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Mitigating the Damage of Winter Desiccation

Preventing the loss of moisture from damaging your trees.

Exploring the impact of winter desiccation can help you care for trees and plants by preventing tree damage from loss of moisture. Most homeowners that have grown up in any of RYAN’s Midwest locations are familiar with experiencing four seasons. By instinct, you know that summer can foster harsh conditions that apply extra pressure on some plant material. But are you aware that winter’s cold, dry conditions can cause the same concern as the blistering heat of summer? 

Turning our attention to the world of plants and applying the definition, if something is desiccated, it means it is void of moisture. Winter brings about the perfect conditions to inflict desiccation damage onto plant material. Evergreen plants are the most vulnerable, but some trees can also suffer winter injury as well.  


How Does Loss of Moisture in Winter Cause Plant & Tree Damage? 

We’ve all seen our share of winter injury when we first enter our landscapes in the early spring. Here is what occurs during the winter months that causes the bulk of the injury and desiccation to the plant material.  

  • Winter winds are a particular nemesis during the cold months. Even though it is winter, evergreen foliage is still losing water through transpiration. During windy days, the plant is losing water at a significant rate. However, if the ground should be frozen or is significantly dry, the plant roots may not be able to supply the moisture level that the foliage requires, resulting in scorched foliage.  
  • Another way outdoor plants are deprived of water is when the water in stems and branches freezes and then is unavailable to the transpiring foliage. The damage will be more significant on the outer foliage, which is more exposed to the winds’ drying effect. If the damage occurs on a pine, the needles will turn brown, and eventually, they will drop. 
  • Experts indicate that assessing the extent of winter injury damage and recovery opportunity should occur in mid-May. By mid-May, growth should be occurring and it should be evident whether or not buds and candles will be developing. Noted also is an examination of the buds themselves. If they are brown inside, then they are squandered, and recovery will not occur.  
  • Lastly, we still cannot call victory even if a plant suffering winter injury shows preliminary early spring recovery signs. The plant could be utilizing stored energy reserves initially showing signs of recovery, only to collapse later that spring or summer when the food reserves are depleted.  Once the plant suffers winter injury, little can be done other than to protect the plant from further stress by being vigilant to proper watering and protection from disease and insect pests. 


Anti-Desiccants Can Rescue Your Trees from Damage

Typically, most gardeners tend to downplay winter desiccation. When we identify its presence, we anticipate that the plant will overcome the symptoms, put out new growth, and friends, family, and whoever will happen upon the plant will be delighted with its spring beauty. The truth is, plant desiccation is an injury, and an injury to a plant often has repercussions to the overall health of the plant. Winter injury of stressed or weakened plants are highly susceptible to and are targets for infestation of fungal contamination.   

Overall, plant health cannot be stressed enough as a healthy plant provides a substantial barrier to infection. To manage the disease pressure, consider the following list of recommendations that may mitigate winter injury:

  • Make sure landscape plants receive ample amounts of moisture throughout the winter season.
  • Prevent winter damage by using physical barriers.
  • Use an anti-desiccant or anti-transpirant to prevent winter damage.


Watering During Winter

Periodic watering of vulnerable plant material will bode well for helping to mitigate winter injury. The primary takeaway is that winter is not benign to plant material, especially to evergreen plants. Adequate moisture throughout the winter months is critical for the health of the plant. Often winter rains are inadequate, and the moisture content of each snowfall can vary. That’s why we highly advise providing at least an inch of water weekly to vulnerable plant material during the winter months. That would entail utilizing hoses, buckets or watering cans when temperatures rise above freezing.   


Utilize Physical Barriers

In the realm of physical barriers, burlap is a typical application and acts as a windbreak from the wind’s drying conditions. Burlap is more effective than plastic because it allows your plants and trees a chance to breathe so air circulates and heat isn’t trapped. You can use an old burlap bag or buy sheets of burlap from fabric stores. 


Consider Anti-Desiccants to Prevent Winter Desiccation

The best and easiest remedy to protect plants from winter desiccation is applying an anti-desiccant or anti-transpirant. The products help to reduce a plant’s transpiration and thus protects the foliage from desiccation. This application effectively reduces plants’ water loss, coating the leaves with a thin film or membrane, providing a water-impermeable barrier that reduces the water loss from transpiration.


Stay Weather-Aware for Your Trees

Hopefully, you have a new awareness of the nemesis winter weather can bring to the health of the landscape and the injury it can inflict upon our plant material. The best defense is to be aware of the need for winter moisture and be prepared to protect your landscape plants so they can escape winter without injury and head into the spring sporting the very best of plant health. If you want to try applying an anti-desiccant, give Ryan Lawn & Tree a call for a price estimate on your project. With five Midwest locations, we are happy to advise the necessary treatments to care for your plants and trees year-round.

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