Repairing winter storm damage to trees and shrubs

By Dawn Pettinelli - UConn Home & Garden Education Center
Feature Article - posted Wed., Nov. 16, 2011
- Contributed Photo

The heavy, wet snow we got last month did take its toll on trees and shrubs, especially those which had not lost their leaves yet. Many large limbs were lost, weak-wooded birches are lying parallel to the earth, and loose evergreens have been split open. Some winter storm damage each year is almost unavoidable, but this was very unusual for so early in the season.

Damage to shrubs and small trees can generally be taken care of by the homeowner. Larger trees may require the services of an arborist. Cracked limbs not only pose a safety problem, but may encourage entry of insects or disease organisms which could negatively affect the health of the tree.

Make sure you have the right tools before taking on any repair job. Hand pruners are fine for small one-half to three-quarter-inch diameter branches. Loppers can cut branches up to about one and one half inches, while pruning saws are needed for larger stems. Sharp tools make cutting easier and are less apt to tear at the bark when cuts are made.

If the main stem of a small tree or shrub has cracked, first trim any loose bark around the wound. Then, make an angled cut just above a side branch. The cut is angled so water will run off the pruned surface.

Multi-stemmed shrubs, like lilacs, benefit from occasional rejuvenation. Prune any badly-cracked stems to the ground. In fact, one or more older stems can be removed each year in the spring, while allowing new ones to take their place. This keeps plants healthy and at a manageable size.

While small branches can be removed with one cut, larger ones require at least three cuts and often the use of a chain saw. Start by making a shallow undercut on the branch to be removed, 6 to 12 inches from where it meets the main trunk. This is to prevent the bark from tearing. Next, about an inch beyond this cut (going up the branch), saw through the limb from the top, dropping the branch to the ground. You are now left with a stub which needs to be removed.

Old gardening books recommended that the stub be cut off flush with the trunk. However, more recent research has shown that it is advisable to leave the branch collar, which is the circular rings of wrinkled bark on the underside of the branch, and the bark ridge, a furrowed line of bark on top of the branch where it connects to the tree, untouched. Place your last cut appropriately.

Covering wounds with tree paint is also no longer recommended. They will callous over naturally with time.

If a tree care specialist is called for, find out if he/she is certified by the International Society of Arboriculture, the Tree Care Industry Association (formerly the National Arborist Association), or a state society. Ask for a written diagnosis and estimate, and don’t hesitate to obtain competitive bids. Also, seek references and make sure the company carries insurance.

Before we get any more heavy snow, loosely tie up any upright or spreading evergreens that can split open. Plants can also be loosely wrapped in burlap. You can gently knock fresh snow off plants with a soft broom. Once frozen, however, leave your plants alone, as greater damage can result.

Proper maintenance pruning and shaping is your plant’s best protection from injuries due to ice and snow. While it is sad to see a prized tree or shrub badly damaged, have faith in the resiliency of nature. Many will rebound, and with time will regain their former stature.

If you have questions about repairing winter damage or any other gardening query, call the UConn Home & Garden Education Center (toll-free) at 877-486-6271, visit, or get in touch with your local Cooperative Extension Center.

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