Helping Trees and Shrubs Recover from Snow and Ice

This is an excerpt of an article written by Charlotte Glenn and posted on the website for Chatham County Cooperative Extension. Reprinted with permission.
The weight of snow and ice can cause limbs to break or topple whole trees. How you deal with damaged trees after the snow or ice melts will impact their health now and for years to come. Keep the following tips in mind when caring for storm damaged trees and shrubs:

If shrubs are weighed down with snow, sweep the snow off the branches with a broom. Always sweep upward – sweeping from the top down can result in more broken branches. If the snow is frozen onto branches and will not easily dislodge by sweeping, allow it to melt naturally. Don’t shake trees and shrubs to remove snow.

For trees, be patient until the snow melts. 
There is little you can do to help trees weighed down by snow and ice. Trees and shrubs bent, but not broken, by the weight of snow and ice will often recover without special care. Learn more about how to care for storm damaged trees from this excellent Missouri Extension publication– First Aid for Storm Damaged Trees

Once the snow has melted, assess the damage. If only small limbs and twigs are damaged, the tree will likely make a full recovery on its own. If many large branches are damaged, the tree may be able to recover with conservative pruning and care, and time. A certified tree care professional can help assess the damage and determine a plan of action.

o   Search for certified tree care professionals in your area: International Society of Arboriculture – Find an Arborist

o   See pages 4-5 in this University of Florida publication to learn more about when a tree can and cannot be restored: Assessing Damage and Restoring Trees

Young, recently planted trees that have fallen over can usually be saved. Cover any exposed roots as soon as possible to protect them from drying out or freezing. Detailed instructions for saving these trees are covered in this Louisiana Extension fact sheet. Mature trees and trees with trunks over 10-12” in diameter that fall should be removed. In addition, trees that partially uproot and have over 1/3 of their roots exposed are typically beyond help and should be removed. Learn more about caring for fallen trees from this Florida Extension website.

Most shrubs damaged by snow and ice can be severely pruned if necessary. Wax myrtles are particularly prone to breaking when weighed down by snow and ice but can be cut back to within a few feet of ground level and will regrow, usually within one or two seasons. Most broadleaf evergreen shrubs (camellias, azaleas, hollies) and deciduous shrubs (spiraea, butterfly bush, Knockout rose) can be treated this way, but conifers (thuja, juniper, cedars, arborvitae) cannot. Conifers that break apart in ice storms will not recover and should be removed. Keep in mind spring blooming shrubs cut back now will not bloom this year.

For more pruning tips, see this recent Extension Gardener post.

When pruning broken branches, know where to cut. Cutting in the wrong place can lead to decay, failure in future storms, and tree death. Smaller pruning wounds are preferred, even if they leave what looks like a stub. There is no need to paint over pruning cuts with wound dressings – in fact, this can actually harm trees. Learn more about proper pruning from these excellent references from University of Florida Extension:

o   Pruning Cuts

o   Pruning woody plants

o   Pruning mature trees

Don’t over prune – leave as many limbs as possible. Removing more limbs than necessary reduces the tree’s ability to feed itself through photosynthesis that takes place in the leaves. Trees may look uneven or out of balance immediately after pruning, but will fill in within a few seasons. Help trees and shrubs recover from storm damage by applying a slow release or organic fertilizer in spring (March-April). Water recovering trees and shrubs during dry spells this summer and fall.

Never have a tree topped! This practice, which cuts back all large structural branches of a tree is extremely damaging and weakens trees in the long run. If topping is your only option, the better choice is to have the tree removed and replace it with a smaller growing, stronger wooded species. Learn more about why you should not top from this Purdue Extension fact sheet.

Stay safe! Never cut limbs tangled in power lines – call the power company instead. Anytime removing a branch requires a ladder or a chainsaw, you should strongly consider hiring a tree care professional to do the job. Learn more about hiring a tree care professional from this NC Extension guide.