Winter Garden Protection

Superstorm Nemo assailed the Northeast this weekend, dropping as much as 3' of snow in some places. Historic!! Nemo was the second superstorm in five months which you might think would put to rest the skepticism of climate change critics...but probably not.

With Superstorms becoming more of a reality, it becomes imperative for gardeners to know how to protect their prized trees and shrubs during the winter season. We tend to think of the garden as self-sufficient during the winter but that's not correct.

What part of your garden needs Winter protection?

Evergreens, in particular, can be damaged by heavy snow loads which can permanently impact their shape, leaving holes and gaps, or cause limb breakage. It's best not to assume that the plant will rebound in the Spring when a little assistance can go a long way. The vast majority of Evergreens grow slowly. As landscape contractors, we often receive calls about winter damage which can require costly replacements.


  • Fluctuations in temperature.
  • Wet snow, which occurs with snowstorms just below freezing temperatures.
  • Early season storms which occur before plants have hardened off for the winter.

After a heavy storm, it's best to walk your property and do a visual check.

Arborvitae snow damage
Arborvitae snow damage


If you observe plants collapsing under the weight of snow, gently brush the snow off the affected limbs. You can use a soft broom to do this. Start at the bottom and work your way up. Do not shake, as shaking may cause frozen branches to break. Evergreens are especially prone to breakage under these conditions.

Laurel Ice Damage
Laurel Ice Damage


  • For smaller evergreens and shrubs, pour warm (not hot) water over the shrub to make the ice melt faster. This is not always effective and you should be careful that the pooling water in freezing temperatures does not ice over and become hazardous to passerby.
  • If branches break due to snow/ice, hanging branches should be removed ASAP, especially if it's in a hazardous location (over power lines, near passerby or children's play areas). Trees will heal themselves (over a clean cut) in the Spring.
  • Any plants with multiple leaders, such as Emerald Green Arborvitaes or Junipers, are prone to snow damage. Softwood trees like Birches and Ornamental Pears are also most affected.


Always, always, avoid getting salt on your plants and lawn. Lawn curbside areas routinely require remediation because of salt spread by municipal trucks and negligent homeowners. When a plant ingests salt foliage damage occurs and usually needs to be replaced.


Evergreens are also susceptible to foliage damage during the winter. A shrub has been damaged when the tips, and sometimes the whole plant, turns brown, or in some cases look bleached. New plants are often affected.

  • Drying winds and cold can cause excessive transpiration (loss of water. When roots are frozen they are unable to take up additional water which results in dessication, die back (browning). Dessication can be prevented by treating plants with anti-dessicant/transpirant during late fall. Rhododendrons are especially prone to dessication when placed in the wrong location.
  • Quality landscape contractors will suggest preventative measures as part of routine maintenance. A good designer will take into consideration the placement and vulnerabilities of plants when making recommendations.
  • Bleaching occurs when chlorophyll is destroyed. This happens on bright, cold winter days resulting in tissue damage.
  • Cold temperatures in early Fall can also adversely affect plants because they haven't had sufficient time to harden off, resulting in dieback, or plant death.
  • Some of these issues can be prevented by proper placement in the landscape. Specifically, the commonly used plants below, should not be placed on the south, southwest, or windward sides (exposed, windy areas) of the property as these are the areas most prone to foliar damage. If you have "inherited" plants in these locations, or others, which have a history of damage, they will benefit from burlap barriers for winter protection.


  • Yew
  • Arborvitae
  • Hemlock
  • Rhododendron

If the damage is done, wait till mid-Spring to see if new buds bloom to replace damaged foliage. If not, prune back to living green tissue. Protect your investment!