Pity our poor evergreens

Our gardens are in tatters, trees bent and shattered, branches broken in every corner. Where to start? What can be saved?

A few days past I wrote on pruning, and for the minor breaks and splits in trees and shrubs I hope that this should prove to be a valuable resource. Today there are larger issues to be addressed (perhaps not more important, but larger), the evergreens that screen many of our properties. This is where the greatest loss has occurred. Rather than simply stating “get your chainsaw”, I’ll try to give a bit more detailed explanation for the direction we should take next.

Leyland cypress appears to be the evergreen most commonly damaged by our early February snow. Leylands have a sparse root system relative to other evergreens, and are susceptible to blowing over in extreme winds, particularly in sandy soils. Their upright branching encouraged snow to accumulate, and with the high winds that followed the roots were torn from the ground.

Leylands under ten feet in height seem to have escaped the worst, but large trees have blown crooked, or cleanly out of the ground. In my garden substantial limbs have bent to a severe angle, and with their size and weight I fear this tree is beyond repair. I suspect the same fate for many others. There are multiple problems to consider.

A Leyland cypress with extensive snow damage

When large evergreens are blown over there is considerable trauma to the roots. Although many are uprooted, they have been torn and stretched, then exposed to freezing temperatures and drying winds. Because of their weak roots, even  healthy Leyland cypresses are notoriously difficult to transplant, so any injury to the roots might spell their doom. Still, we might try to save these large trees.

Further difficulties are encountered in figuring out how to lift the tree back to its upright position. First, the hole left by the roots must be excavated to fit the entire root mass, a task not so simple in the saturated, muddy soil. Next, we must find a way to lift the tree, nearly impossible for a large tree without heavy equipment, as the tree and foliage can weigh many hundreds of pounds.

If we succeed in uprighting our Leyland we must backfill the soil around the roots, exercising care that all voids are filled so that these do not become wet pockets that will rot the already stressed roots. Then, the tree must be secured so that it will not blow over in the next puff of a breeze. I’m not a gambler, but I don’t like the Leylands’ chances for success.

There is more room for optimism with other evergreens. In my garden one of three southern magnolias has suffered extensive injury, the top broken and many large branches broken. With warmer temperatures in the following weeks I will prune out the broken and assess the remainder. By good fortune this tree is in the back corner of the garden, so I can be patient to wait out the years it will take to return to form. In a more visible location I might be forced to remove and replace this once beautiful magnolia.

The common Colorado and Norway spruces have escaped widespread damage, but pines (most notably the native scrub pines and white pines) have lost major limbs and will be a challenge to restore. Each injured tree will need to be assessed to determine its value once the broken limbs have been removed.

A multi trunk arborvitae will require some assistance to return to form

The arborvitae used in many landscapes for screening and as lone specimens have experienced a range from no damage on the single trunked Green Giant to extensive difficulties on the many multiple trunk types, including Emerald Green. Their branches are quite flexible, and many have bent to the ground. With the snow melting these long stems have rebounded, but still arch far from their original position. Without our assistance I believe that the branches will not return fully. Again, there is no hurry to undertake this project, so this will be a subject for a later discussion.

The single trunk of Green Giant arborvitae escaped injury

30 Comments Add yours

  1. Ria Gentile says:

    What should be done to a multi trunk arborvitae to repair the damage done by heavy snow?

    1. Dave says:

      I’m flying in the dark a little on this one since I’ve had this happen only once, on a columnar blue spruce a number of years ago. I was successful in saving the tree then, and I expect it will work this time. I’ll take some step-by-step photos when I tie my arborvitae up later in the week, and post them.

      I’ll be using a thin nylon strap called ArborTie. Circle the strap around the tree and tie a loop so that you can pull it tight. Lift the strap so that it catches the major branches and pull tight enough to pull the branches into a bunch that is a bit tighter than the normal shape. Circle the strap a few more time to catch some of the smaller branches, then tie the strap to a larger branch to secure it. I will plan on leaving the strap in place through the spring before removing it.

      You can use twine, string, or a thin rope, but there is a greater risk that they will dig into the soft wood and damage the branches. Also, with string or twine you’ll have to be certain to remove it after a few months or the branches will grow around it and the branch will eventually be girdled and die.

  2. Karen Sine says:

    My 2 5ft. dwarf little gem magnolias are brown from the tops down about 2.5 – 3 ft. They were just purchased last year and they were doing so well until the storm. They are not broken. Should I prune them? If I do, how long will it take for them to come back or will they ever? Would I prune only the branches, or the entire top?
    Should I replace them?


    1. Dave says:

      Don’t worry about brown leaves. If the branches and buds are alive then your magnolia will leaf out and look fine later this spring. You can check the bark on the stems to see if it’s green, and see if the buds appear to be green or brown and dried. If you’re not comfortable making this determination then I would recommend waiting another several weeks until magnolias begin to grow, then you’ll know for certain. It’s not unusual for evergreens planted in the fall to suffer winter injury (brown leaves), but they usually send out new growth in the spring and are fine. Until you see what parts of the magnolia are alive or dead I wouldn’t prune anything.

