As winter draws to a close, it’s easy to forget about your outdoor plants when everything’s cold and nothing is growing. However, the damage ice has caused for your garden becomes apparent only after spring arrives.
In spite of its seemingly inevitable nature, ice damage is easily preventable. It mostly occurs when cold temperatures fluctuate and plants crack as ice thaws and refreezes.
When the temperature stays constant even when it’s freezing cold, ice on plants isn’t as big of a problem unless it has a tendency to accumulate. The following steps can help prevent plants from being damaged by ice this year.
How Ice Damages Plants
A particularly cold winter caused me not to notice ice damage to my trees and shrubs in my garden, which led to two of them snapping at their thickest part of the trunk. I didn’t realize that damage to the inside of plants can also be caused by ice.
It may take months or even years for you to know that the plant has been severely damaged by freezing liquid inside its cells. Insulated from precipitation and cold temperatures, the liquid can burst through plant cells.
Despite the absence of frost outside, freeze damage can still occur to plants. It is more likely to occur to plants facing east or north and to those with calm, clear nights. Frequent freeze damage occurs when it is cold and windy.
A lot of damage can occur to young, newly planted trees. Tropical and semi-tropical plants have not evolved to withstand harsh freeze conditions, which is why they need extra care.
How to Deal with Ice Damage on Plants
When ice damages a garden, the best way to deal with it right away is to remove the snow and ice as they accumulate. If the ice builds up, the branches on larger trees and shrubs can snap and the foliage on evergreen plants can be damaged.
Avoid shaking the plant as you may snap branch off if you shake the snow and ice off. Brush the snow and ice away gently with a soft bristle broom.
Often, with evergreens, ice accumulates so much that it freezes solid and damages the branches and foliage. Therefore, if ice is frozen solid to the plant, the best approach is to let it melt normally and hope it doesn’t affect the tree too much.
Many people have suggested pouring hot water over the plant to dissolve the ice, but that ought to be avoided. Water that is too hot may shock and damage the plant.
You may be trying to brush the snow and ice off your plants, or your plants may break because of the ice. What should you do?
If this happens, make the wound nice and clean without ragged edges by using sharp pruners. This will help the wound heal more quickly in the spring.
Prop Up Branches
I prop up ice-covered branches with boards when they bend under the strain so they don’t break. This takes some of the load off the branch.
You need to remember, you aren’t trying to lift the branch the same height as before, you’re simply supporting it until you can get your hands on it again. Certain people say this isn’t a good idea, but I’ve never experienced problems from it.
Preventing Ice Damage
Root-hardy perennials may die back above ground due to ice damage, but the roots remain viable until there is fresh new growth in spring, so you don’t need to worry about them. Hardy perennial trees and shrubs are the plants you should worry about.
For the sake of protecting my trees and plants from damage during winter and potential snow and ice storms, I prune them properly before winter.
Having worked with ice damage before, I have learned that certain types and shapes of trees are more vulnerable to damage than others.
The softwood trees with two central leaders that have the shape of a “V” are more likely to split through the middle after an ice buildup.
- Silver Willow
Ensure that the trees are pruned so that they can survive winter.
You should thin dense shrubs out before winter in order to protect both them and the plants. Don’t prune too heavily as the plants desperately need strength, but at the same time, you don’t want to have ice sit in the shrub until spring.
The end of August is a good time to prune delicate plants. Pruning early in the fall season might cause new growth that won’t be able to withstand freezing. Wait until the spring freeze has passed before pruning delicate plants.
Choose the Right Plants
A good tip for preventing ice damage to plants is to choose the right ones to begin with. You should choose plants that are right for your climate zone. Having tropicals in summer makes your garden beautiful but is doomed to failure once winter arrives.
During the winter you’ll need to give plants suitable for your zone some protection if they are susceptible to damage.
The huge potted plants I can’t move are wrapped in cloth or buried in the ground in the fall. I mulch the pot heavily and keep watch for ice and snow storms to make sure nothing gets damaged, or too much snow builds up. Burlap can be used to cover delicate plants during the winter.
Burlap sacks should not be allowed to sit on the plant. Hit stakes into the ground to prevent this from happening. Lay the burlap sack over the plant, pull it tight and tie it to the stakes. You can also use rocks to stay the sack in place.
Even though this can be a time-consuming process, if you have plants you do not want damaged by ice, it is worth taking the time to protect them.
If you have plants in late summer, avoid excessive nitrogen to prevent damage to them during winter. Excess nitrogen produces growth that is susceptible to damage because the growth is soft.
If you want to harden off your plants before the first frost, use a fertilizer that is not excessively nitrogen rich. Stop feeding your plants six weeks before the first expected frost.
When flowers are encased in ice, you may be able to keep them safe by staking them until you have cleared them of the ice. Be sure to remove the stakes as soon as you can.
Provide your plants with protection with mulch, which keeps soil warm and protects their roots outside in winter. Bark mulch is best because it does not get sodden and does not retain too much water.
I mulch my plants not to save the parts they are exposed to the air, but to preserve their roots so they can re grow should the parts that are exposed to the sun or ice damage die.
The Bottom Line
A little care and a little awareness can prevent plants from suffering damage from ice. To begin, make sure your plants are planted according to their zone. Afterward, take steps to keep your garden healthy and happy.