Snow and Ice Damage

Question: Seems like we have been getting big wet snowfalls that weigh down the evergreens in my yard. A couple of years ago some of my evergreens trees – I think they are arborvitae – were broken by the snow. Is there anything I can do to prevent snow from breaking my evergreens and other trees? F.C.

Answer: As you’ve experienced, multi-trunked upright arborvitae tend to break apart under heavy loads of ice and snow. If you don’t mind going out in the cold, you can tie the trunks of multi-stemmed arborvitae together with nylon pantyhose or similar soft, flexible material. Tying can help prevent permanent injury from snow and ice in these plants. Remove the ties in spring so they don’t damage the bark or slowly girdle the trunks.

Other types of arborvitae and most evergreen trees and shrubs cope with normal snow and ice accumulations without permanent damage. Over several winters repeated heavy accumulations may cause shrubs to widen or “open up”. Dislodge heavy snow and sleet by gently lifting branches. Avoid vigorous shaking or brushing which damages the plants more than wet snow and ice.

Bent evergreens usually regain their original form after the snow and ice melts. Occasionally branches do not return to their original position and will require minor pruning in spring. Delay severe pruning and reshaping until late spring to allow evergreens plenty of recovery time. In some cases, if you wait a longer period of time (over a year) the plant will fill in naturally.

Deciduous shrubs and small trees can be flattened or bent by heavy wet snow. Amazingly, these plants usually return slowly to their former shape without help. Small, broken branches can easily be pruned out in early spring.

Ice is a greater threat to deciduous trees than heavy snow in winter. The weight of ice will break branches and disfigure trees. Whenever a tree has large broken branches, the priority is pruning to prevent harm to people and property. Damaged branches should be cut back to a side branch or trunk. Correct pruning, care, and patience may save a moderately disfigured tree. A certified arborist can care for winter damaged trees if you don’t want, or can’t, do the work yourself.

Let ice to melt off plants. Forcing ice and icy snow off branches causes more damage than the snow or ice alone. Branches heavily coated with ice can be propped up with boards to reduce breakage.