How to Care for Ornamental Plants in Winter

As the temperature regularly dips below freezing this time of year, many homeowners worry whether their ornamental trees, shrubs and plants will make it through the winter. 

The good news is that most healthy plants gradually prepare themselves for winter through a process called “cold acclimation,” which is naturally triggered by the cooler temperatures and shorter days of Fall.  However, when the temperature regularly drops below freezing, the winter weather can still damage your landscape.   

Here are some quick tips on what to look for, and how to prevent damage to, your ornamental plants during the cold weather months:

How to Identify Cold Weather Damage to Plants:

Freezing temps can damage any part of the plant, including the stems, leaves, trunk or roots.    Usually, the first symptom of tissue damage noticed by homeowners is on plant leaves and stems.  Dead plant tissue can appear brownish-black and mushy.  This damage is caused by ice formation within the plant’s cells, but research published by UGA shows that local plants that have properly acclimated to the cold can normally withstand this type of damage. 

If the weather has been windy in addition to the cold, your plants are at higher risk of dehydration.  Look for leaves that rapidly turn brown and fall off the plant as evidence of marginal leaf scorching or leaf-tip burn caused by dehydration. 

Another common problem to look for in the winter months is loose bark on the trunk of woody plants, known as “bark splitting.”  This indicates that the bark is exfoliating from dead tissue on the trunk which can hurt the plant’s ability to get water and nutrition throughout the entire plant.  Another risk associated with bark splitting is frost cankers, which may appear as a dark, moist area.   

If you see any of these signs within your landscape, there may still be hope for your plants.  Contact Handy Andy Outdoors for an evaluation, and we can determine whether methods such as pruning can lessen the stress and prevent further loss.

How to Prevent Cold Weather Damage:

Location, nutrition and maintenance are three effective ways to prevent winter weather damage to your landscape.

Elevation, canopies, windbreaks and other factors create micro-climates within your yard and affect the vulnerability of ornamental plants.  When adding new plants, a landscape professional can identify the micro-climates within your landscape and determine the best location for each specific plant based on its need for sunshine and shelter.    

Once planted in the best location, good nutrition throughout the year will increase a plant’s tolerance to cold.  And proper pruning techniques fortify plants against harsh winter temperatures.