Winter Snow Removal Tips for the Garden

How to protect your yard before and after a winter storm.

Snow Trees in a row

Photo by: Image courtesy of David Forster, Monumental Lawn & Outdoor, PLANET Member

Image courtesy of David Forster, Monumental Lawn & Outdoor, PLANET Member

If you haven't taken steps to protect your yard and landscape from the severe weather, it's not too late to take some defensive measures and be prepared when another storm blankets your yard with snow and the temperatures drop.

Josh Kane, president of Kane Landscapes, and a member of PLANET, the national landscape industry association, has some suggestions on how to protect your property before the next blizzard arrives as well as safe, practical methods for dealing with the after effects of a major snow event.   

Check Your Trees for Dead Limbs or Signs of Weakness

If you are in doubt about the health of your trees call an arborist to come and inspect them. An arborist can help determine if any trees or branches have insect damage or are suffering from dieback, a condition where the branch begins to die from the tip back to the base. Dieback is characterized by the death of the young shoots, which spreads to the larger branches. Removing dead, damaged or diseased branches before the next storm is one way to avoid potential damage to your yard and shrubs.

Prune Your Trees Properly

The ideal time for pruning varies with the type of tree in question but it is generally agreed that winter is a good time to prune deciduous trees. The leaves are gone and you can easily inspect the branches and tree structure for any signs of weakness. For evergreen trees and shrubs, you should wait until after the last winter freeze before pruning. Some trees fare worse than others in a snow storm, Kane notes, due to "what they call the crotch angle of the tree. On certain trees, such as pears, if the angle of the branch off the trunk is too tight, the branch will have a weak connection and can easily break under the weight of heavy snow or ice. On some evergreens, if it's too horizontal to the ground or sticking out too far, it's usually catching more ice and snow and has a good chance of snapping off." You also want to refrain from pruning trees while the ground is frozen; it will cause the tree to lose a lot of water and moisture. 

Avoid Topping Any Trees

Although tree topping has been a widespread practice for years, most trained landscapers and arborists understand that it creates additional problems for the tree instead of correcting them. Topping your trees can upset the balance between the crown and the roots and result in a sick, undernourished tree. Topping also disfigures the tree's natural form and beauty while exposing the bark to full sun which can led to sun scald and the development of disease cankers. More importantly, the new growth that develops after the tree has been topped is weak due to the new sprouts growing from the surface of stubs instead of being anchored from within former limbs. These new branches, created by topping, are more vulnerable to heavy snow falls and winter winds and prone to breakage. 

Keep Plants Well-Hydrated

Even in the wintertime, evergreen plants continue to lose moisture through their leaves so they need water. If plants are well-hydrated, they are more likely to survive a hard freeze. "If it's a new tree you still want to water it a little if you're not getting much rain," Kane advises. "Most newly planted trees can go about two weeks without rain in the wintertime." If your outside hose is turned off, a bucket of water (5 gallons or more) applied manually can help prevent that new tree from drying out. You can also use a proven anti-transpirant like Wilt Pruf to guard your plants against moisture loss caused by transplant shock, drought and windburn. You simply spray it on the top and bottom of the leaves and it creates a wax-like protective layer.

Protect Your Fragile Plants from Freezing

Cold winter winds can sap the moisture out of leaf tips so you need to protect them. Kane suggests you "put up a wind screen by taking a piece of burlap and two stakes and making a sort of wind block that's catching the wind before the row of bushes." If you feel the plants need more protection, you can put up a makeshift teepee around them that is made out of bamboo stakes and burlap. Before a hard freeze, you can also wrap plants in burlap. Because this material is woven and allows air to pass in and out, there is less danger of creating a heat moisture trap like you would if you tried to wrap your plants in plastic (never do that!). As soon as the cold spell is over, remove the burlap to prevent the plants from overheating. 

After a heavy snowfall or severe ice storm, you should consider these tips and suggestions:

Don't Shake Snow or Ice Off Branches

If you do this, you risk causing additional damage to the branches or plant. The snow or ice on the branch may have already done its damage so you need to wait until everything melts before you can assess the damage. 

Monitoring Salt Usage

Salt is still an effective way to melt snow and ice but on the negative side it can damage plants and trees by drawing water away from their roots. You can minimize this by using one of the more eco-friendly melting agents like CMA (calcium mangesium acetate). It is more expensive than other road salts but it is also biodegradable and non-corrosive, which means little to no rust damage to cars. And CMA has little negative effect on animals or plants. Some people also like to use urea (or carbamide) which is a chemical often found in fertilizers and works as a melting agent. However, you need to sweep it into your grass after the storm has gone. "If you get a heavy rain," Kane cautions, "you don't want that washing into your sewer system because it's loaded with nitrates" and you don't want those going into the nearby rivers and streams.

Remove Broken and Fallen Branches

Try to remove the damaged wood as soon as weather permits and make sure you make a clean cut on an already broken branch or limb. That way it will be harder for insects or disease to enter the stressed area. You also need to be careful when using a ladder to remove branches. "I'm amazed at how many people will set up a ladder in the yard to get that branch," Kane remarks, "and they're setting it up on either snow or frozen ground. Obviously the ladder is not going to stand."

Practice Caution Using Shovels, Chainsaws and Snow Blowers

When you start shoveling snow off your walkway and driveway areas, make sure you aren't dumping it on top of plants or shrubs that are already covered in snow. You might want to mark those areas with reflector posts or bamboo stakes to prevent further damage. If you are using a chainsaw, make sure the snow and ice are completely gone before you start using it (you don't want to slip and fall). And exercise extreme caution with snow blowers. Never put your hand in front of one if it becomes clogged; even if it is turned off. You could easily lose a finger or even your hand from the tension on the auger blade within the blower. This injury is known as "degloving" and if you do a Google search you will see too many statistics and cases of people who have harmed themselves this way.

Find more winter yard care tips or landscaping advice at

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