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Help your plants weather winter

Posted 1/30/2009

By Susan Donaldson

Winter is tough on plants. It’s alternately warm, freezing, dry, wet, calm or howling. When it’s icy, we salt our sidewalks and roads, increasing soil salinity and making it more difficult for plants to absorb water. To minimize salt damage to plants and lawns, the simplest solution is to avoid the use of salts next to plants. If that’s not possible, clear snow as early as possible, scraping away as much snow and ice as you can to minimize the need to use salt. If you do have an icy situation, apply sand mixed with a handful of rock salt, or use one of the alternative deicer products. By minimizing the use of salt to just what is needed to ensure safety, you’ll help your plants and our waterways, which are the recipients of untreated runoff.

While snow can be great for insulating plant roots, don’t shovel snow containing salt onto plants. If this has happened, wash off the foliage and water plants thoroughly once soils have thawed. This will help leach away the salt.

Ice isn’t just a problem on the ground. When we suffer one of our infrequent ice storms, or just a wet, heavy snowstorm, the weight of the ice or snow on branches and plant parts often results in cracking and breaking. This type of damage can also occur when using snowblowers or snowplows; the snow deposited by them is denser than natural snowfall and tends to stick together. Don’t push or blow snow onto plants.

Proper pruning at the right time is important to help trees withstand this type of winter damage. Horizontal branching resists breakage better than trees that develop V-shaped crotches. Smaller trees and shrubs can be wrapped to avoid snow and ice damage, but be sure to remove the wrappings in the spring.

If your plants do have a snow or ice accumulation, never try to remove it by banging on the branches, as they may snap back and break or cause internal damage. You can prop up overloaded branches until the ice can melt. If plants are bowed down by snow, you can delicately lift up on branches from below with a broom to gently shake off snow before it freezes. Never push down on weighted branches. Remove broken branches as soon as possible to prevent further breakage or damage.

If the weight of the snow and ice was sufficient to uproot a small tree, you can try to straighten it. If half or more of the original root ball is still in the soil, the tree may survive. Return it to an upright position with the root ball buried and stake it properly.

Water is always a consideration during winter months. If you’re like me, you turn off your irrigation system at the end of October to avoid freeze damage. It’s not uncommon for us to experience prolonged periods without precipitation or melting snow. Evergreen plants are most at risk of winter dessication, but all trees should be watered every three weeks during winter if there has been no snow or rain.

When watering recently transplanted trees and shrubs, remember to apply the water to the root ball. One of my neighbors transplanted a giant sequoia a few years ago and failed to water it during the winter months because we had what appeared to be an ample snowpack. Unfortunately, all the snow had fallen at the edges of the canopy, and the root ball was so dry that the tree barely survived and has struggled ever since.

For more information on winter damage from salts and water quality issues, contact Susan Donaldson, University of Nevada Cooperative Extension, (775) 784-4848.

Susan Donaldson is water quality and weed specialist for the western area of University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

University of Nevada Cooperative Extension Master Gardener Michael Janik will offer advice on growing fruit trees in northern Nevada during a free two-hour presentation at Bartley Ranch Feb. 3.

Janik is a certified arborist who grows more than 100 varieties of apples, stone fruits, berries and small fruits in his 4,000-square-foot orchard. He will discuss pruning, tree response to pruning, thinning fruit, pruning to restore older trees and training and maintaining fruit trees.

Janik is accomplished at grafting and specializes in growing espalier fruit trees, which are trained to grow flat against a trellis or lattice.

His 6:30 p.m. presentation at the park at 6000 Bartley Ranch Road kicks off the weekly "Gardening in Nevada" program on Tuesdays at Bartley Ranch through March 31. "Gardening in Nevada" is cosponsored by Washoe County Regional Parks and Open Space and University of Nevada Cooperative Extension.

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