Helping Trees Survive Winter in Colorado
As you know if you’ve lived in Colorado for any length of time, winter does not generally harm trees. It’s a natural part of life here, and the trees, plants, and wildlife all adapt (as do we).
However, there are times where snow, ice, or winds from winter storms cause damage, and in those cases, there are things that you can do to help your trees.
What to do before a storm
The best method is always prevention, and there are several things you can do to prepare your trees for the winter months.
Have your trees professionally inspected and properly maintained. An arborist will look for broken branches, split trunks, peeling bark, trees with more than one main stem (although some trees such as birch trees and most bushes have more than one stem), and narrow branch crotches. In some cases, pruning or removal may be necessary.
For shrubs that might be damage-prone, consider wrapping them with burlap or tying the main stems together with cloth strips. Just remember to remove everything once spring arrives!
Sometimes preventative measures have been taken but trees or shrubs are still injured by winter storms. Here are some steps you can take when that happens:
Take stock of the situation
If you are immediately aware that it’s a situation beyond your control, such as a tree fallen on a house or car, contact us as soon as possible.
If the tree or limbs have landed close to a power line, contact your local utility company. It’s possible to be electrocuted even if you’re not touching the tree, so keep your distance.
Check for any broken branches that may not have fallen yet. Some get tangled up in other branches before completely falling, and can cause extensive damage and/or injury when they do fall. Do a thorough once-over to look for any hanging branches such as these.
If a tree has fallen but is covered with ice, do not use power tools to attempt to cut the tree. The ice will make it extremely slippery and dangerous.
Remove easily accessible branches
Pick up any branches that have fallen to the ground. They may be on a sidewalk, driveway, or patio so clear a pathway for vehicles and foot traffic to make their way through. If the branches are too heavy or are on top of a house or vehicle, wait for professional assistance.
Always be on guard while working around trees that are weighted down by snow (or ice!). If possible, wait until the snow or ice has melted. If you can’t wait until then, be sure to wear protective gear, including a hard hat. You don’t want to injure yourself during this process.
Carefully prune out any damaged branches that you can reach from the ground (do not climb a ladder to do this!). If you’re not sure how to do this and are worried about injuring your tree or shrub further, contact us for pruning services.
This may be the hardest step to follow, but unless there is damage or an obstruction, waiting can be the best thing you can do for your landscape.
Most of the trees that are weighted down by snow or ice will bounce back by the springtime. If they haven’t straightened themselves out, contact a professional arborist to assess the health of the tree. In some cases, the damage is already done and the tree will have to be removed.
Some trees may need corrective pruning, especially if bark has been torn off or a jagged stump remains. Corrective pruning is best done before spring so that pests and diseases don’t enter via the pruning cut.
Rejuvenation pruning may work for some shrubs that suffered extensive damage. This involves cutting the shrub to the ground, but for some varieties, it works well.
Don’t top a tree. Topping a tree is just what it sounds like – cutting the top of a tree off. This weakens the tree significantly and causes more pruning and health issues in the future.
Don’t shake a tree or shrub covered with ice or snow. Doing so will often break branches, cause injury to the tree, and make the ice fall, which can injure you or others nearby. Don’t hit the tree with anything either, as this can cause the limbs to break.
Don’t use salt or ice melt products near your plants or trees. These products can seep into the ground and injure or kill your plants and trees. (learn more here)
Don’t spray branches with water to try to melt ice or snow – the water that you’re spraying will turn to ice and make the situation worse.
Are there trees and shrubs that are more likely to be injured by winter storms?
Yes. Heavy snow loads or ice can more negatively affect fast-growing trees with soft wood. These include elm, birch, poplar, silver maple, and willow trees. Bradford or Callery pears often split or fall apart in inclement weather.
Any kind of deciduous tree that hasn’t yet lost its leaves will be the hardest hit by snow and ice storms. Early storms can, therefore, cause the most damage.
Evergreen shrubs such as juniper, yew, and arborvitae are prone to split from heavy snow or ice, and tall arborvitae hedges will dramatically lean from the added weight.
Although winter storms can be severe and snowfalls can become heavy, some damage to your trees and shrubs is preventable and treatable. Most often, it’s best to wait and see, or to call in a professional if there is damage.
What about frigid weather or temperature fluctuations?
If a tree is hardy in the Front Range (see our recommended trees here), it should be fine even in low temperatures. Trees aren’t affected by wind chill either, so while we may feel colder when the winter wind blows, trees don’t mind.
However, winter temperature fluctuations can harm trees.
Frost cracks occur when a tree “bursts” open in winter due to extreme temperature swings. It happens more often in young trees or trees with thinner bark, such as honeylocust, linden, and maple trees, but can occur on any tree whose trunk is exposed to direct sunlight during the winter. Although it doesn’t kill the tree, a frost crack can weaken it and make it more prone to insect and disease problems.
Temperature swings are also problematic for non-native trees (even if they’re supposedly hardy in the Front Range area) and those grown in out-of-state nurseries or at lower elevations. For example, although there are many Siberian elms planted throughout our area, they don’t respond well to the temperature fluctuations we often see, which is why many are unhealthy, stressed, and don’t look very good.
Feel free to contact us for any winter storm-related tree issues.