Winter in the Piedmont Triad area may be mild compared to northeastern states, but your trees will still need some attention during the cold winter months. Some basic winter tree care tasks will ensure your trees remain healthy and safe during winter and are ready to flourish when spring arrives.
The average winter temperature in our area is around 39F, which is relatively cool. The average low temperature hovers around 29F (although temperatures have plummeted as low as -10F!), with about 20 days a month dropping below freezing between December and February. Daily highs average about 50F, with considerable fluctuation. We frequently get plant-damaging frost and have, on average, 6 inches of snow each winter (mostly in January).
Here are the main winter tree care tasks we recommend doing each year between December and February.
Prune Trees While They’re Dormant
After the vivid fall colors of oaks, maples, and birches have faded, deciduous trees enter their dormant period. Evergreen trees become dormant too, but their multi-year foliage remains in place through winter (evergreen leaves are shed every few years, mostly during the summer growing season).
Dormancy (December to February) is the ideal period for pruning most of your trees, except for spring-flowering species. Spring-flowering trees are best pruned just after they flower, as winter pruning will remove the dormant flower buds that the tree set last summer. Examples of spring-flowering trees and shrubs are dogwood, rhododendron, and forsythia.
See our top suggestions for spring-flowering trees that grow well in our part of North Carolina
Pruning your trees gives you many benefits, with long-term tree health being the most important. A regular schedule of professional pruning over a tree’s life gives you:
- Long-term savings on tree care costs, as you’ll have fewer tree hazards and less damage to repair
- Safer, more vigorous tree growth, as branch structures are balanced and tree crowns are open to light and air
- Better-looking, naturally shaped tree crowns, instead of crowns shaped by corrective pruning
- Increased property value, as mature specimen trees are more valuable than young trees.
Dormant pruning is probably the most important part of any winter tree care program. Just remember that it’s always important to prune your trees correctly, regardless of when it’s done. While someone might call him- or herself a tree pruner, only trained pruners and certified arborists can guarantee quality pruning. We’re ISA Certified Arborists who offer a range of tree pruning services, and we’ll explain which type of pruning is best for your specific trees.
Plan for Spring Pest Prevention
Most tree pests are dormant in winter (except deer – they never take a break!), making it a good time to plan your prevention strategies.
For example, if you have trees with cankerworm damage, the first winter freeze is the time to band your tree trunks.
Cankerworms have a taste for apples, oaks, maples, beech, hickory, elm, and other deciduous tree species, and can seriously damage these trees, especially after several consecutive years of defoliation. Cankerworm pupae overwinter in the soil around the trees they eat, and hatch in late winter or early spring (often during warm spells in February and March). When the larvae hatch, they head back up the tree’s trunk to eat new spring leaves.
To stop these pests, put a band of flexible material around your trees’ trunks (it should be crinkled, pleated or spun like batting to plug up any fissures in bark). Coat it with Tanglefoot or a similar sticky material to stop the larvae from crawling over the band and reaching your tree’s crown.
Over the course of the winter, check the bands to make sure the sticky coating has not become choked with wind-borne debris or too many dead larvae. Cover any clogged bands with a band of plastic wrap and a new layer of sticky material. If the surface is no longer sticky, larvae will crawl over the debris and continue up the trunk, so keep ahead of these pests and keep your trees healthy and leafy.
Keep Watering Recently-Planted Trees & Shrubs
If you have an irrigation system, check it before turning it off for the winter. Fix any breaks or leaks so that you have everything ready for the following spring’s warm weather. And don’t forget to blow it out with an air compressor to prevent supply lines from freezing!
Dehydration can seriously stress your trees during dormancy (as well as during hot spring and summer weather). A tree may be sleeping but its root and vascular systems never stop working. Even during dormancy, trees keep their internal moisture level and the pressure level of their system of “water pipes” regulated by transferring water from their roots up to their trunk and branches.
If there are periods of warm, dry weather during winter, try to deeply water any trees or shrubs planted within the last two years. You can use a bucket or garden hose (empty the hose after use and store it away – don’t leave it outdoors). The limited root systems of young and recently planted trees can’t reach far into the surrounding soil to find water, and the tree can quickly become dehydrated.
Protect Tender Shrubs from Frost or Freezes
Broadleaf evergreens are susceptible to winter die-back when exposed to cold, dry weather, especially when planted in sunny or windy locations. And plants growing near roadways are easily sprayed with road salt and de-icing products by passing vehicles, damaging (and sometimes, even killing) unprotected plants.
Wrap your broadleaf evergreen shrubs, as well as plants exposed to winter road salt or de-icing products, in burlap to protect them over the winter. It’s best (and easiest) to get the wraps in place before it gets too cold (frozen fingers make everything more difficult!).
Wrapping also prevents deer browsing, and we all know how hungry deer can quickly reduce a shrub or tasty arborvitae to nothing but stubs!
Don’t forget to remove the wraps as soon as temperatures rise in spring.
Help Trees & Shrubs After a Snowfall or Freezing Rain
Although the greater Winston-Salem area doesn’t get many snowstorms, they can cause serious damage to trees and shrubs when they hit. Just think back to December 9, 2018, when the entire area saw about a foot of snow within 24 hours!
However, we do get plenty of freezing rain and sleet most winters, with ice buildup breaking branches, pulling down power lines, and even toppling trees. After ice (or snow) has covered your trees and shrubs, here’s what to do:
- Check for signs of potential danger, such as tree branches touching power lines, trees or branches in the road or blocking your driveway, and broken branches (those hanging from a tree are particularly dangerous). Don’t go near these – call the utility company or a tree care professional to take care of it.
- Clean up smaller dropped branches on the ground or broken branches you can reach without a ladder. Don’t use power tools on ice-covered plants and don’t work under a tree that’s coated in ice or snow!
- Don’t knock ice or snow off branches – you’ll just end up damaging the tree or shrub. It’ll melt off by itself.
- For the rest, wait until spring or toward the end of winter. Most trees and shrubs that have been bowed down by the extra weight of ice or snow will recover on their own by spring. If they haven’t straightened out by then, give us a call to evaluate whether or not they can be saved. If a broken branch has torn bark off the tree or left a jagged stump, the tree will need corrective pruning before spring bud break.
Winter Tree Care Means Healthier Trees in Spring
While you may not normally think about tree care during the dreary days of winter, it’s an excellent time to take care of some preventive maintenance, have your trees professionally pruned, and give trees and shrubs a little extra TLC.
If you’re unsure about what to do, don’t have time or energy to take care of it, or want a professional assessment of your trees, just give us a call! All we do is care for trees and we can help take care of yours, too.
Most tree pruning that a homeowner can’t do from the ground should be done by professionals, and our crews are trained in proper pruning methods and safety practices. Another benefit is that we’ll haul away everything we prune off, leaving your garden tidy and ready for spring.
Want to know more? Check out our other seasonal tree care tips: