Snow and my garden
November 24, 2014 6:40 AM   Subscribe

First winter in our new house, and the first real (but probably short lived) snow will come Wednesday (USDA Hardiness Zone 6A). We won't have to to prep for this snowfall, but what should we be doing longer term for the plants in our garden during the winter?

We're still discovering all the plants we have in our garden--I know we have some rhododendrons, some holly bushes, hydrangeas and possibly a snowball viburnum, a number of little hedgy bushy things, hosta, and some nice trees--some evergreens, a giant oak, a nice kousa dogwood or two and a couple of lovely Japanese maples. And other stuff that I don't know by name and may have never seen in bloom, given when we closed on our house.

I know some plants get burlap on them to protect them from snow weighing on their branches and from freezing wind. I know others can be sprayed with some wax (e.g., Wilt-Pruf). And some just tough it out.

Which plants should get what treatment? And for the trees, should I periodically try to shake the snow from the boughs?

What maintenance, prevention, and tune ups does a good gardener do in a climate that gets a fair amount of snow?
posted by Admiral Haddock to Home & Garden (8 answers total) 2 users marked this as a favorite
The best course of action to prevent tree/shrub damage from the weight of snow is to keep the plants properly pruned. Other than that, it is usually best to let freshly fallen snow just sit on the plant and let it melt away naturally. The only time I have actively shaken snow off plants is during the most extreme snow events where there is deep snow and it is heavy and wet. But I don't even do that anymore----2 AM trips to the back yard to sweep snow off my southern magnolia tree get old! It is too big now anyway so it just fends for itself.

Based on the plants you list and your hardiness zone, there really isn't much you need to do in that you are not zone pushing*. There is nothing in the list that requires burlap in my opinion. Broadleaf evergreens like holly and rhododendrons do appreciate an application of wilt-pruf, but honestly they really don't need it in your zone if you find the application process to be a hassle.

*There are many variety of holly and some are much more hardy than others. If you post or send me a pic of your holly I can tell you whether or not you need protective measures.
posted by Seymour Zamboni at 7:04 AM on November 24, 2014

That's quite a variety of plants. Most of them should do just fine without your intervention, given that they are well-established.

For instance, you can spray rhododendrons with the wax coating, which helps keep them from drying out. Rhodies do best in wet winters, because they can suck up the moisture. A really cold winter keeps them from being able to do that because the ground is so frozen. So the wax coating keeps them from aspirating out moisture. But if they are big'uns, they probably are okay.

Another thing to consider is pruning. For instance, if you are going to prune any flowering tree or bush (lilac, rhododendron), make sure you know what time of year the set their buds. Rhodies set their buds from July through September. So don't do any pruning now or you will be cutting off next Spring's blooms. General rule of thumb is right after the blossoms wilt and drop off. I would leave anything like that alone for the first couple of years (no pruning), until you get to know their habits.

When I took the Master Gardener course, we had a session on woody plants. Maybe give them a call and ask to speak to their woody plant specialist? As I recall, he also made house calls (for a fee). Someone like that might be able to point out any potential windfall limbs, recommend things specific to your zone, etc. Then you can make up a little chart to post on the back of your cupboard door, when something should be fed, watered or pruned. Here is a handy pruning guide.

In short: if something has survived last year's very cold winter, I think it will be okay this year.
posted by Marie Mon Dieu at 7:19 AM on November 24, 2014

I base my garden maintenance on what everybody else is doing: eg, the public and private gardens around Boston are packed with rhododendrons and hydrangeas, and I don't see them wrapped in burlap, so I do nothing.

The kind of plant that has biggest problems with snow weight is anything that is either evergreen or super-twiggy deciduous (i.e. a lot of surface area), except for the ones that are very dense (like a boxwood or arbor vitae hedge) and only the top of it is really exposed to snowfall.

For non-woody perennial plantings (the hostas, and anything else leafy that will reappear in the spring) they'll be fine if you do nothing, and even happier if you rake a couple of bags of mulch over the beds to give the roots a layer of insulation.
posted by aimedwander at 7:19 AM on November 24, 2014

I encourage you to think of the big picture: anything that you must do to keep a fragile plant alive, you will have to do every year for all eternity. Consider how badly you want to have a delicate plant in your garden, versus the benefits of hosting your own plant-kingdom Survivor reality show.
posted by aimedwander at 7:22 AM on November 24, 2014 [3 favorites]

I agree with the other posters that you probably don't need to do much at all to protect your plants. One thing you might watch is whether the snow cover reaches all the way to the house under the eaves. For me, with 4-foot eaves in Zone 4, my flower bed plant survival is much better if I take the time after the first few snowfalls to spread the snow all the way to the house under the eaves. Snow serves as important plant insulation. Enjoy your new yard!
posted by summerstorm at 8:53 AM on November 24, 2014

I have almost the exact same plants and live on the 5b/6a border.

The only thing I would worry about on that list is the hydrangea - some bloom on old wood, and some on both new and old wood. If it blooms on only old wood, it will routinely begrudge you blossoms unless you wrap it in burlap and stuff it with leaves. I am making my first effort to get our hydrangea to bloom this year -- it's just sat there for the previous two springs. I didn't even know what it was.

I would not prune anything. Rhododendrons and azaleas and others set their blooms in early summer for the following year--don't go chomping them off!

We have a lot of rhododendrons and I do not use wilt-proof formulas, we take our chances. Some winters are going to be better than others but I am not going to go doing that every year to prep for winter. I'll be busy burlapping a hydrangea.

I would do as little as possible, observe, and make adjustments next year. Yards have microclimates too -- if there's a giant hemlock blocking your rhododendron from the wind, it needs less from you than if it is at the bottom of a windswept hill.

You're unlikely to lose any I think.
posted by A Terrible Llama at 9:55 AM on November 24, 2014

I'm in the same zone as you (I think you're in MA too, right?) and your plant list looks very very low maintenance to me. It depends on how finicky you want to be with the rhodes, most established plants will do just fine without the wax. In fact, I would hesitate to coddle anything at all. If you are so inclined and want to be bothered, run over any leaves on your lawn with a mower and rake the result onto the flower beds, that should be plenty.

Don't prune anything right now. Use this winter to study a pruning guide and figure out how to properly take care of the bushes you have come spring.

I have hydrangeas that bloom on new wood and hydrangeas that bloom on old wood. I do absolutely NOTHING to either type in winter and just assess potential damage in the spring and prune accordingly. I get heaps of flowers every summer regardless.
posted by lydhre at 10:16 AM on November 24, 2014

Snow is usually not a problem, but ice/freezing rain can bring down a lot of branches. If you get a lot of ice/freezing rain build-up on branches near to your house (1.5-2 inches of ice, not snow), you might knock some of it off with a broom, so that you don't have any branches come down on your house.

You're probably fine for this year if you've inherited well-tended trees, but next year in the late summer or early fall you want to check over anything that could fall on your house or a utility line and take care of anything that is diseased, dying, or otherwise weakened.
posted by anaelith at 4:58 AM on November 25, 2014

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