Winters can be long or short, depending on where you live. Your local climate may be continuous sub-zero temperatures, and frequent snow, or it may be mild, with occasional storms, separated by warmer, sunny weather. Whatever the climate, it is probably that you don’t spend a lot of time in your garden in winter, certainly compared to summer. In your absence, issues can arise, so a good thing to do as the New Year gets underway is to go outside on a pleasant day to check things out. Here we will concentrate on hedges, but of course checking your other plants too is a good practice at the same time, or perhaps on another good outdoor day. Remember to dress warmly!
Here are the main things to look for – and what to do if you see these problems:
Check the Soil Moisture
If you live in a warmer, drier region, it can be extraordinary how dry the air can be, and how much water is lost by your plants. In a cold snap, already slightly desiccated plants can burn badly, so number one tip for winter health is to keep up the moisture levels in the soil. If there has been some recent rain the top inch may look damp, but lower down can be dry. Take a spade and dig a few small holes in the root-zone of your evergreen hedges, such as Thuja Green Giant. Go down about six inches and pick up some soil. If it feels dry, and is crumbly, its time to soak your hedge. If this is the first winter since planting, it is best to assume that most of the roots are still inside the root-ball as it came out of the pot. If you live in a drier region, it is a safe bet that those small root-balls will be dry. Take a hose with a gentle spray nozzle, and give each plant a generous soaking. The ideal is to let the hose trickle for 10 minutes on each root-ball, one by one along the hedge.
With an older hedge, especially if you live in a warm place, you probably already have some form of irrigation in place for your hedge. If not, then a simple trickle hose of the ‘leaky pipe’ variety, run along the length of the hedge will do an excellent job of giving a deep soaking. Let it run for several hours, until a wide band of soil looks darkly colored by the water. Remember to disconnect the hose from the tap and let it drain. A sudden drop below freezing could split the pipe if you don’t.
Check for Physical Damage
If you have been having strong winds, snow storms, freezing rain – or all three – then there is a risk that some of your hedge has been damaged. Better to find out now, as damaged parts can encourage further damage if left unattended. If any branches have broken, cut them off neatly below any areas of torn bark. Try to cut back to a green, growing branch, as most hedge evergreens cannot sprout from bare wood. Yew trees are an important exception to this rule. If you are left with a bare stump, better to cut the limb out completely, as no matter how hard you wish it, that branch is not going to sprout again!
Watch Out for Snow Build-up
If you notice a heavy build-up of snow or ice on top of your hedge, take a rake and knock off as much as you can. Try not to tear at the branches, but give the snow a good whack – it will shatter and fall away. If you do have this build-up, perhaps the top of your hedge is not being trimmed in a suitable way. In areas with heavy snow, go for a narrow, rounded top, as this shape will shed snow much better than a flat top. Snow is heavy, and the weight of it can easily break a hedge – it’s the most common cause of hedge damage in cold, snowy areas, such as around the Great Lakes.
Check for Desiccation
Trim a few small pieces from your hedge. Take them into a warm place to thaw. Are they crisp and dry, or even crumbly? If there are, then your plants may be suffering from ‘winter burn’, caused by the inability of your hedge to draw sufficient water from the frozen roots. As moisture is lost in cold, drying winter winds, the foliage gradually dries out and dies.
If you do see this problem, it’s not too late to take preventive measures. Newly planted hedges, and indeed all evergreens in cold climates, are especially vulnerable, since they don’t have a deep, extensive root system to find moisture below the frozen soil. Wait for a dry day above freezing, and spray the hedge with an anti-desiccant. These treatments, which should be used more regularly, form a coating over the leaves and trap moisture. If you have already applied an anti-desiccant before winter, if a suitable day arrives, go outside and put on a fresh coating. It doesn’t last for a long time, especially if you have had a lot of rain since you applied it. Mulching the ground around your evergreens is another way to keep the soil from freezing hard, and that will protect your plants from winter burn.
Look for Salt Damage
If you live along a highway or road, or if the hedge is along your own driveway, then look out if salt has been used to clear snow or ice. If the weather is above freezing, taking a hose and giving your hedge a thorough wash will remove any salt that has built up on the foliage. If you do have a risk from blowing salt from road clearing, a relatively simple solution is to suspend burlap from poles about a foot in front of the hedge. This will trap salty water and spray, so that it will not get through to the plants. Don’t make the common mistake of putting the burlap right up against the hedge – this simply traps the salty water against the foliage, making the problem worse, not better.
These simple checks will help your hedge pass through winter unscathed. They are especially important if this is a newly-planted hedge. If you found problems, follow the suggestions for how to prevent them in your routine care, and with some simple activities in the late fall. Hedges are an investment, and they take time to develop properly. Why take risks that could destroy that work and money in a matter of minutes? As Benjamin Franklin said, ‘an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure’.