Winter Tree Care Checklist

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Winter tree care is as important as what you do when your yard is in bloom

Winter in New York’s Hudson Valley region brings quite a few challenges, including icy roads and high heating bills. But if you think winter is tough on your family, consider how frigid temperatures and biting winds affect your trees! Caring for trees in winter involves understanding the problems that may arise and helping your tree make it through unscathed.

Here are the main winter tree care tasks we recommend doing each year between December and February.

It’s Time for Structural Pruning!

After the vivid fall colors of oaks, maples, and birches have faded, deciduous trees enter their dormant period. Evergreen trees become dormant too, but their multi-year foliage remains in place through winter.

DID YOU KNOW? Evergreens aren’t really “ever green”. They shed their leaves every few years, mostly during the summer growing season).
>> Learn more about the best time to plant evergreen here.

Dormancy (December to February) is the ideal period to prune most of your trees, except for spring-flowering species.

Spring-flowering trees are best pruned just after they flower, as winter pruning will remove the dormant flower buds that the tree set last summer. Examples of spring-flowering trees and shrubs are dogwood, rhododendron, and forsythia.

Pruning your trees has many benefits, with long-term tree health being the most important. A regular schedule of professional pruning over a tree’s life gives you:

  • Long-term savings on tree care costs, as you’ll have fewer tree hazards and less damage to repair
  • Safer, more vigorous tree growth, as branch structures are balanced and tree crowns are open to light and air
  • More attractive, naturally shaped tree crowns, instead of crowns shaped by corrective pruning
  • Increased property value, as mature specimen trees are more valuable than young trees.

Dormant pruning is probably the most important part of any winter tree care program. Just remember that it’s always important to prune your trees correctly, regardless of when it’s done. Hiring a professional to take care of your fall pruning is a wise move and takes this worry completely away.

>> Learn more about the best time to prune trees and shrubs in the Hudson Valley

Plan for Spring Pest & Disease Prevention

Most tree pests are dormant in winter (except deer – they never take a break!), making it a good time to plan your prevention strategies.

For example, if you have trees with cankerworm damage, the first winter freeze is the time to band your tree trunks.

Cankerworms have a taste for apples, oaks, maples, beech, hickory, elm, and other deciduous tree species, and can seriously damage these trees, especially after several consecutive years of defoliation. Cankerworm pupae overwinter in the soil around the trees they eat, and hatch in late winter or early spring (often during warm spells in February and March). When the larvae hatch, they head back up the tree’s trunk to eat new spring leaves.

To stop these pests, put a band of flexible material around your trees’ trunks (it should be crinkled, pleated, or spun like batting to plug up any fissures in bark). Coat it with Tanglefoot or a similar sticky material to stop the larvae from crawling over the band and reaching your tree’s crown.

Over the course of the winter, check the bands to make sure the sticky coating has not become choked with wind-borne debris or too many dead larvae. Cover any clogged bands with a band of plastic wrap and a new layer of sticky material. If the surface is no longer sticky, larvae will crawl over the debris and continue up the trunk, so keep ahead of these pests and keep your trees healthy and leafy.

Stay Well Hydrated – Keep Watering Recently-Planted Trees & Shrubs

Do you have evergreens planted as a windbreak? These trees are especially vulnerable to winter dehydration – a condition that exists when the tree cannot absorb enough water to offset the losses from wind and evaporation. Evergreens that are used as a screen along a busy road have a double threat – lack of water and the corrosive effect of road salt.

Dehydration can seriously stress your trees during dormancy (as well as during hot spring and summer weather). A tree may be sleeping in winter but its root and vascular systems never stop working. Even during dormancy, trees keep their internal moisture level and the pressure level of their system of “water pipes” regulated by transferring water from their roots up to their trunk and branches.

While evergreen trees are most susceptible to winter desiccation, other species may also experience this condition. Applying a thick layer of mulch under the trees is your best defense against winter drought. Mulch helps the soil retain water and also insulates the tree roots for better health and growth.

