Many plants can use some protection from the winter elements to come back healthy and strong in the spring. Winter winds can be especially damaging to plants. They can snap stems and branches, as well as target the plants with frigid cold air and be extremely drying. But there are several methods available for winter plant protection—including shelters, wraps, and mulch—that you can implement as you go about your fall garden care.
Using Shrub Shelters
To avoid damage from winter weather to shrubs, you can build or buy a shelter within which to house the shrub for the winter. There is little to lose when sheltering a deciduous shrub (one that loses its foliage for the winter), as it provides minimal visual interest on the landscape.
There are three main options for a shrub shelter:
- Build a shrub shelter out of natural materials.
- Build an A-frame (also known as a "snow frame") out of store-bought lumber.
- Buy a snow frame, which are available at some hardware stores.
Shrub shelters come in a variety of sizes and materials, though all materials must be able to withstand winter weather. For all shelters, you are essentially building a framework around the shrub that will support a roof to protect the shrub from snow, ice, and winds. For instance, a shrub shelter made out of natural materials can use a framework of wooden poles supporting a roof of evergreen boughs.
Using Tree Wrap
Because the foliage of evergreen shrubs provides beauty to the winter landscape, you likely won't want to cover it with a shrub shelter. But you still might need to offer some winter protection to your evergreen shrubs to prevent injuries from harsh conditions, and that's where tree wrap is useful.
You can purchase commercial tree wrap made of burlap netting at many hardware stores. Then, simply bind the shrub "mummy style" in the wrap. The shrub's limbs will be pulled toward its trunk and supported, so they won't snap under the strain of heavy snow, ice, or strong winds. This method is useful if you are expecting a severe winter storm. Once the conditions are calm again, you can unwrap your shrub to enjoy its beauty.
A bigger challenge to evergreen shrubs than snow and ice is often drying winter winds, which can kill foliage. To combat this, you can make a windbreak out of tree wrap. Create a wire cage around your shrub with four wooden poles at each corner and chicken wire stretched between them. Then, stretch the burlap tree wrap across the wire and staple it to the poles.
Mulch can help to insulate a plant's roots over the winter, but incorrect application can end up doing more harm than good. Follow these tips if you plan to use mulch for winter protection:
- When to apply: Apply mulch after there have been two to three days of sustained freezing temperatures. Premature application in the fall gives rodents a better chance of making a home under the mulch, which can end up damaging plants.
- How much: Apply 4 to 5 inches for insulation. This differs from the 2 to 2.5 inches that are recommended during the growing season for weed control.
- When to remove: In the early spring, begin gradually pulling back the mulch so your plants don't suffocate or rot from too much moisture being retained in the soil.
Although we don't necessarily equate wintry conditions with desert conditions, the winter landscape in cold climates is essentially a desert because plants can't draw water from the frozen ground. Thus, proper watering in the fall can be an effective means of minimizing injury over the winter. Here are two general guidelines to follow:
- Water plants sparingly throughout early autumn until the time when the leaves of deciduous trees fall.
- In late autumn, after the deciduous trees have dropped their leaves, give both evergreen and deciduous shrubs (and trees) a deep watering.
Watering plants sparingly in early autumn will allow them to transition more smoothly from the growing season into the dormant season. Plants treated in this manner will be less likely to put out tender new growth that can be damaged by winter weather, stressing the whole plant. Then, a final deep watering will help to sustain the plants over the winter. Make sure to do this before the ground freezes, so the water can reach the roots.
Watering shrubs properly in the fall is not the only "preventive medicine" to help them through the winter. Proper pruning also can go a long way toward winterizing them. Here's how to know when—and when not—to prune:
- Don't prune in the early fall. Pruning at this time can encourage tender new growth that's vulnerable to cold weather.
- If you need to prune evergreen shrubs, wait until late winter or early spring. But in the late fall you can remove weak branches that might otherwise snap over the winter.
- Early blooming deciduous shrubs are generally pruned after they have finished flowering in the spring. Later bloomers are generally pruned in early spring. In the late fall you can remove any weak, diseased, or dead branches on them.