  3. Margaret Hawkins says:

    Our 10 20′ Leyland Cypresses are tilted (from the snowpocalypse) but not pulled out of the ground. Should we simply have them staked back in position? They seem to be still healthy.

    1. Dave says:

      If it is possible to push or pull them upright and stake them then it is worth the effort. Roots have been torn, but there is not nearly the damage done as when the roots are exposed. Pushing the considerable weight of the tree upright is likely to be a challenge.

  4. Greg says:

    I have a large branch on an arborvite where it actually folded down from snow weight this year. The branch didn’t split in the traditional sense, but folded and ruptured the bark on both ends of the fold. some sap but not much oozing out. I was thinking or bundling with something like the ArborTie you mentioned vs prunning it. If it’s likely hopeless I’ll go ahead and prune it. I’d welcome your thoughts.

    1. Dave says:

      I’ve had the same thing happen with branches of nandina and arborvitae, and I have pruned them. If the branches are important to the form of the plant it could be worth a try, but I figure that the structural integrity has been compromised, and I don’t expect that it can regained in the short term.

  5. Bill says:

    I have Giant Green thujas planted last fall and one a few of them the tops are turning brown at the end of the branches. Is that typical because they are stressed from the winter or is that an initial sign that this tree may not make it?

    1. Dave says:

      Green Giant are tough plants. I would suspect that the problem is related to fall planting. Evergreens planted in the fall often do not have enough time to establish themselves prior to cold weather, and so they will show some damage. I wouldn’t worry about it, they will likely grow fine this spring.

  6. Beth S. says:

    My beautiful 40-year-old boxwoods are bending way over outwards, leaving nothing in the center; way out of their normal beautiful shape. So, I took old cotton bed-linens and tore long, wide (4-5″?) swathes of it which I tied together in a loop around one of the boxwoods, and pulled it around a heavy chair-back to secure it in place with tension. I had not heard of the Arbor Tie until I just read your article. I will try that on the other boxwoods. I used the bed-sheet strips also on a roughly 9-10′ older Pieris right in front of the house, where I was able to connect a bungie-cord to the sheet and fasten the other end of the bungie-cord to a hook I put into the house, to pull with tension. It’s doing a much better job holding the Pieris upright than on the boxwood; the boxwood has so many more small branches that I couldn’t really encircle it (and, it didn’t have the house to attach to).

    1. Dave says:

      Flattened branches of boxwoods are one of the biggest challenges in correcting injuries from our heavy snows because the branches are numerous and very pliable. You will probably have the same difficulty using any material to tie them. If the wrapping doesn’t work then you’ll be forced to prune the branches back to roughly the desired form, and then new growth will have to fill in from there. This is likely to be more than a one year project if the wrapping doesn’t work.

  7. Susan says:

    My large 18 year old Japanese maple split at the top of the branch. I have tapped with duct tape part of the split bit, I could not tape the entire branch as it would not come together. HELP! I do not know what to do. I am very attached to the tree.
    Thanks in advance if you are aable to answer my question.

    1. Dave says:

      Under ideal circumstances a split branch on a Japanese maple will heal if the two parts that have separated are joined closely. On large trees this is done with a hole being drilled through the branch and a bolt that holds them together. For smaller trees, including Japanese maples, anything that tightly binds the split portions of the branch will do. If the exposed part of the wound has not suffered too much damage from prolonged exposure over the past month and a half since the injury occurred, new growth might knit the parts back together. I’m guessing, but if the union is not secure by June then I doubt this procedure will be successful. There is a reasonable chance that it will work.

  8. Virgina says:

    I read your reply about the split Japanese Maple and wondered if there was some solution or substance to put on the open wound before binding-i.e. growth hormone, rootone (not that I want roots but to encourage growth). Also of interest for those who have plants with small branches that have splayed might be to use netting such as that used on Christmas trees for transporting. The netting used to keep birds off berry bushes seems like it would do a good job holding things together.

    1. Dave says:

      Great idea, the mesh will hold smaller branches in place without damaging the foliage. It’s not as easy to tie at the ends, but could be useful on more difficult plants, such as the boxwood problem I addressed earlier in the day.

      For split branches I don’t know of any solutions or magic elixirs that will make this work. When growers graft a tree they slip a small piece of a plant stem, or even a bud, into a small incision. They do not use any solutions to help the two knit together, but the grafting process is done when the plant is actively growing, not when it is dormant as in early February until now. Basically, we are looking to have the two parts of the stem graft back together, but if the plant tissue has died or degraded then it is unlikely that the graft will be successful.

      If I had to bet I would say that the lapse in time has been too great from the time of the injury until the plant is actively growing, but in some cases it will worth a try rather than living with a severely disfigured tree. There is no harm in trying, the worst that can happen is that the inevitable is delayed.

