Preparing trees and shrubs for winter's common problems

Rob Zimmer

As November arrives, it is time to start taking protective measures to prevent some of the winter season's common small tree and shrub problems in the yard and garden.

Each winter season, gardeners face the challenge of protecting smaller trees and shrubs from weather conditions, as well as from hungry wildlife.

Here are some tips on simple things you can do to protect some of your treasured smaller trees and shrubs this season.

Winter burn

Many gardeners assume that winter burn is a condition caused by the cold temperatures. However, winter burn can occur even when temperatures are quite mild for the season.

This browning of evergreen foliage, usually occurring along boughs and branches facing the sun, is actually a severe drying of the foliage, or lack of moisture, not "frost bite."

Keeping evergreens well watered up until Thanksgiving or beyond, depending on temperature and weather conditions is one of the simplest protective measures against this unsightly condition. Thankfully, we've had quite a wet fall so far.

Winter burn does not immediately show itself. Normally, the browning does not begin to appear until spring when temperatures begin to warm and the discoloration sets in.

A loose covering, or wrapping of burlap will also help protect sun-exposed sections of evergreens. Burlap is best, as it allows the plants to receive light and breathe. Do not wrap tightly. A simple loose covering is all that is needed.

Wrapping does not need to be done until later in the fall or even into the winter season when the low humidity of the coldest temperatures begins to set in.


Girdling, caused by rabbits, voles, sometimes even chipmunks and squirrels, is a damaging condition to trees and shrubs. This occurs when small rodents chew the bark completely surrounding the stems of the shrub or trunk of the tree.

When severe enough, girdling will kill the plant within a few seasons.

To prevent girdling from occurring, use one of several methods of protecting the stems and trunk from ground level to at least 18 inches over the anticipated snow line.

Tree and stem guards are available from most garden centers and landscape stores. These come in a wide range of materials. You can also make your own using many different materials.

The key is to make sure these guards, which simply surround the stem or trunk, are placed where they will provide protection even in deep snow.

Too often, gardeners place short tree guards around the base of the trunk or stem that extend up maybe 1 to 2 feet. These are useless if they become buried in snow. The guard should extend upward at least 18 inches from where you expect the highest snow line to occur.

For larger shrubs, a simple barrier of staked chicken wire for wire mesh works well. Wrap or create a frame around the shrub and form a barrier with the mesh or chicken wire to keep rabbits away.

The best defensive measures against damaging voles are to keep garden debris to a minimum in fall and mowing grassy areas short as we head into winter. A 2-foot diameter circle of pea gravel or sand surrounding trees and shrubs is also effective against voles, which prefer to tunnel through thick, grassy areas rather than open gravel or sand.

Deer browsing

Browsing deer can disbud small trees and shrubs throughout the garden during the winter season.

As during all seasons, it will be necessary to employee a number of different protective measures throughout the season. To rely on just one control method will likely not be successful. Deer are quite adaptive and, if you are serious about keeping them out, you need to put in the effort.

Using a variety of techniques is most effective. For example, use deer netting over treasured shrubs and small trees during susceptible periods. Deterrents such as pet hair and other scent-based repellants, along with garden spinners and other items that create motion will keep the deer away.

Many gardeners, as well as professional landscapers, swear by the use of chunks of Irish Spring soap wrapped in coffee filters and strung from the branches as a repellant.

If you have dogs, try bringing them outdoors at different times throughout the day and night, rather than at set time frames.

Storm damage

Wind and heavy snow can also create problems during the winter season. The best defense against storm damage is to consult with an arborist during the fall and early winter to remove any dead or decaying wood and eliminate problem areas that could generate breakage from heavy snow or wind.

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