With the winter weather we are experiencing and questions on what effect it may have on our landscape plants, I am turning this week's Extension Lines over to Richard Jauron, Iowa State University Extension Horticulturist, to share his thoughts on "winter perils for trees and shrubs".
Winter can be tough on Iowa's trees and shrubs. Low temperatures, rapid temperature changes, winter desiccation and the weight of ice and snow can damage vulnerable trees and shrubs.
Iowa is located in USDA Hardiness Zones 4 and 5. The average annual minimum temperature in Zone 5 is -10 to -20 F. The average annual minimum temperature in Zone 4 is -20 to -30 F. The dividing line between Zones 4 and 5 lies roughly from Shenandoah to Ames to Dubuque.
Woody plants gradually acclimate to cold temperatures. Cold hardiness is initiated by decreasing day length and temperature. Trees and shrubs gradually become more cold hardy during fall and early winter and possess maximum cold hardiness in mid-winter. Cold hardiness then decreases. As a result, a temperature of -10 F in January is generally not a problem for hardy plants. However, a temperature near zero in early November or late March may cause considerable damage to poorly adapted trees and shrubs.
The best way to prevent damage caused by low temperatures or rapid temperature changes is to select trees and shrubs that are winter hardy in your area. Marginally hardy plants should be planted in protected sites, such as courtyards or eastern exposures. Avoid summer fertilization of trees and shrubs. Summer fertilization stimulates late season growth and delays the hardening process, making the plants more susceptible to winter injury.
Narrow and broadleaf evergreens lose considerable amounts of moisture through their leaves or needles, buds and stems during the winter months. The cold, dry winds and sun are mainly responsible for the water loss. Once the ground freezes, however, plant roots are no longer able to absorb water. Plant foliage that loses a large amount of moisture may dry and suffer desiccation injury.
Plants susceptible to desiccation injury should be planted in protected areas. A shield or screen can be erected to deflect drying winds or shade exposed plants. A simple screen can be constructed with wooden posts and burlap. Anti-desiccants also can be used to prevent desiccation injury. When sprayed on plant foliage, these materials form a protective film that slows water loss. In dry years, water evergreens susceptible to desiccation injury in fall.
Major damage to trees and shrubs also can be caused by the weight of ice or heavy, wet snow. Multi-stemmed evergreens, such as arborvitae, and weak-wooded deciduous trees, such as green ash and silver maple, are most susceptible to branch breakage. High winds during an ice or snow storm can increase tree and shrub damage.
To prevent the weight of ice and snow from damaging arborvitae and other multi-stemmed evergreens, wrap the plants with twine or soft rope in fall. When heavy, wet snow accumulates on shrubs and small trees, home gardeners can gently shake the snow from their branches or carefully brush off the snow with a broom. Sharply bent, ice-covered branches on small trees and shrubs can be propped up to prevent breakage. Individuals should stay away from large, ice-covered trees. Nothing can be done to prevent damage to large, ice-covered trees. However, an individual can be severely injured or killed if a large, ice-laden branch or tree were to suddenly crash to the ground while he or she were underneath it.
Trees and shrubs in Iowa often have to endure a long and harsh winter. Proper plant selection, correct placement in the landscape and good cultural practices can reduce winter injury to woody ornamentals.
Come by the Cherokee County Extension Office at 209 Centennial Dr., Suite A in Cherokee with any questions you may have. You may also call us at 225-6196. If you have any other plant questions remember our Hortline phone number