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Protecting Your First Year Evergreens in Winter

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Evergreens, especially those which have been installed as new plants in the past season, can be highly susceptible to winter damage in many forms. If simple precautions are taken early in the season a majority of these can be easily avoided. Winter damage, especially for younger and more fragile plants, falls into 3 simple categories:

Desiccation:

Desiccation is one of the most common and deadly situations for first year evergreen plants. Imagine deep into January when the ground is frozen solid and  the sun appears. As the leaves warm in the sun, they release moisture stored in the foliage. However, because the ground is frozen its impossible to replace the lost moisture from the ground. The result is an evergreen leaf which will dry out, turn brown, and die. Many times on the southern side of an evergreen shrub you will see the result of this damage in spring. While this may not kill the entire plant always, it creates an unsightly plant. Especially in recently planted evergreens this is more prominent as the roots have not had a chance to establish themselves or create a larger network to provide water during these difficult winter times. Similarly, desiccation can also occur to  evergreens which have been placed in exposed windy situations. The strong winter winds, many times in conjunction with sunny warm winter days, rob foliage even faster of its moisture which can't be replaced. Most times you will notice this on the north side of the plant.

winter desiccation

Fortunately, there are several easy remedies which can be used to prevent this situation. The most successful recommendation is to use an anti- desiccant spray on your plant. This is a simple spray which comes pre-mixed in a spray bottle or in larger concentrate for bigger applications. It provides a clear invisible coating on the foliage which prevents foliage from releasing its moisture in winter either from the sun or wind. Plants are sprayed in the fall and, if possible, on a warm day mid-winter. A common brand is "Wilt-Pruf". Follow recommended care and application on the bottle and your evergreens will be easily protected this winter.

burlap box

A more traditional method is to wrap or surround your plants with a fabric such as burlap. Burlap lets air circulation still occur around the plants, but provides protection from strong winds and shade from harsh winter sun. The fabric can be pinned around smaller plants or can be attached to stakes to create a box. Finally, it is always important that your plants be mulched, but it becomes especially important for first year evergreens. A fall re-application of high quality mulch for evergreens will not only help protect them from quick freeze and thaw cycles in the soil, it will retain moisture in the area surrounding the plant allowing it quick access if the day is warm and the ground is not frozen. An "enriched" mulch of composted bark and other composts is most ideal for evergreens as it will provide nutrients for the plant and not rob it of nutrients as a traditional mulch would during the growing season.

Animal Damage:

Animal damage - mainly in the form of deer- are one of the most common and frustrating killers of winter evergreens. While there are no definitive evergreen plants which deer will not eat if hungry enough, over time you will begin to understand your particular herd and their preferences and can plant accordingly. 

 However there are a few suggestions to help navigate your way through it initially.   One of the simplest is to use a physical barrier such as deer netting.

deer fencing

Netting is thin and black and will essentially disappear from view when draped over the evergreen or group of evergreens. This netting can also be attached to stakes, similar to burlap, to create a protective box for larger plantings. These are widely available in kit form to make install easier. Netting is great for those plantings where you can see your plants on a regular basis from the house as it still lets you enjoy the beauty of your plantings. For those areas which are hidden from your view burlap can also be used as a barrier to protect them.

Sprays which have an unpleasant smell or taste are widely used with varying degrees of success to also protect plants against animals. I've personally found the brand "Liquid Fence" works well with the herd which visits my garden. It is applied in fall and again when possible throughout the winter when possible. It is available as a pre mixed spray or granules for larger application situations. I also find mixing a bit of "Wilt Pruf" into the mix to helps keeps it from washing off the foliage and lessens the number of applications needed throughout the winter.  Most come in spray bottles and in larger concentrate form. Once again, it will be trial and error to find what works best with your particular deer family.

Finally one of the most overlooked animal evergreen killers in winter is the one which lives in our own homes- the family dog. Dogs, especially male dogs, which are free to roam the garden are naturally drawn to the same location out of habit. Over time urine will quickly build up in the soil to toxic proportions and kill any plant. In the winter this is especially troublesome as the urine will burn not only the foliage but be absorbed into the plant and quickly terminate it when the ground thaws.

dog urine

I have a very difficult time keeping evergreens near my back door as it is the closest and most convenient location for my dog to visit on a cold winter morning when I let them out. Once again a physical barrier, such as burlap, is one of the best solutions if you have a dog which seems to prefer a regular spot on the nearest evergreen.

Snow and Salt  Damage:

Snow and salt damage can be troublesome for first year evergreens which have been protected or in covered greenhouses for their life span. There are a few simple tricks to help them get through the first couple of winters. 

The first is being aware of placement. When initially placing your plants for planting be aware of potential snow load - especially off of nearby roofs. This is one of the primary events which can take out large plantings of evergreens in a single moment. It's generally not in our frame of reference to think of snow loads in the middle of summer when planting, but being aware of it can save a lot of hassle down the line. I've personally lost more than my fair share of plants this way. If you do have planting near a roof line, plywood teepees can help help these evergreens get established and build strength in their branching. Also staking around your planting and creating a box or teepee with burlap or landscape fabric can help mitigate damage from smaller porches or roofs. Not placing shrubs where a plow may pile winter snow in your driveway can also help eliminate headaches once spring comes.

Salt damage is another factor to consider when deciding placement and planting of evergreens. If you are planting alongside a heavily plowed road, driveway, or walkway be aware that salt used for melting ice can easily damage and kill newly planted as well as existing plantings. Where road splash occurs onto evergreens make sure to protect your plantings with burlap as to avoid getting salty slush sprayed on the foliage of your plantings.

By thinking ahead when initially planting and providing a bit of care to get your evergreen plants established in the fall, there is no reason why any homeowner can't have a garden which shines throughout the winter months with gorgeous examples of evergreens for years to come. Most of the above products are available in our Autumn Cleanup / Winter Prep Collection.

 

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  • Ulysses Hedrick