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How to Prepare Your Trees for Cooler Weather

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Winter is fast approaching. And if you’ve put some time and energy into your landscaping over the spring and summer, you certainly don’t want to see it damaged over the coming season.

Thankfully, winter in Atlanta is relatively mild. But we do get some pretty severe cold snaps. Knowing how to prepare your prized trees and bushes for cooler weather is crucial. Trees and shrubs that are prepared for the cold will fare far better than plants that don’t get that attention. And although the winter is relatively mild in Metro Atlanta, things are a bit different farther north. North Georgia, with its higher elevation, tends to get more snow and colder temperatures than other parts of the state. Residents of North Georgia will need to take some extra steps to prepare their landscaping for the onslaught of winter weather.

How to Prepare Your Trees for Cooler Weather [infographic]

How Cold Weather Affects Trees

Trees stand up to some pretty rough weather year-round. But winter can be a hard time for trees. Saplings and young trees are especially susceptible to cold-weather damage over the winter months. The main types of damage are caused by wind, winter sun, snow, and freeze-thaw cycles.

Wind Damage to Trees

Winter wind can take a toll on trees. Evergreens keep their foliage all year, including during the winter. While we call these trees evergreens, the truth is that they face extra challenges by not going dormant like deciduous trees. One challenge comes from dry winter winds. While summer can be humid, winter is just the opposite. Cold, dry winds can suck the moisture out of evergreen leaves. You can see the damage as a bleached-out or brown appearance to the leaves.

WInd can also damage trees in the same way it does during the summer, by the direct pressure it puts on trees. In the summer, wild thunderstorms can include some high winds and even higher wind gusts. The high winds can knock off branches or even topple whole trees. But in the winter, the stress of high winds it exacerbated by the other effects of winter weather. Freezing and thawing ground can push up the roots of young trees and saplings so that they are less able to withstand strong winds.

Sun Damage to Trees

We usually think of sunlight as something trees need and love. In fact, trees will grow in some pretty odd shapes just to seek out extra sunlight. So it may come as a surprise that the winter sun can actually be harmful to trees.

The real trouble with the winter sun is not the sun itself. The damage comes from what happens when the sun stops shining. The outer cells of a tree’s trunk and branches can harden and go dormant during winter to protect it from the cold. But bright winter sunshine can raise the temperature of a tree enough to thaw out and wake up the dormant cells. When the sun goes down and the temperature plummets, those living cells can die.

Fluctuating temperatures also mean expansion and contraction, which can damage a tree. If a tree’s trunk is expanding and contracting regularly throughout the season, the shift can tear open the bark. That will leave some nasty scars on the tree even as temperatures get back to normal in the spring and summer.

Snow and Ice Damage to Trees

Snow is both a blessing and a curse for trees. A long-lasting blanket of snow on the ground can help insulate the soil and keep its temperature significantly higher than the air above it. That’s good news for a tree’s roots, which often could not withstand the colder temperatures that its upper parts can.

However, after a heavy snowfall, trees can be stressed by snow that has accumulated on their branches. This is especially true of evergreen species since they have more surface area to collect snow. Heavy snow can bend branches or even break them. If the snow begins to melt in the sunlight, followed by a temperature drop at night, ice can build up on tree limbs. Hanging ice can also put stress on a branch, causing branches to break or even whole trees to topple under the weight.

Damage from Animals

Food sources for many animals can dry up in the winter. That leaves many animals to eat whatever they can find, including leaves, buds, and even the bark of your favorite trees.

Protecting Trees Over Winter

While mature trees can often withstand quite a bit of abuse, younger trees require extra attention before the temperatures drop. The trees need to be protected against wind, sun, snow, ice, and hungry critters. It is always a good idea to put a thick layer of much—at least 2 inches—around the base of your trees before winter. Avoid piling mulch too close to the trunk. Instead of a volcano shape, spread the mulch in a donut shape around the base of the tree.

Protecting from Wind

To protect a tree from wind, you have to block the full force of the wind. If trees are growing in a bunch, the combined foliage is often enough to serve as a reliable windbreak. But for trees that stand alone, you will need to provide a windbreak. One effective way to protect a tree from wind and sun is to cover it with burlap. A burlap wrap will protect a young tree and help it hold in its moisture.

Protecting from Sun

Protecting a tree from the sun is not that different than protecting it from the wind. If a tree is in a sheltered area, you don’t have to worry about the sun. But if it is in an area that receives direct sunlight for at least a few hours every day, you should consider protecting it.

There are two common ways of protecting a tree’s trunk from being warmed by the sun. The first method is simply to paint the trunk white to reflect much of the sun’s heat and light. This is an acceptable method if you are okay with a white-trunked tree. If you want to preserve the trunk in its natural state, you can wrap the trunk in a light-colored crepe paper. The light color has the same effect as the white paint, but when it is removed in the spring, the tree retains its original appearance.

Protecting from Snow and Ice

To protect from accumulating snow, you will have to remove the snow if it looks like it is bending the tree’s limbs. Don’t try to break off accumulated ice, though. Instead, run warm water over the affected limbs until they are no longer bent.

Protecting from Animals

Hungry animals in the dead of winter will eat anything they can get their paws (or other animal appendages) on. To protect from hungry rodents, deer, and other animals, the best thing you can do is surround a sapling with wire mesh. Be sure to plant the mesh at least a couple of inches into the ground to avoid rodents burrowing underneath it. Keep the mesh a few inches from the trunk, to avoid damaging it and to make it harder for animals to reach through to the bark.

Expert Landscaping and Lawn Care

If you need help getting your garden and landscape ready for winter, try one of the excellent TrustDALE certified landscaping experts. They will get your favorite plants prepared to survive all that winter has to throw at them. And you will be covered by Dale’s trademark $10,000 Make-It-Right™ Guarantee.