Snow damage tips

At a glance, the heavy, wet snow from yesterday’s storm appears to have damaged trees and shrubs significantly, perhaps more so than the storms of last winter. In particular, there seems to be more damage to deciduous trees, those that drop their leaves for the winter.

In my own garden I see numerous broken branches where wet snow accumulated and branches bent to the breaking point. The snow from January and February 2010 was much lighter, and most injury was to evergreens rather than deciduous trees.

Here are a few tips to minimize damage to your trees and shrubs, and in the next days I’ll follow up with tips on repairing broken branches.

1. First, be safe. At the edge of my garden are mature maples and poplars, and though entire trees have not fallen, there are numerous large branches littering the ground, and others that are tangled with other branches that could fall at any moment. There is no amount of damage to ornamental trees that justifies risking your personal safety.

2. My neighbor’s large, twenty year old maple split near the base, with half of the tree toppling onto a large dogwood. The maple is beyond repair, but the half that fell onto the dogwood must be carefully removed to minimize damage. My neighbor is competent using a chainsaw, but this is not a task for everyone.

Most damage is already done. I took a quick run through my garden carefully knocking the snow off my prized Japanese maples with a long handled steel leaf rake, but I don’t think that I was accomplishing much. I saw large broken branches on Japanese maples and redbuds, but this injury occurred overnight, and there’s probably no reason to bother at this point.

4. If you want to knock the snow off your trees and evergreens it is important to do it carefully, so that you don’t inflict further damage. By gently lifting or shaking branches with a long handled tool much snow will fall through and lighten the load. Too much force might break branches that would spring back without damage once the snow melts.

5. Temperatures are rising, and the snow is melting, so the weight on trees and evergreens might be lessened significantly in another day or two. In last year’s snow the huge accumulations bent branches for weeks, so that once the snow melted branches were bent permanently. With much less snow from this storm, it is likely that damage to bent branches will be much less severe. If you decide to venture out to brush snow from your evergreens, do so gently so that branches are not broken.

For a few of my evergreens that were tilting under the snow’s weight I was able to dislodge the heaviest accumulations by pushing the branches up from the underside. If the snow melts in the next few days this will have been wasted effort, so there is not an immediate neccessity to clear the snow from evergreens or deciduous trees.

In the next several days the extent of damage will be more readily apparent, and I’ll do my best to give the  most horticulturally sound, practical advice for protecting your landscape. I will address issues relating to pruning and repairing snow damage, and much of this information can be found in archived blog entries from February 2010. Through the blog I will answer any questions, or you can send an email through Meadows Farms’ website.

Be safe. Don’t overdo it. Last year, when it appeared that the garden would be a disaster, I was confident that the damage would be less than it initially appeared, and by late in April the injury was hardly apparent.


24 thoughts on “Snow damage tips

  1. Thank you so so much for this timely post, and the photos! My heart sank this morning when i saw the damage to my garden, and especially to one beloved tree I got from your nursery 8 years ago. I feel better reading this.

    • Jane, once the snow melts a bit I’ll follow up with some photos of damage from my garden, and suggestions for how to prune. I’d be a lot more discouraged today if I hadn’t witnessed how quickly the garden rebounded from last winter.

  2. My English boxwood hedge was damaged last year. I pruned the deadwood but did not try to shape the hedge – wanted to give the hedge some time to come back and then talk to a professional re trimming/pruning. NOW the hedge is on the ground. Just have to wait and see how to fix it — or –.

    • Boxwoods can often be pruned quite easily, so long as you don’t prune below where there is foliage. Since leaves on the interior drop, leaving only a shell on the outside, there will usually be three to six inches of foliage. You can prune a boxwood to shape, but don’t prune back to bare stems since this will not regrow leaves as many other plants will.

      The best pruning method for boxwoods is to remove some stems entirely so that light and air reach inside this outer layer of foliage. This will result in a healthier plant. If you prune the outside foliage to shape the plants I would recommend that you also remove a few stems as you go. The difference in appearance as the canopy is opened up is barely noticeable.

    • I’m happy to be of assistance. It seems the least I can do to help since someone stopped to pick up during the storm as I was forced to abandon my car a mile from home.

  3. After last years storms my beautiful evergreens I’ve had for nearly 20 yrs. turned brown and dropped all of their needles. I’m heartsick over this. Could all of that snow from last year caused root rot?

    • The snow last year lingered for nearly a month, and for weeks after the ground was saturated. It is very likely that this prolonged dampness had an effect since most evergreens do not appreciate wet conditions.

  4. a huge branch from my neighbors thirty foot tree broke off and feel onto my beautiful oriental cork tree. it broke off the top 1/4 of the tree. what can i do and can it come back?

    • Most trees will regrow a central leader (thee trunk) if it is broken. The important matter will be to have the broken branch removed properly so that there is no wood left behind that will rot. If this is within your reach you might be able to prune yourself, but if it is a taller tree then it might require a professional tree service, and rather than hiring just anyone with a chainsaw I would recommend only a tree service with an arborist to evaluate the damage.

  5. Thank you for your post. Reading the replies tells me I’m not alone!
    Our 40ft Hemlock basically lost the branches on 1 side. There are 6 or so 3 foot and 4 foot branches left with no foliage. It’s very sad looking now. The other side has 10-15 foot branches with full foliage. It’s sadly lop-sided now and tilts ~10 degrees toward that side. Will it ever recover any symmetry?

