Winter Protection For Your Garden

For those of us who live in temperate zones the wild fluctuations in temperature can be particularly hard on plants. Making informed plant selections is the first place to start. Even with wisely selected plant material some of your garden plants may still need a little help. Fortunately their are several things you can do to help protect your garden plants during the winter months.

Winter Wind and Sun Protection For Garden Trees and Shrubs

Winter winds and sun can cause evergreen foliage to lose moisture through their leaves or needles. With the ground frozen they are unable to replace that moisture and thus begin browning and dying back. To protect your more vulnerable trees and shrubs against winter burn they can be wrapped or a barrier can be put in place. See a few of the examples below.

These two potted, cedar topiary trees are being overwintered in the vegetable garden. Digging the pots into the soil will keep the roots alive over winter. They have received the additional protection of a winter cover that goes on much like a pillow case with a draw string on the bottom. This will protect the foliage against winter desiccation.
This Boxwood (Buxus) hedge is being protected with screening from winter sun and winds that can cause winter desiccation. The taller screening in behind is serving as a deer fence to prevent the deer from eating the Weeping Nootka Cyprus (Cupressusnootkatensis ‘Pendula’)
This is the same garden as above before winter protection started being implemented. The Boxwood (Buxus) hedge is exhibiting severe winter desiccation and the Emerald Cedars (‘Thuja occidentalis‘) in behind have been devoured by winter feeding deer.
These winter plant/shrub covers are quick and easy to install. Here they are used to protect the flower buds of these Glowing Embers Hydrangeas (Hydrangea macrophylla ‘Glowing Embers’); which bloom on old wood.

Protecting Your Garden Trees and Shrubs Against Snow Damage

The weight of snow on trees and shrubs, especially evergreens, can cause the branches to splay or break. Two ways to protect your plants against this is by tying the branches up with twine or gently brushing the snow off after a heavy snow fall.

These Skyrocket Junipers (Juniperus scopulorum ‘skyrocket’) have been tied up with twine to protect them against winter injury.
These same Skyrocket Junipers (Juniperus scopulorum ‘skyrocket’) were not tied up for the winter and their branches are bowing under the weight of the snow.
The same Skyrocket Junipers (Juniperus scopulorum ‘skyrocket’) as above only much taller, continue to be tied up with twine to protect them against winter injury.
The same Skyrocket Junipers (Juniperus scopulorum ‘skyrocket’) as above were not tied up with twine to prevent winter injury. During the start of winter, while the ground was yet very soft from all the precipitation, a strong wind blew one of the Junipers over and caused the others to lean. This was due in part to the added weight of the snow and the larger area of mass for the wind to blow against.

Protecting Garden Trees Shrubs Against Winter Rabbit Damage

Rabbits chew on woody plants to help file their teeth down. Their teeth (like rodents), continue to grow throughout their life span. Without this type of chewing their teeth would grow past one another and the animal would be unable to feed and starve to death. The fiber from the wood is also good for their digestion. Feeding damage from a rabbit appears as a clean cut, slightly angled.

Some common trees and shrubs affected by winter feeding damage by rabbits include:

  • Burning Bush (Euonymus alatus)
  • Euonymus spp
  • Rose of Sharon (Hibiscus syriacus)
  • Spirea ssp
  • Roses (Rosa ssp)
  • Barberry (Berberis ssp)
  • Pine spp (Pinus)
  • Quince (Cydonia oblonga)
  • Raspberries spp (Rubus idaeus)
  • Birds Nest Spruce (Picea abies ‘Nidiformis‘)
  • Serviceberry (Amelanchier)
  • Honey Locust (Gleditsia triacanthos)
  • Redbuds (Cercis canadensis)
  • Apple and Crabapple (Malus spp)
  • Pear (Pyrus)
This Birds Nest Spruce (Picea abies ‘Nidiformis’) has been caged in chicken wire to protect it from rabbits during the winter months. Once the ground freezes they are unable to dig underneath the fencing.
These 3 Cherry Bomb Barberry (Berberis thunbergii ‘Monomb’) and blue spruce (Picea pungens ‘Iseli Fastigiate’) are being protected from rabbit feeding over the winter with a 2′ tall chicken wire fence.
The clean, angular cuts made to this Spirea were the handy work of Rabbits.
Severe rabbit winter feeding damage to Spirea.

