Helping plants survive the winter

a conifer branch is covered in snow
Learn tips for caring for your trees and plants this winter.
December 29, 2016


As far as our garden plants are concerned, some winter weather is frightful. Some is just fine. And sometimes it’s what we do, or don’t do, that makes the difference. Here are tips from experts at The Morton Arboretum to help your yard and garden weather the winter:

Cheer for snow. The fluffy white stuff is a great insulator, protecting plants both from harsh cold and from risky midwinter warm spells that might make them start growing too early.

Let it melt. Even when a heavy snow load bends branches, trees and shrubs usually will spring back on their own if you wait and let the snow melt naturally. Brushing off snow can break branches made brittle by the cold.

Tie them up. A few kinds of evergreens that have multiple upright stems may be damaged if their stems are bent too far by snow. These include arborvitaes and some upright varieties of juniper and yew. Protect them before it snows by bundling the stems together and tying them gently with soft fabric or twine.

Watch out for ice storms. A heavy coating of ice is more likely to break branches than a load of snow. But as with snow, it’s best to let the ice melt naturally; if you try to remove it, you’re likely to do more damage.

Go easy. The road salt and other chemicals we use to melt ice are harmful to plants and can dry them out. The damage is most obvious in spring and early summer in browned leaves on evergreen shrubs and groundcovers next to walks and driveways. Far more damage is done underground where we can’t see it: Deicer chemicals from melting snow soak into the soil, where they can disrupt water uptake by plants and interfere with their growth. To minimize the damage, use salt and other ice-melting chemicals as sparingly as you can. When you shovel snow that may contain salt, try to put it where the salty meltwater will run into a storm sewer, rather than soaking into the soil where it can harm your plants’ roots.

Plan ahead to protect your plants. Note where you see salt damage this winter so you can protect plants next winter or relocate them in spring. You can search for trees that have some salt tolerance using the Northern Illinois Tree Selector, or consult the Plant Clinic for advice on choosing shrubs.

Mulch helps. A layer of mulch helps plants by insulating the soil where their roots are spending the winter if snow cover isn’t steady.

Learn more. Find out more in the Plant Clinic’s guide on Winter Injury to Trees and Shrubs