Are your trees ready for winter?

With the leaves now coming off most of the trees, you may be able to inspect your trees for structural damage that may not have been visible during the summer and early autumn.

Under the law, it is your duty to exercise care, good judgment, caution, and foresight by inspecting your trees regularly and recognising situations that may cause them to break or fall. Small trees with minor damage can probably be taken care of by the property owner, but large, mature trees likely will need the help of a professional tree service.

To look for hazardous conditions, inspect each tree systematically. Start by scanning the top, using binoculars if necessary. After reviewing the crown, look downward along the trunk, and then carefully examine the root zone. Look for splits and cracks in the trunk and limbs. Look for sap seepage as this can indicate a hidden crack or split. Look at the ground. Can you see uplifted soil or disturbed roots which can indicate root damage?

If the main trunk is split, the tree will probably not survive. If it is a valuable tree, you should consult an arborist to see what they would advise. If a lot of the branches are broken off, the tree is probably not a likely candidate to be saved.

If a branch or two is broken, you can prune these back to the collar area at the trunk. Do not cut the branch off flush with the trunk because you will make a cut that will be hard for the tree to cover over. If you have a large tree with a large broken branch, it is best to hire a professional. Homeowners should not attempt to remove large limbs because it takes equipment you don’t have to do it safely.

Older trees, which may have accumulated multiple defects and extensive decay, should be inspected carefully. Decaying trees may be prone to failure, but the presence of decay alone does not necessarily mean failure. Soft, crumbly wood with a cavity is an indicator of decay which may be serious. Evidence of fungal activity including mushrooms and conks are additional indicators of decay.

If you notice any of these problems, then call a company that has a certified arborist who can advise you how to deal with the problems. When in doubt about the safety of a tree, consult a certified arborist.

Screen potential arborists by asking for references; certificates of insurance; and how they will prune the trees (see if they mention that their work will be in accordance with ANSI A300 National Tree Pruning Standards). Membership in organisations such as the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) or National Arborist Association (NAA) indicates a certain degree of knowledge and professionalism. ISA in particular, maintains a list of arborists who have passed extensive testing to become a Certified Arborist.

Avoid those that mention topping. Topping leads to disease, decay, split bark, insect infestation, dense shade, bird problems, high maintenance costs, and decline of the tree. Topping accelerates the death of many of our trees.

Preparing trees and shrubs for winter

With the proper care, most plants will over winter just fine. Here are things you can do that will help your trees and shrubs over winter without damage.


  • You should have adequate mulch in place over the root zone of your trees and shrubs. It should be about two inches deep and should be kept several inches away from the trunk of the plant. This will help prevent freezing and thawing of the soil which can cause root injury.
  • Water your plants right before the ground freezes. Plants, especially evergreens, use moisture in the winter. Drying winter winds can lead to damage if there isn’t adequate soil moisture especially for newly planted trees. Anytime in the winter when we have a thaw with a few mild days, you can water your plants to help them overwinter.
  • Protect plants from snow falling from the roof if they are in that zone around you house. This will keep the snow from breaking branches on your shrubs. We don’t get the snowfall that some areas do but if you have a home with a metal roof this protection will be important.
  • Winds and low temperatures can cause dehydration of tissues. You can help protect a plant by putting up a burlap barrier to break the winds which will help moderate the temperatures. Don’t use a black plastic bag or a clear bag to put over the plant. This creates a greenhouse effect with high temperatures in the day time and then the temperature drops quickly which will lead to plant damage.
  • Voles and other critters can damage trees and shrubs by chewing on the bark and if they do it around the stem it will kill the tree. Use hardware cloth or plastic truck protector to prevent chewing. To protect your trees and shrubs from rabbits, use at least two-foot-tall cylinders of one-inch-mesh, chicken wire, or similar barrier. Other control methods include plastic tree wraps and liquid rabbit repellents sprayed on the plants. Repellents will need to be reapplied each time it rains.


George Hurd is an environmental/ resource development educator with Penn State Extension Service, and the inspiration behind this post. This post is based heavily on his work.


Photo Credits:

Photo via VisualHunt

FraserElliot via / CC BY-NC

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