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Protect your trees, shrubs this winter
Take steps now to help your plants avoid injury from winter weather

Date published: 11/16/2012

WINTERIZING trees and shrubs will help them survive the winter and welcome spring in peak condition.

Desiccation and freezing are common sources of winter damage, but there are some simple ways to limit the potential for damage.

Desiccation means drying out and it is a particular problem for evergreens. Desiccation occurs when water leaves a plant quicker than the plant's roots can take up water.

Evergreens transpire and loose water through their needles and leaves during the winter. The loss is greatest on days that it's mild, sunny and windy. Even if the air temperature is cold, the temperature inside the leaves may be warm. The sun's heat causes the stomata, or pores, on the underside of the leaves to open, increasing transpiration and water loss. Root uptake of water is reduced or prevented when the ground is frozen or just very cold.

The foliage of plants may turn yellow or orange due mild desiccation or excessive sunlight. When the injury is more severe the plant will have discolored, burned evergreen needles and leaves. Branches can dehydrate and die in extreme cases.

Watering and mulching can help reduce desiccation injury. A 2- to 3-inch layer of mulch will help maintain uniform moisture and temperature around the roots. Water plants regularly during the winter to maintain soil moisture levels, the moist soil will absorb more solar energy and will release heat during the night.

Anti-desiccant products can be applied to help reduce water loss. However, these products degrade quickly and need to be reapplied often in order to achieve sustained protection.

A plant's location within the landscape can impact the injury risk level. Plants located on the north, northeast and east sides of buildings have better protection from the sun. Delayed spring plant developments in these northerly exposures helps prevent injury due to late spring frosts. A south side location with no shade or wind protection is the location of greatest risk.

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John E. Howe is an agent in Virginia Cooperative Extension's Spotsylvania County office specializing in animal science. Phone 540/507-7571; email jhowe@vt.edu.