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Winter Tree Damage: Causes & Prevention

Learn how you can prevent winter damage to trees and evergreens

Winter tree damage is common in the Midwest due to our fluctuating temperatures, low soil moisture and propensity for heavy snow and ice storms. Evergreen and hardwood trees are susceptible to several types of winter damage. When winter storms hit, you probably spend your time watching the weather to see how many inches of snow will pile up in our Kansas City, St. Louis or Wichita community. Or, we’re watching the Springfield and Tulsa suburbs to see exactly where the snow/ice line will fall. Even though trees, plants and grass are dormant in the winter, they are still potentially vulnerable to weather damage. Trees are particularly susceptible to injury in the cold months, though the effects are often not obvious until spring. Knowing how to spot winter tree damage and how to best prevent it are keys to caring for your trees in the winter and year-round. The arborists at Ryan Lawn & Tree understand that wintertime can bring stress on trees and want to help you care for your trees through the winter months and into the spring.


Causes of Winter Damage To Treeswinter-tree-damage-ryan-lawn

Whether it’s an ice storm, multiple inches of snow, below-freezing temperatures, high winds or dry soil, there is a good chance winter weather will harm your trees and shrubs no matter where in the Midwest you live. This damage can not only kill your trees, it can also break limbs which can damage property and hurt people. Here are 6 of the most common causes of winter damage to your trees.


Heavy Snow & Ice Can Cause Winter Tree Damage

One of the most common causes of tree damage in the winter is heavy snow and ice accumulation on tree branches. In some Midwest areas, it’s not uncommon to get 6 inches of snowfall in 24 hours. Farther south, ice is a common problem and can build up on branches. When this happens, branches and limbs can be weighted down and break off. Evergreen trees are especially susceptible to winter damage as the branches hold on to the snowfall. It’s possible to help protect multi-stemmed evergreens by loosely tying branches together with strips of cloth or coated twine before winter sets in and then removing them in early spring. And hardwood trees like elm, maples and birch may also be seriously damaged. If you can remove heavy snowfall carefully from branches before it freezes, that can help. Ice on branches should be left to melt off naturally. If your branches do break off, it’s best to call a tree care company like RYAN rather than attempt to remove them yourself — especially if one falls on a power line.


Freezing & Fluctuating Temperatures Can Cause Winter Tree Damage

Both freezing and fluctuating temperatures can wreak havoc on even the healthiest of trees. Your trees have a natural tolerance to cold temperatures and when the weather produces temperatures below that zone, they may not be able to successfully withstand the drop. If you have plants or trees with minimum hardiness, be sure to plant them in protected areas, such as your patio/courtyard or a sheltered area. While low temperatures can be dangerous for some trees and plants, it’s the fluctuating temperatures that actually cause the most damage. As fall and then winter approaches, trees and plants have time and are able to acclimate to the colder temperatures. When spring approaches, they are able to, again, acclimate to the warmer climate. But when spring temperatures come too early and then a hard frost or freeze happens, trees can suffer extended damage as the cells that had been awakened by the warm temperatures are killed off by the cold. These conditions can cause two common problems:

  • Sunscald 

Do you ever walk outside on a calm, winter day and hear a loud popping noise? That sound may be your tree bark cracking! These vertical cracks and bulges are likely caused by frost cracking or sunscald. Sunscald often happens along the south or southwest side of the trunks of thin-barked trees like beech, white pine and maple. That’s because the sun on that side can cause temperatures up to 20°F higher than the cold air. This warm daytime temperature followed by freezing temperatures at night kills cells. While often this results in only superficial damage, over time it can lead to disease and tree death. You’ll see the bark turn dark and become rough and then possibly leave a sunken area on the trunk. 

  • Frost Cracking

Frost cracking is another type of winter tree damage that can happen as temperatures fall quickly. Like sunscald, it shows up on the sunny side of the tree where a sudden drop in temperature causes the outer layer of wood to contract more rapidly than the inner layer, resulting in a long, vertical crack at weak points in the trunk. Frost cracks can occur any time of year but when it happens in combination with sunscald during the winter it can do the most damage. You’ll find frost cracking will return each year especially in your oak, red maple, walnut and willow trees.


De-Icing Salt Can Cause Winter Tree Damage

Winter months and salt trucks go hand-in-hand in most Midwest locations. While this is great for getting out to work on snowy days, it’s not so great for your trees. If you begin to see a discoloration on the bark of your trees or leaves, your evergreen tree needles turning brown, or needles dropping early, you may have winter tree damage from salt. When roads and sidewalks are treated with de-icing salt branches and twigs can be killed from the aerial deposits and roots can be damaged from salt remaining in the soil. Salt will leach through well-drained soils, but damage can be extensive in poorly drained soils causing injury to your trees. Sometimes this damage doesn’t appear until spring. You can plant trees that are more resistant to this damage such as the bur oak, horse chestnut, mugo pine and eastern red-cedar.   