    • Hemlocks grow slowly in the mid-Atlantic region due to heat and high humidity, and poorly drained clay soils. If there is not a reason why the branching on that side of the tree was poor, such as excessive shade, then the branching will eventually grow back, but it is likely to be more years than you will find acceptable.

  6. Dave,

    I have three 15′ Edith Bogue Magnolia’s purchased from the Burtonsville Meadow Farms about 5 years ago. Last year’s snow caused some branch breakage but they recovered nicely and filled back in to the point where the damage was not noticable. However, this storm really did a number on the trees. All lost their tops as well as multiple branches. My thoughts are to do a major cut back on all the branches to re-proportion the trees and promote heavier branch diamaters for future snow resistance. I could also trim back new growth each fall to reduce branch length and again promote branch thickness relative to leaf volume.

    Any thoughts or suggestions?

    • I was just telling my wife that the top has broken of the one of three southern magnolia types in my garden that was not broken last year. I will prune the damaged trunk so that there is no excess wood left behind to rot, and within a few years a new central leader will grow. The magnolias in my garden are at the back, and not prominent, so I can afford to let them go a few years.

      The pruning that you suggest will work, but it is considerable effort, and will involve several years to work itself out. Magnolias grow fairly quickly, so I will depend on new growth to cover the open areas resulting from snow damage.

  7. I have 4 Leland Cypress that are leaning so far that the trunks look like they have uprooted a bit.
    What should I do? I knocked off most all of the snow off the top and through out the trees.
    Thanks for your help!!!

    • With a Leyland cypress under eight feet tall that is leaning due to the weight of the snow I would brush the snow off, and leave it until the snow melts. When the ground is thawed you should be able to push the tree back to an upright position. For taller Leylands it might require assistance to move the tree, and if it will not remain straight you will have to stabilize the tree with stakes and wire. With a minor amount of lean the Leyland should be fine once it is straightened.

  8. The snow the last two years has decimated the stand of red cedars in the back yard. I had to clear out about 1000 sq feet of thicket last spring/summer and now of the few I have left, I have 4 more that are down or arched to the ground. Is there anything I can do to keep the rest from coming down? I hate to loose mature screening trees like that.

    • Young red cedars are quite flexible and will tolerate a substantial load of snow, and then will return to an upright position once the snow falls off or melts. However, in the heavy snows of early 2010 red cedars suffered severe damage, and many native trees were lost. At this point there is no harm in brushing the snow off the trees. They are not likely to spring back upright immediately, but are likely to recover in the following weeks. If they have not straightened by March you can stake them to help them to grow straight. The snows from last year and the recent storm have been quite unusual, and I don’t know that there’s any practical way to prevent future damage.

  9. I am very thankful for your timely post. My son spotted the large dogwood tree by our patio bent over 1/2 way and went out an shook the snow off before damage was done there. Sadly, we didn’t get to the red bud on the side of the patio in time (good source of shade and protection from our nosy neighbor!) and a major branch had broken to the trunk. My concern is that part of the trunk was stripped about 1″ deep. Is there a way to salvage some of the bark/trunk that is still attached to the limb (and tree) so that the rest of the tree won’t become diseased and die? This tree was a mother’s day gift that my family got from Meadows about 8 yrs ago. I’d hate to see it die. (Though I think my neighbor would).
    Thanks again for your blog!

    • I noticed when I was surveying the damage in my garden that at least one large branch of one of the variegated leaf redbuds was broken so that it will need to be pruned to the trunk. I expect that I will be facing the same dilemma that you describe where the injury goes into the main trunk.

      I am not in a hurry to get to work, but when I do I will post photos of the process. The key will be to cut out as much of the damaged wood as possible, and to leave all cuts as clean as possible. Fillers or tar-type paints are not effective, and should not be used to repair such cavities. The cavity will heal slowly since the tree’s natural repair mechanisms are at the base of the branch, not below. There will be the potential for serious pest and disease problems in this area until the injury has healed.

      I hope to cover this in more detail in the next week, so check back and we’ll see what we can do to salvage our trees.

  10. Hey Dave, I have a non-snow damage question for you. I didn’t get my trees wrapped up in time this year and had a buck put a rub on a pin oak I planted about two years ago. He carved up the one side pretty good.

    What is the best thing to do for this tree. Should I dig it up and move and replace it with a new one? Will it scar over nicely and survive? Am I going to have to worry about rot in 20 years from now?

    • Your oak should be fine. The injury appears that it is not deep enough to cause a problem with the tree’s survival, but it will take a few years before the bark heals. The only repair necessary on your part is to trim any loose or ragged bark.

  11. I have two story tall evergreens (I think) lining my driveway. With the horrible snow we had this winter, the wet snow made some of the trees bow almost to the ground. Now those trees, a good toe months since last heavy snowfall, are still bent horribly. Anything I can do at this point?

    • If you are able to draw the bent branches together and tie them there is some chance that they will regain their shape. I’ve had mixed success with branches that I’ve tied together with Arbortie. When removing the tie a few years later some evergreens have flopped, while others held their upright shape. I suspect that the longer the branches are bent the more likely they’ll stay that way, but it’s worth a try.

      The Arbortie that I use is instead of rope or twine that would cut into the branches. The evergreens I tied were ten feet tall and smaller, and I would guess that larger evergreens could be much more difficult.

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