex that hit us this winter was a surprise. With wind chills reaching -30 degrees followed by a few days in the 50s, nature keeps us on our toes.

The Signs

During the winter and early spring, note discoloration, broken branches or shriveled-up new growth on the ends of the branches. Discoloration can include yellowing, browning, blighting, a white cast of salt accumulation or leaf scorch to the tips of evergreen leaves.

Yellowing and browning can be caused by dehydration. Browning or blighted foliage can be caused by sudden warm temperatures in February and March. Warm temperatures in the winter can trick a plant into thinking it is spring and stimulate new growth that will often freeze off in the colder temperatures. Salt accumulation looks like a white cast on the leaves and will cause leaf scorch if not cleaned and diluted. Leaf scorch can also be caused by windburn.

Fix Winter Damage

Do not attempt to remove snow and ice from the branches of evergreens, as it may cause the branches to break. If damage occurs to flowering shrubs due to a late frost, wait until the plant fully leafs out before pruning.

Discolored or browning leaves will fall off independently, so let the plant be, and new growth will regenerate with the warmer weather. If you must remove unsightly leaves, only remove them by hand, do not prune them off, as this may lead to more winter burn.

If a plant has heaved out of its planting site, replant it as soon as you can get a shovel into the ground. If it was pushed out of the soil early in the winter and you are worried about the root ball, use a bit of mulch to protect the roots from the chilly wind.

When to be Concerned

The bitter cold we experienced this winter makes us eager to be outside again, but you should resist going into action. We won’t know the full impact of this winter’s weather events until early summer, but we can be optimistic. It is essential to take a “wait and see” attitude before we decide how much pruning to do and to see if we need to replace any plants that didn’t make it. Instead, plan on taking walks through your landscape often this spring to watch it come alive and assess your plants’ health.