Winter Damage

Winter burn on Hinoki Cypress

Winter burn on Hinoki Cypress.

Winter burn on Hinoki Cypress

Winters, especially like this year, can be damaging on plants. Many plants will recover; be patient with them. A drop in temperature after a warm day can cause many problems. Heavy snow loads can put stress on branches and even break them, and they should be removed as soon as it is safe to. If there is still ice on the plant, do not knock it off as it will cause more damage to the already brittle branch. The cold, dry winter wind can also dry out many plants. Plants that keep their leaves in the winter may change in color, or become wilted. While most of these problems cause a setback in the plant’s growth, most plants will recover. This damage even occurs to professionals, all the pictures are from the garden center.


Damage is common on shallow rooted plants as they cannot absorb as much water as they need during the winter. Damaged portions may fall off on their own, or can be pruned, being careful not to create bare spots in the plant. Resist doing this too early, as it may encourage more damage, especially if there is a cold snap. The following shrubs that could be affected by winter burn include: Arborvitae, Azaleas, Boxwood, Cedar, Dwarf Alberta Spruce, Hemlocks, Holly, Mountain Laurel, Pines, Rhododendron, and Yew.


Permanent damage occurs when conditions are severe for prolong periods of times. Permanent damage can be removed to allow the rest of the plant to recover. Permanent damage can often be diagnosed by black tissue or buds that fall off the plant. Branches that have no growth on them by the end of May should be removed.


The prolonged cold and snow from this winter will also delay the new growth of plants this year. Plants that are often early to bloom and leaf, may be a bit slower this year. If there is a frost, the buds on the plants can be damaged. This may result in fewer flowers and plants that are not as full. Some plant that could be affected by late frost: Flowering Quince, Forsythia, Magnolia, Pussy Willow, Spicebush, Spirea, and Witchhazel.


Salt used to melt ice also causes damage to plants. This damage is often noticed near driveways, roads, and sidewalks, and typically only occurs on that side of the plant.


Perennials will be slower to sprout this year as well, as the ground is still thawing. Many may even rot in areas that stay wet for a long period of time due to the melting snow. Some of the earliest perennials that might be delayed include, but are not limited to: Brunnera, Creeping Phlox, Lenten Rose, Lungwort, Hosta and Virginia Bluebells.


During long harsh winters wildlife damages many plants. Deer quickly run out of food sources and may begin to browse plants as a food source, causing branches to become bare in the spring. Yews and Cedars are a favorite of deer and will often sustain the most damage. As the snow melts you may notice Spruce branch ends scattered on the ground. This damage is caused by red squirrels that bite off the branch tips, so they can feed on the tender buds.


To avoid future damage, be sure to avoid fertilizing or pruning in the late summer, as this causes the plant to weaken during the winter. However, do not let this discourage any fall fertilization. Water plants thoroughly and deeply, allowing them to dry out in between waterings to encourage deeper roots. Watering plants well in the fall before the ground freezes is important to help reduce winter burn. Using a 3 inch layer of mulch helps to conserve moisture during the winter and keep a consistent temperature to help reduce early bud break.


Our biggest piece of advice is to be patient and give your plants some time. By waiting, you will save yourself a lot of labor and money, as many plants will recover, or be late to bloom or leaf. If you have any additional questions, feel free to contact us. Stop by at 228 West St., Vernon, CT, email us at, or call us at (860) 872-7291. If you have a particular plant you are concerned about, please send a photo to