Midwest Regional Reports

Preventing Winter Damage in the Garden

Take these steps to protect against the worst of what winter has to offer

snow on evergreens
Brush snow off of evergreen boughs following snowstorms to prevent broken branches. Photo: Erin Presley

Here in the Midwest, we all remember the winter of 2018 as being a pretty tough one, with lots of snow and ice and polar vortex conditions that sent temperatures plummeting in late January. As we finish the last details of our fall cleanup jobs, we can also take a few extra steps to protect and prepare our landscapes for the winter ahead, whatever it may bring. Consider these extra precautions to help your landscape sail through winter’s challenges and emerge unscathed when the snow melts.

watering evergreens
Evergreens should get an inch of water a week up until the ground freezes to prevent winterburn. Photo: Erin Presley

Protect evergreens

With their foliage exposed to the elements, evergreens are especially sensitive to winter extremes. They lose moisture over winter, which contributes to winterburn, so keep them well-watered until the ground freezes. Yews (Taxus spp. and cvs., Zones 5–8) and arborvitae (Thuja spp. and cvs., Zones 2–8) are susceptible to flopping and broken branches after heavy snow, so be ready with a soft broom to brush off thick accumulations after snowstorms. A soft sports ball taped to the end of a handle works well too.

shredded leaves as mulch
Perennials can benefit from the insulation of mulch ahead of winter snow. Photo: Kristin Green

Insulate perennials

Perennials benefit from consistent snow cover during the winter to limit freeze/thaw cycles in the soil, which can damage roots. If you haven’t already cut back perennials, allowing plant matter to stand intact during winter provides additional insulation and protection for plant crowns. Newly planted and marginally hardy plants can be protected with evergreen boughs or a blanket of lightweight mulch.

Edging sidewalks
Edge sidewalks now to prevent your snow shovels and blowers getting caught up. Photo: Erin Presley

Promote drainage in your landscape, and prepare for snow removal

Edging walks and paths allows water to drain off them more easily when we experience winter ice and freeze/thaw cycles. Excessive winter wetness kills perennials more frequently than just cold temperatures. Walks that are edged also make clearing snow and ice easier, whether with a shovel or a snowblower. Cut back perennials and grasses that overhang walks to prevent tangles with your snowblower.

chicken wire
Cage plants to protect them from hungry animals. Photo: Erin Presley

Discourage critters

In late winter, rabbits, deer, and voles are increasingly likely to feed on garden plants. Cage the trunks of tender barked and newly planted trees with hardware cloth to prevent vole damage. You can also prevent rabbits from enjoying delicacies like chokeberry (Aronia spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9), viburnums (Viburnum spp. and cvs., Zones 3–9), and oakleaf hydrangea (Hydrangea quercifolia and cvs., Zones 5–9) by caging the plants with chicken wire that’s at least 2 feet tall. Deer are harder to hinder, but you can prevent them from demolishing an arborvitae by wrapping it in bird netting, which is lightweight and nearly invisible.

Winter is rough for all of us—gardens and gardeners alike—but taking advantage of the last comfortable early winter days to take a few extra precautionary steps helps us all relax a bit more when the snow does fly.

—Erin Presley is a horticulturist at Olbrich Botanical Gardens in Madison, Wisconsin.

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