Everyday Gardener: Caring for your winter landscape

Well, this year’s gardening season is officially over at this point, so this will be my last column until next spring. Before I go, though, I want to offer a few tips for helping your landscape make it through the winter unscathed by freezing temperatures, snow, ice and critters.

Let’s start with those de-icing salts people use to make sidewalks safer. These products are great for cutting down on slipping, but they wreak havoc on plants. Salty injury to deciduous trees and shrubs takes many forms but usually includes things like bud and twig dieback, stunted growth, and leaf scorch. Conifers, like spruces, pines, and firs often have mild to severe needle browning when exposed to salt spray.

To remedy the situation you could, of course, just skip the de-icer. But if you’d like to be nice to your plants without fear of breaking your neck, try taming your de-icer a bit by mixing it with another abrasive material like sand (50 pounds of sand to one pound of salt is a good ratio). You might also try a salt-free, de-icing compound made from calcium magnesium acetate or kitty litter. Rather than just throwing down a lot of de-icer on top of packed snow and ice, try sprinkling enough to loosen the ice and snow and then remove as much as you can with a shovel. Take care not to pile salty snow from driveways and sidewalks around plants and trees. Salt accumulation at the base of plants can force them into an early decline and eventually kill them.

Ice storms are beautiful, but they’re also pretty damaging and dangerous. If you’ve got trees and shrubs covered with ice after a storm, grab your camera and take some cool pictures but don’t try knocking the ice off with a stick or a broom. This usually winds up causing more harm than good. Just wait for the ice to melt on its own. You can always prune your mangled shrubs back into shape when the weather warms up. If tree branches are damaged, though, you may need the help of a professional
arborist.

Snow is a great insulator when it’s on the ground. But it can also be heavy enough to break branches and squash shrubs. Unlike ice, snow can be removed pretty easily without harming your plants. Relieve trees from the weight of heavy snow by gently shaking the branches. You can also use a broom to brush snow off, but try to brush upward rather than down, which will just put more pressure on the branch. If you use a snow plow or snow blower, try not to blow or push snow onto plants because it will be much heavier and denser than snow that has fallen naturally.

If you haven’t done so already, protect the bark of newly planted trees from harsh winter sun by stopping by the hardware store or garden center to pick up one of those white, plastic tree guards. People argue about the virtues of various tree wraps all the time (OK — nerdy people). But the upshot seems to be that the brown paper wraps are no good. What you want are those plastic tubes with the ventilation holes in them. Be sure to buy a guard that is a little bigger than the stem so there is some air movement underneath and remove guards first thing in the spring because you don’t want moisture building up under there and causing disease or attracting nasty insects.

And one last tip: prepare for hungry critters. I may have complained about this in an earlier column but I’ll do it again anyhow just in case I didn’t. In January of this past winter, I looked out our dining room window and thought someone had come in the night and stolen all of our shrubs. Where else could they have gone, I thought (ridiculously)? Upon closer inspection, I saw that they had all been eaten down to the ground. This probably took a few days and I just happened to finally notice. A neighbor told me it was probably the work of bunnies and that my shrubs would probably survive. (She was right).

Before moving to this house the previous summer, I’d never lived anyplace where there were wild hoards of bunnies everywhere so I wasn’t prepared for their attack. Minnesota’s more hospitable winters seem to have led to a burgeoning bunny population and, come January, they’re so hungry they’ll even eat plants with thorns. You can try using some of the various chemical repellents out there (these aren’t poisonous; they just don’t smell or taste good). But, to be honest, they’re pretty expensive and have to be reapplied often to really be
effective.

If you don’t mind taking the time or having to look at it all winter, putting chicken-wire fencing around shrubs and trees is the best protection against rabbits. Use wire that’s 30–36 inches high and hold it in place with stakes. Check your fencing fairly regularly to make sure the snow hasn’t piled up to create a handy platform for them to reach up and feast.

Thanks for reading my column all season. I hope it’s been helpful. See you next spring.

Meleah Maynard is a Master Gardener and freelance writer, living in Linden Hills. If you’ve got a gardening question you’d like her to address in her column, you can e-mail it to meleah@everydaygardener.com.