David Robson Extension Educator, Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois
Yard & Garden
Trees and Ice Don’t Mix
How to help your trees and shrubs cope with winter
Winter is great. Snow can cover up all the dreariness of a barren winter landscape, hiding the browns and grays. Nestled on evergreen branches, snow acts like icing, highlighting the green limbs beneath.
Winter is great. Bulbs need the chilling temperatures to set the flower buds for next spring. Cold can kill many of the over-wintering insects. Freezing and thawing can actually improve the quality of compacted soils over time. Winter is great as long as you experience it from an indoor window with a cup of steaming liquid in your hand.
Winter becomes a royal pain in the neck when you have to start shoveling the snow and warding off the ice that wreaks more havoc than the snow, though there are times when a heavy wet snow can do as much damage as ice.
Heavy snow and ice create weight problems for the trees and shrubs, particularly those evergreens we like to see highlighted. The larger the leaf surface, or even the “more” the leaf surface, the greater potential for damage. Deciduous trees don’t suffer as much, mainly because there are no leaves to catch the ice or snow.
But experience does teach us that ice can cause problems no matter what, and not just on power lines.
Weak wooded trees, such as birch, silver maple, the most-susceptible ornamental pears, shingle oaks, willows and poplars, can snap with little more than a half inch of ice. These fast growing trees, like most fast growing trees, don’t develop the internal structure to support weight, which is fine as long as the plants are not exposed to any snow, wind or ice damage.
Even strong wooded trees such as sugar maples, many of the white and red oaks, lindens and ash can become match sticks if the ice accumulation is heavy enough or if the tree is poorly structured. Rotted or hollow trunks, poor branch angles, repeated injury and pest injury can dump a hardwood tree into the softwood category.
Of course, when limbs start crashing, the damage can be severe, especially if powerlines are nearby.
There’s little a homeowner can do for tall trees during the winter when ice and snow start accumulating. It’s, sadly, an almost “let nature take its course” attitude. Refill your mug and stuff plugs into your ears so you won’t hear all the cracking and breaking.
For smaller plants you can use a broom to brush the snow and ice off. Brush up and away, not down, to prevent limbs from snapping from the weight and action of the broom. Remember, ice crystals within the limbs, can still make branches susceptible to breakage. Use small quick strokes instead of sweeping actions.
This works best on broadleaf and needled evergreens and limbs that might be close to the ground.
If limbs do break, take stock on what you safely can remove or fix. Be realistic. Unless you’re a professional, both feet should remain on the ground. Chainsaws are not to be used over your head.
Remove damage that is causing potential hazards, such as limbs dangling over sidewalks, driveways and the house. Other damage can wait until the weather is more cooperative. In fact, waiting to remove limbs until spring isn’t such a bad thing, as the woody plants are still dormant.
If damage is close to a powerline, call the power company. This is a must.
Regular tree pruning helps to develop a proper shape with the proper branch angles of 45 to 60 degrees. A professional arborist can help, as well as your local University of Illinois Extension Master Gardener. Developing the correct shape starts when you plant the tree or shrub and continues throughout its life.
David Robson is an Extension Educator, Horticulture, at the Springfield Extension Center, University of Illinois Extension, P.O. Box 8199, Springfield, IL 62791. Telephone: 217-782-6515.
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