If there are periods of warm, dry weather during winter, try to deeply water any trees or shrubs planted within the last two years. You can use a bucket or garden hose (empty the hose after use and store it away – don’t leave it outdoors). The limited root systems of young and recently planted trees can’t reach far into the surrounding soil to find water, and the tree can quickly become dehydrated.

Trees can survive extreme winter conditions, but certain circumstances cause serious damage even to mature specimens. As an additional level of protection, we recommend applying anti-desiccant to high-value specimen trees.

Bundle Up (Your Trees)

Broadleaf evergreens are susceptible to winter die-back when exposed to cold, dry weather, especially when planted in sunny or windy locations. And plants growing near roadways are easily sprayed with road salt and de-icing products by passing vehicles, damaging (and sometimes, even killing) unprotected plants.

There are various products you can wrap around the tree to act as insulation against extreme temperature shifts. Burlap is a good natural choice, or look around for manufactured tree blankets.

Wrap your broadleaf evergreen shrubs, as well as plants exposed to winter road salt or de-icing products, to protect them over the winter. It’s best (and easiest) to get the wraps in place before it gets too cold (frozen fingers make everything more difficult!).

Wrapping also prevents deer browsing, and we all know how hungry deer can quickly reduce a shrub or tasty arborvitae to nothing but stubs!

Don’t forget to remove the wraps as soon as temperatures rise in spring.

Watch for Frost Cracks

Variable weather conditions in winter can affect your trees, creating cold stresses and potentially damaging the bark and branches. When mature trees are exposed to extreme temperature shifts (for example, when warm days turn into freezing nights), the wood interior and the outer bark layer expand and contract at different rates. As the parts swell and shrink, it causes stresses that lead to frost cracking. These unsightly vertical cracks may heal naturally, but that area will be vulnerable from that point on.

If you notice any frost cracks (you’ll often hear them first – it sounds like a gunshot as night falls), have an arborist examine it when spring arrives. Treatment isn’t usually needed but in severe cases there are things we can do to protect the tree from diseases and insect attacks.

Help Trees & Shrubs After a Snowfall or Freezing Rain

The Hudson Valley area gets hit by many snowstorms every winter, and they can cause serious damage to trees and shrubs.

We also get plenty of freezing rain and sleet most winters, with ice buildup breaking branches, pulling down power lines, and even toppling trees. After ice (or snow) has covered your trees and shrubs, here’s what to do:

  • Check for signs of potential danger, such as tree branches touching power lines, trees or branches in the road or blocking your driveway, and broken branches (those hanging from a tree are particularly dangerous). Don’t go near these – call the utility company or a tree care professional to take care of it.
  • Clean up smaller dropped branches on the ground or broken branches you can reach without a ladder. Don’t use power tools on ice-covered plants and don’t work under a tree that’s coated in ice or snow!
  • Don’t knock ice or snow off branches – you’ll just end up damaging the tree or shrub. It’ll melt off by itself.
  • For the rest, wait until spring or toward the end of winter. Most trees and shrubs that have been bowed down by the extra weight of ice or snow will recover on their own by spring. If they haven’t straightened out by then, give us a call to evaluate whether or not they can be saved. If a broken branch has torn bark off the tree or left a jagged stump, the tree will need corrective pruning before spring bud break.

Winter Tree Care Means Healthier Trees in Spring

While you may not normally think about tree care during the dreary days of winter, it’s an excellent time to take care of some preventive maintenance, have your trees professionally pruned, and give trees and shrubs a little extra TLC.

If you’re unsure about what to do, don’t have time or energy to take care of it, or want a professional assessment of your trees, just give us a call!

Have a Plan & Start Early

Caring for trees in winter means preparation in the fall and keeping an eye on your trees throughout temperature changes and dry spells. Your trees are worth the effort.

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Todd Hill

Todd is the founder of Hill Treekeepers and an ISA Certified Arborist with life-long ties to the Hudson Valley area.

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