  9. tina says:

    I have a single narrow shrub that was fully tilted and buried in the snow and I”ve tried to upright it and stabalize w/ more soil. When it rains or is windy, it tilts; is it too late. Can I try something else?

    1. Dave says:

      I have found that with some narrow evergreens, such as the cylindrical Sky Pencil holly and the Gold Cone juniper I have photos of in the article “Split and Splayed”, a combination of pruning and tying the splayed branches together might be needed. I tied mine, then needed to prune a foot from the top of the seven foot tall plant, and then bent it back in the other direction to straighten it out. In many stubborn cases the only remedy will be to prune the plants back to the point that they are stable.

  10. Kevin says:

    My backyard is surrounded by leyland cypresses between 20-25 feet tall from. Half of them are bent nearly horizontal from the snow this winter though the roots seem intact. I have no real experience with caring for trees and was wondering if I would kill them by just cuting 10 feet or so off the tops.

    1. Dave says:

      I would be very reluctant to cut a Leyland cypress back as much as half. Another branch will eventually replace the main leader, but for several years, at minimum, the shape of the tree will be severely compromised. If you were able to cut the top and side branches so that the shape is maintained, the lighter weight might allow the Leylands to straighten. This is quite a task. Good luck.

  11. Kathleen says:

    Two questions:

    1. How do I protect my azaleas? Deer ate my azaleas (again!) despite my vigilance. How often do I have to spray Deer Stopper? I have more than a hundred plants and probably will not get a dozen blooms. This is annoying. I try to keep them sprayed, but eventually I relax my guard and the deer chow down.
    2. When do I put down Holly Tone? Before, during, or after they bloom. After may be difficult to determine since the deer have eaten them.

    1. Dave says:

      I have a great system to remind me to spray on the first of each month beginning in May as the hostas are coming up. My wife has written a note on her calendar, and I don’t dare ignore her reminder.

      I have found that if you spray every four weeks, or at the first of every month, then the repellents are very dependable. Before my wife took this as her personal cause I would let the time lapse stray to six weeks, and then was reminded when the hostas began disappearing.

      Azaleas can be fertilized now. Ideally, for a plant that requires fertilizing (and most don’t need annual fertilization), you feed them before they begin growing, which for azaleas is in mid May in the mid Atlantic region after their blooms have finished.

  12. Chuck says:

    I and my adjacent neighbors all have leyland cypresses in a range of 30-40 feet. Root systems are fine as well as the upper two thirds of branches, however, many of the lower large branches are drooping or bent from the snow. They’re obstructing walkways and wondering if it would do any good to try tying them up to the upper portion of the trees to keep them out of the way and help re-shape them. Would I be wasting my time? I hate thinking about pruning the lower ones because of the privacy they provide to our pool area.

    1. Dave says:

      If you are able to pull the bent branches back into shape they will eventually firm up and conform to the new (old) shape. When I have done this in the past it was with much smaller evergreens, and I was able to remove the rope I was using to tie them with after several months. With larger evergreens I’m not certain of the timing, but it will be worth the effort if successful. I had to remove a forty foot leyland cypress recently because a large branch was leaning to an extreme degree, and the branch was far too heavy to move. I suspect that the challenge of pulling so many large branches might be too great. Leylands are extremely fast growing, so gaps created by pruning will be filled quickly.

  13. Johnny Cruz says:

    Hello, my Leylands are 30ft high and I have 6 on each side of house. On only one side 2 trees are bending in the middle and touching the ground. I tried to tie the branches together a little as they were very heavy but still looks scary can you help or do I have a huge gap in my “natures privacy fence” to get ready for? Any help would be greatly appreciated….Thanks!

    1. Dave says:

      Repair of tall evergreens that are bent from snow can be quite difficult. If you are able to bend the branches in the opposite direction then this will help to straighten them, but with a thirty foot tall Leyland cypress this is nearly impossible. Pulling the branches and staking so that they are more upright will help, but the weight of the branches makes this very difficult. Many bent branches will straighten to some extent without any intervention, and for large evergreens this is the only practical action that can be taken.

  14. Johnny Cruz says:

    Part 2 to my previous email…I live in the south and we don’t ever get snow but this winter we had a few feet..could that have been the problem…they are also turning really brown in the middle….please advise

  15. Janny says:

    We received over 16 in. Of heavy snowfall 10 days ago. I have 24 emerald green 10 ft. trees planted as a screen close to each other. Branches are bent while also being buried with more snow from drafting next to fence making it almost impossible to brush off snow. Do I leave alone or make the effort to litterally dig the snow around the trees and try to remove snow?

    1. Dave says:

      Snow damage to arborvitae seems to occur rather quickly. I think if the branches remain bent for several hours the branches tend to remain bent once the snow is removed. The sooner the snow is removed, the better. I’ve seen mixed results in repairing bent branches, and after several years of heavy, wet snows I think the most effective repair is to tie the bent branches with the soft nylon, ArborTie type straps. The ArborTie can remain for years without girdling the branches, so even if the branches never regain their rigidity the strapping holds them in place.

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