How to handle winter damaged evergreens

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As we slowly progress into spring we’re seeing some of the damage resulting from the harsh winter show up in the pines in the area. Instead of living up to their “evergreen” reputation, many of the local pines are turning brown and it’s difficult to tell if they’re dead or just damaged. 

With a highly unusual winter where January was so warm we had no snow in areas and 50 degree temperatures, to an instant plunge with an average temperature of-2 F for over a month, it’s no surprise the trees suffered. Normally we have Chinooks that roll through with its warm winds giving us an opportunity to water the trees in the middle of the winter, but it was not the case this season. This year everything froze solid, including, I’m afraid, some critical parts of our trees.

What happens in a situation like this is when the weather begins to warm, particularly if there are winds in the picture, it desiccates the needles, particularly when the roots are still frozen in the soil. This makes perfect sense. No moisture is moving within the shrub or tree’s system, yet winds pull out what little might be left in the needles. Because the roots are frozen, they can’t send more water to where it’s needed. 

What to do when the trees look horrible

But what can be done? The way some of these trees look, you’d think the only remedy is to cut them down and replant, but I would caution homeowners not to be too hasty. Pine needles naturally shed every year, although not all of them at once, so it’s worthwhile to step back to see what the tree will do within the next few months. Chances are the brown needles from this winter damage are going to fall off, but the key will be whether new ones grow back. If they’re alive, they will start growing from the branch tips. If they don’t within a few months, I’d say to start cutting. Water, fertilize on the normal schedule, and wait. 

Junipers also took a beating this year, but unlike pines and some other evergreens, if they’re brown, they’re not going to recover. When juniper branches look dead, they probably are, and it’s time to sharpen the pruners. Cut it out because it’s not going to grow back. 

What can be done for next year

There are a number of tasks that can be done during the fall and winter to prepare evergreens for what winter can throw at them, although truthfully, I don’t know if it would’ve been much of a benefit with the suddenness and severity of the weather. 

~ Keep mulch around your trees. Place 3-4 inches of mulch, such as shredded bark, around them to help hold in what moisture you can in the soil. Do try to keep it away from directly around the trunk. 

~ What until the ground freezes in the autumn, and water in the winter several times during warm spells.

~ Many of us plant trees on the western side of the house or yard in order to slow down the wind, but those are the ones that take the greatest beating. If you’re not concerned about providing a windbreak, plant the evergreens on the northeast and eastern side of the property, preferably with a bit of protection from buildings. 

~ If trees or shrubs are highly exposed, protect them with straw bales or even wrap smaller specimens in burlap. Once again, this helps retain moisture. 

It’s going to be interesting to see how our local trees fare once we have a few more months under our belts. They are a precious resource in this area and it’s a shame to lose even one. Hopefully the brown needles will result in new growth and stronger trees for next winter. 

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