Winter Storm Damage

Source/writer: Chris Enroth

URBANA, Ill. – After a winter storm, the landscape will likely be breathtaking. But it is a beauty with hidden dangers, said a University of Illinois horticulture educator.

Small limbs can take on hundreds of pounds of additional weight from snow and especially ice build-up, leaving them ready to snap at the slightest breeze. Avoid walking underneath trees burdened by ice and watch your step,” cautioned Chris Enroth.

In the book Weatherproofing Your Landscape, authors Sandra Dark and Dean Hill classify weather-related disasters as the Big Four—wind, drought, flood, and frozen stuff. “Now that winter is upon us, it’s time to consider the effects that ‘frozen stuff’ can have on our trees,” Enroth said.

Because larger limbs have more surface area, more ice or snow accumulates on them. “It is often safe to use a pole of some sort to knock the light, powdery snow off overburdened branches as you stand within a safe reaching distance,” Enroth said. “Make sure to lift the branch up, as pulling downward might be a snow-laden limb’s literal breaking point.”

Evergreens with an upright growth habit, such as arborvitae, tend to suffer from bent or broken limbs after a heavy snow cover. Wrapping an arborvitae with 2-inch wide strips of cloth every few feet from top to bottom provides the support needed to resist bending and breaking branches. Wrap in late fall and remove in late winter.

Should you remove ice as it accumulates on your trees?

Most experts say no, stating that attempts to knock ice off limbs actually lead to breakage of more limbs, doing more harm than good,” Enroth said. “Not to mention that standing underneath large ice-burdened tree branches and hitting them with a pole is incredibly unsafe. Remember, if there’s ice on the trees, there’s ice on the ground. Be careful when walking outside after an ice storm or just stay inside and drink hot cocoa!”

When it comes to ice storms and severe cold temperatures, trees are, for the most part, on their own, Enroth added. 

Picking tree species with attributes that allow them to resist winter storm damage is important. Avoid selecting trees that have narrow crotch angles (the angle between the trunk and a main branch) such as ornamental pears. Opt for tree species, such as oaks, that develop wide crotch angles which have a stronger connection to the trunk. 

Maintain the health of your tree by having routine visits from a certified arborist. Keeping damaged or dead limbs in check through regular professional pruning will lead to fewer problems down the road.

Mulch helps to insulate the soil to resist the freeze-thaw effects of winter. Enroth said, “I have seen newly planted trees completely expelled from their planting hole due to the freeze-thaw of unprotected soil. I prefer organic mulches such as compost, wood mulch, and shredded leaves over inorganic mulches such as rocks or rubber mulch.”

In the days after a winter storm, most effort is focused on snow removal, getting downed limbs and trees out of roadways, and restoring any utilities that may have been lost. “To assess your landscape trees, it is best to have a certified arborist consult with you on what’s worth salvaging and what isn’t,” Enroth suggested. “Following any weather-related disaster, most arborists are busier than ever, so be patient. You can find a list of certified arborists by going to the International Society of Arboriculture’s website and searching via zip code.”

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