Lack of Water Can Cause Winter Tree Damage

Browning needles on your evergreens may also be the first signs that they are experiencing damage from lack of water. Lower moisture content in the air and soil creates a very dry winter environment. Winter drying, sometimes called winter burn, can be prevented by proper mulching and by watering your evergreens and trees during the winter months. 


Frost Heaving Can Cause Winter Tree Damage

Snow and freezing and thawing soil temperatures can cause damage to the roots of your trees, especially if they are newly transplanted or young.  Root tissues don’t acclimate well to temperatures much below freezing and so can be damaged by extremely low temperatures. Frost heaving is also a risk for trees as freezing and thawing temperatures can cause the soil around the tree roots to expand and contract eventually pushing out and exposing shallow roots. 


Animals Can Cause Winter Tree Damage

When there is a long, heavy snow cover as sometimes happens in our St. Louis, Wichita and Kansas City areas, mice and rabbits can damage especially young trees by feeding on the bark and girdling the trees. Mice especially love to feed on trees that are surrounded by heavy grass, heavy mulch or weeds — another good reason to properly mulch around your trees and to keep mulch away from tree trunks and stems. If this is a problem, you can wrap the trunk and low branches of young trees with screen wire or hardware cloth from below the ground line to high enough above the possible snow line to prevent rabbits from reaching the trunk or branches. Protecting your yard and home from mice and other rodents can also help eliminate them from your yard. 


How Can I Prevent Winter Damage To Trees? 

With all of these possible causes of tree damage during the winter, there are some things that homeowners can do to help protect your trees from the harsh conditions in the winter months. Here are some things your RYAN Pros recommend: 

  • Eliminate overgrowth and dead foliage on your trees with proper winter pruning is the best way to prevent these areas from becoming overweighted from snow and ice. 
  • Remove or brace branches and limbs that extend over your house, driveway or sidewalk.
  • Evaluate your trees after an ice storm to see if a professional tree service is needed. If you see any of the following, you should contact Ryan Lawn & Tree. We’re happy to evaluate your situation at no cost. Look to see if:
    • Any portion of the crown of the tree was lost.
    • There are any broken limbs or branches.
    • There are any cracks in the tree trunk or branches.
    • The tree is leaning at all.
  • Use de-icing salts with care, waiting until the snow or ice event has ended and removing as much snow and ice as possible from driveways and sidewalks before salting. 
  • Mix de-icing salt with abrasive materials, such as sand or kitty litter to reduce the amount of salt you need. 
  • When the ground thaws in the spring, heavily water any areas that had salt accumulation to flush it away from the tree roots. 
  • When heavy snow accumulates on evergreens, gently shake the snow off or carefully brush the snow with a broom. 
  • Don’t throw heavy snow from your driveway or sidewalks on top of shrubs or small trees.
  • You can prevent frost cracking and sunscald by wrapping the trunk in burlap or chicken wire stuffed with straw to insulate the tree from fluctuating temperatures. Don’t forget to remove it in the spring to prevent pests and diseases.
  • Wrap the trunks of young trees with a layer of fallen autumn leaves. This method helps insulate the tree to prevent the bark from cracking.
  • Plant winter-hardy trees and plants that are best for your growing zone and your soil type. Ryan Lawn & Tree professionals can help you choose and plant the best trees for your landscapes.
  • Water trees and shrubs, especially evergreens, during dry periods until the ground freezes.
  • Properly mulch your trees, plants and shrubs to conserve soil moisture and insulate the roots from cold temperatures.
  • Utilizing a customized lawn and landscape service plan from Ryan Lawn & Tree can provide the right nutrient content, protection and water to your landscaping.


Contact RYAN Tree Care Service This Winter

By having your trees and shrubs professionally pruned by Ryan Lawn & Tree, they’ll be lean and able to withstand the cold, harsh weather ahead far better. But if you do run into winter tree damage, don’t hesitate to contact your nearest Midwest Ryan Lawn & Tree location in St. Louis, Kansas City, Wichita, Springfield or Tulsa to and have one of our Pros visit your yard and give you a no-cost price quote to properly prune your damaged trees or shrubs or remove a tree, if needed. Use our convenient online form to request a visit, or give us a call at 855.216.2293 today and we’ll get in touch with the location nearest you. Our RYAN Pros look forward to taking the steps needed to keep your trees and shrubs healthy this winter and year-round.

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