Last month, before we had any snow (now we have about a foot!) I started to notice something that I notice every winter since I moved to upstate NY over 10 years ago… Shrubs wearing clothes! No, I’m not crazy. Many arborvitae in the area have burlap wraps on for the winter months. And other foundation shrubs are covered by burlap, A-frames, or a combination of the two.
Now the reason for these extra layers in the winter is to protect the shrubs from the cold, the wind and sun, the ice, the salt, or some combination of all these winter stressors. Rather than embarrassing your shrubs all winter (can’t you just imagine what the other plants are saying about them!), if we think about the old gardener’s adage, right plant, right place, you should be able to avoid such a winter wardrobe for your landscape.
Arborvitae are hardy to zone 2 – so why in zone 4/5 do they need so much protection? They are susceptible to winter damage from dessication due to winter sun and winds on their south, southwest, and windward sides. They can also be broken by heavy snow or ice, losing their ideal shape that many of the various cultivars are planted for. They are relatively salt tolerant, however, not highly, so they are not the best choice for being planted right along a roadway that is heavily salted in the winter. If you think you have salt damage problems with some of your shrubs, the Morton Arboretum does a great job explaining the different types of salt damage and the symptoms and lists a variety of salt tolerant trees and shrubs to try.
And what do we know about how arborvitae are often used in the landscape? If you don’t already know, a quick drive around whatever town you live in should show that landscapers and homeowners love using them for privacy, as living fences along the road or along their property in place of a fence. Often in very exposed locations where they are very susceptible to winter damage from the sun, wind, and salt spray. When planted in more protected locations, and in more natural plantings, rather than straight rows, you can enjoy these popular evergreens year-round without the winter hassle or worry. We have a number of arborvitae planted on our property and I have never done anything to them for the winter, and they seem to be doing just fine! I think arborvitae have fallen victim to becoming so popular as hardy, evergreen privacy shrubs for landscaping that their susceptibility to winter damage when not planted in the right place is just overlooked most of the time – that is, until the winter arrives!
The second trend in winter-wear that I see this time of year is the A-frame. This is mainly over foundation shrubs, to protect them from heavy snow falling off the roof. Again, this can be avoided if we take some time to think through landscaping the front of our house. A line of yews is standard for the front of many houses around here. Evergreen and short, they hide ugly foundations year round. But if they have to be covered in ugly A-frames all winter – are they really worth it? I think not.
One simple fix is moving shrubs farther out from the front of the house so the snow doesn’t fall so directly on them. This also helps year-round, as having shrubs right against your house traps moisture, encouraging rot, or insect damage if you have wood siding. Moving them out not only protects them from snow damage in the winter, but increases air circulation year round.
Think about using large structural perennials or ferns in place of shrubs. Solomon’s seal is a great choice for shady locations. It’s height is just about perfect for covering most foundations, and you don’t have to worry about it in the winter since it dies back. The same goes for many of our taller ferns, such as Ostrich Fern or Goldie’s Wood Fern. Or try some Smooth Hydrangea. These usually get trimmed back each year anyway – so a little winter breakage is no big deal! Shrubs such a Red-Twig Dogwood that have more open branching, are less likely to have damage from heavy snow, and can also be a good choice. And their red twigs add a great pop of color in the winter. There are lots of great native plants that you can use – that don’t require a winter wardrobe. Many of which are highlighted on this very blog year-round! When landscaping in the summer, just don’t forget to think about how those plants will do in the winter as well.
If you want to learn more about winter damage, there are lots of great resources available, but this Minnesota Extension page about winter damage is a good place to start.