The Proper Care of Trees in Winter.

| August 26, 2010 | 0 Comments

As a general rule, most trees on or near residential & commercial property require regular maintenance in order to reduce any potential winter weather damage. Storms, gusting wind and rapid temperature fluctuations during a typical winter can all take their toll on trees across northern California, especially on coastal region trees.  Winter can even be stressful for tree species native to colder regions as well.  And this can be particularly true for the exposed and isolated trees of the residential landscape.  Some of this stress is unavoidable.  The average homeowner has little control over the climate. However, there are things that you can do to minimize the damage caused by the stresses of winter. Some issues to look out for are as follows:

Cold Stress

Cold stresses take a number of forms. The first is the effect on mature trees of a rapid change between daytime heat and night time cold. These temperature fluctuations can lead to stresses within the tree between the outer bark and inner wood leading to cracks called frost cracking or southwest injury (the side receiving the most winter sunlight).

What to do

In most situations, there is very little that can be done to prevent frost cracking. And, in many cases, the tree is able to repair itself although the cracked area remains vulnerable and subsequent cracking at the same place can cause major damage. In the case of young trees and trees such as palms and other tropical species, the homeowner might consider wrapping the bark as part of the fall maintenance procedure. And to further prevent winter damage as well as to reduce moisture loss, an application of No Wilt Plant Shield can be very beneficial.


Another cold stress is the impact of sudden early frosts on late growth. Late season tree growth is vulnerable because it does not have the same time as established growth to prepare for cold. Ice crystals can rupture the cell walls on the new tips of branches leading to die off the following season.

What to do

To avoid this, you should avoid pruning until after the tree has gone into dormancy in the fall. Pruning too soon might encourage new growth and increase the risk of frost damage.  Also, avoid using fertilizers with high amounts of quick-release Nitrogen.  Trees can certainly benefit from proper fall fertilization, but it is important to know what to avoid.

Branch Breakage

The Problem

Branches are more vulnerable to breakage during the winter. Particularly for deciduous trees, the wood hardens and becomes somewhat more brittle and susceptible to wind damage.

What to do

The key to minimizing branch breakage lies, once again, in good fall tree maintenance, particularly pruning. Pruning weak and vulnerable branches and removing one limb of a pair sharing a deep “V” crotch can make the entire tree less susceptible. One solution for very small trees and shrubs might be to cover the entire tree with a sturdy tent-like housing. And, for larger evergreens, you might think about using rope to tie up and reinforce branches.



During the winter, trees can become a target for rodents foraging for scarce food. Apart from deer in the more rural areas, the two major culprits are mice and rabbits both of which chew bark and can girdle trees.  Squirrels and rats can also become a problem, as they often use tree branches that are in close proximity to structures to gain access to the roof and subsequently other areas of the home.

What to do

To guard against mice, leave a space between the mulch and the trunk of the tree and check frequently. If mice are proving to be a problem, you may have to think about setting out bait. Follow package directions carefully. Rabbits can be deterred by wire mesh enclosures. Commercial paint-on repellents are also available. Consult your local tree care specialist for details.

Winter Preparation Checklist

  • When replanting or adding new trees, purchase only those species native to your area’s hardiness zone.  Trees native to areas even one zone milder than yours might experience significant stresses during your region’s winters.
  • Maintain good tree upkeep throughout the year.  Strong healthy trees will always have an easier time than weak and damaged ones.
  • Do a post spring inspection of your trees every year.  Promptly treat any damage that you find.
  • In preparing for winter, remember to prune only after your trees have entered dormancy after the risk of new growth.
  • Apply a good fall fertilizer that promotes root growth over leaf growth.
  • Lay a layer of mulch down around the bases of your trees to moderate temperature fluctuations and moisture loss.  Don’t forget to leave a space between the mulch and the trunk of the tree to discourage mice.
  • Check occasionally during the cold season for signs of rodent damage.  Use bait, enclosures or repellents as necessary.

These tips & indications should help prevent many of the common issues that may shorten or adversely affect the life of the tree/s on your property. Should you have any questions, please consult a tree care professional to ascertain the particular issues your tree/s may be experiencing, as well as the best course of preventive or corrective measures required.

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