Protecting Garden Plants Against Rodent Damage

Similar to rabbits rodents like squirrels, mice, gophers, voles and moles can cause feeding damage to the bark of trees and shrubs. Rodent gnaw and scrape away the bark from the base of trees and shrubs. They can completely girdle a tree, potentially killing it. To protect your vulnerable trees and shrubs a barrier such as the one installed against rabbits can be built, but rather than chicken wire, a 1/4″ hardware cloth is used. Sink the wire hardware cloth a few inches below ground level.

Hardware cloth

Protecting Garden Plants Against Winter Cold and Freeze Thaw Cycles

Frigid winter temperatures can severely damage vulnerable garden plants. Not only are the above ground structures at risk of injury but the roots and grafts are also at risk. A good heavy snow cover is one of your best insulators but this rarely remains consistent throughout the winter. Freeze thaw cycles are even more damaging than the cold. Shallow rooted plants like: dogwoods, boxwood, azalea, holly, eastern redbuds and Japanese maples are particularly vulnerable; as are trees and shrubs that have been grafted onto another plants rootstock such as Roses and named varieties of trees and shrubs. Roses are traditionally hilled with soil to which mulch can additionally be added. Most other vulnerable trees and shrubs can be protected by covering the root area with a 3-4″ layer of mulch.

This rose (‘Rosa’) plant has been hilled with soil to protect the graft from winter cold and to help maintain a more even temperature. The freeze thaw cycles can be particularly damaging on roses.

Protecting Your Garden Plants Against Winter Road and Sidewalk Salt

Rock salt or Sodium Chloride (Na Cl) can be very damaging to soils and garden plant material. Plants that are up to 30′ to 40′ away from salted roadways are at risk. To protect your vulnerable plant material construct a physical barrier between the plant and salted road or pathway. This barrier may be made of plastic, burlap, or snow fencing. Whatever it is made of install it several inches away from the plant you are trying to protect. Some salt sensitive plants you may need to protect are Boxwood (Boxus), Daffodils, Eastern Redbud (Cercis Canadensis), Red Osier Dogwood (Cornus sericea), European Filbert (Corylus avellana), Sugar Maple (Acer saccharum), Eastern Pin Oak (Quercus palustris), Silver Maple (Acer saccharinum) and Serviceberry (Amelanchier spp.).

Protecting the Bark of Young Trees Against Winter Sunscald

Winter sunscald to bark, other wise known as Southwest injury, occurs when the vascular tissues behind the bark begin flowing due to the heat of the sun. When these heated tissues temperature suddenly drops, like when clouds or a building block the sun, it kills the active tissue. Newly planted trees are particularly vulnerable, as are thin-barked trees like apple, birch, cherry, crabapple, honey lotus, linden, maple, mountain ash and plum. To protect vulnerable trees wrap their trunk with a reflective white tree guard.

Plastic reflective tree wrap is applied to the trunk of this young flowering crabapple tree (Malus) to protect it from sunscald.
Winter sunscald aka. South/west injury on a young maple (Acer) tree.

Protecting Your Evergreens Against Pet Urine

Pet urine, particularly dog urine, can be very damaging for evergreens in the winter. Installing a barrier of some sort around vulnerable trees and shrubs can help to protect them from the browning and dieback caused by urine.


Get to know your garden, it’s micro-climates it’s pests and the type of winter damage that is typical for your yard. Boxwood shrubs in one yard may need no protection but in another’s yard they may burn badly in the winter. You do not have to protect everything, let your garden show you the areas it needs help. Use these tips and ideas as a reference rather than a bible.

Photo Credits: All photos by the author.

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