Protecting Trees from Winter Damage

Winter weather is on its way. Well, if the “Blizzard of 2017” over a week ago, showed us, it’s already here. Even here in the South, the impact of winter can take its toll. So, how do you go about protecting your trees from winter damage? We’ll explore that concept in this blog post.

The best way to address protecting trees from winter damage is with the mindset that prevention is easier than searching for a cure. This is true for lots of tree problems such as fungal infections, planting errors, soil compaction, irrigation equipment installations and most insect infestations. As we know, there are many parts to a tree, all of which benefit from prevention of damage in the winter. You can see many of these tree parts such as the bark, leaves, fruit, limbs and flowers. Some parts are unseen like the roots, heartwood, sapwood and cambium. In terms of protecting trees from winter damage, you should focus your efforts on three main tree structures.

The Roots

The goal for root protection centers around keeping the tree hydrated. You want your roots to be moist, not soggy or dry as you head into the winter. As the summer turns into fall, you should monitor for soil moisture. It’s very important for protecting your trees from winter damage. In the autumn, you may want to dig a few holes or poke a piece of rebar into the soil in various locations surrounding the root system. Why? It will provide you with a good snapshot of how moist your soil is at any given time.

There are a few reasons why you should monitor the soil moisture. First, many homeowners don’t know how to do it themselves. They are not sure what ‘moist’ is or even where the roots are. Second, all the above-ground parts of the tree depend on soil moisture for continued hydration throughout the winter. Third, it allows your tree care provider like us an opportunity to strengthen the client relationship and provide instructions on how to water trees in the fall.

Watering trees in fall is more difficult than doing it in spring and summer, but it’s still necessary. In most cases, in mid to late fall, customers ask their sprinkler service providers to blow out their system to prevent it from getting damaged during the winter cold. Once the sprinkler system is no longer operational, watering still needs to be done. You’ll have to use hoses, temporary drip lines or ad hoc sprinklers which are drained after each use. These devices can be very effective, but they are more difficult to use.

Leaves and Buds

For many people, leaves are the signal of tree health that they can most readily see. For deciduous trees, the focus is on the buds and new twigs as they continue tissues that are ready to push forth leaves and flowers for the upcoming year. Fortunately, these are covered with bud scales. They help retain moisture. However, in severe winters, the bud scales may not be thick enough to prevent desiccation. Conifers, on the other hand, can lose water through the leaves/needles and the buds. Windy days and cold temps can accelerate the drying of essential tissues.

You can employ two main methods to prevent the loss of hydration in leaves and buds. The first one is one we’ve already mentioned. It is the soil moisture monitoring and watering. The second is an application of an anti-desiccant product to coat the tree with a light arboricultural wax to help retain moisture. The products may vary slightly in terms of application, timing, and length of protection. You should consider applying them every six weeks. It can be tied in with winter holidays such as Thanksgiving, Christmas and Valentine’s Day. Make sure you read and follow all label directions when applying these products.


Trunks are sometimes overlooked when thinking of tree injuries. The most common winter injuries to tree trunks are rodents and sunscald. Mice, voles, squirrels and rabbits are often found frolicking about in December and January. They want food to eat. They like tree trunks, especially the younger ones. Typically, they’ll chew on the bark and cambium tissues. This interrupts nutrient and water flow to the tree. If you want to, you could install PVC collars. They are good at preventing this type of damage.

Sunscald occurs on sunny days in winter when the rays of the sun warm the outer bark layers. This softens them and the cambium underneath, making the tissues softer. The injuries then occur when the weather gets colder at night. This causes the moisture to crystallize in the softened tissues. When repeated several times over the winter, the bark and conductive tissues will flake off and become nonfunctional.  You can use light-colored PVC collars to help prevent sunscald on your trees.

We really hope that this information helps in protecting trees from winter damage. If you have questions or concerns, we’d love to hear from you. We can be reached at 512-341-8888. Thank you.