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When planting shrubs and trees, keep winter in mind

How quickly we forget. Only two weeks ago, there were 2 feet of snow on many of our driveways and porches. My house had a 2-by-2-foot ice dam column, roof to deck. Cars and sidewalks were buried, and people – many who shouldn’t be shoveling – put hours into uncovering them.

Then it melted and typically everybody moved on and forgot the stresses (until the next time).

What can’t move on: Broken, smashed, and upturned shrubs and trees. It’s so discouraging. My daughter’s new front landscape, for instance, was badly damaged. It’s just a small bed, enclosed by a short wall of stacked flagstones, with three well-spaced small shrubs (plus lots of bulbs underground).

And what did I see on Jan. 6? A 3-foot heap of condensed snow, iced over with a solid glaze, covering one side of the bed, with a poor little boxwood tilted and poking out at a sorry angle.

How did this happen?

Some of the huge mound probably slid off the roof, and most of it came straight from the skies (with help from the West wind). Some of the pile of snow and ice could have come from the neighbor’s driveway – yards are close together in this neighborhood – but they are considerate and helpful people so it’s probably not their snow. But there it is, one big pile.

What could we have done to prevent a case like this? The bed could have been wider so the shrubs were farther out beyond the overhang. (With a fellow CNLP – landscape professional – I did place the plants beyond the roofline, but apparently not far enough.)

We could have limited the front planting to start the bed farther from the neighbor’s driveway – but we only have about 8 feet to work with and we did place the boxwood in the center of the bed. Or I could have stuck with perennials instead of shrubs.

Or we could have discussed with the neighbor about where to aim the driveway snow to the extent possible. Even then, this kind of thing can happen with enough snow volume and wind effect.

What now? I haven’t been there to see the state of the bed since the snow melted. As with many people’s beds and plants, the damage could require us to replace some plants and rebuild some walls.

I hope my daughter or someone can upright the boxwood quickly, and get the roots pressed down into the soil before they dry out. The rest of the project involves leveling the rest of the disturbed soil and trying to salvage the wall and all bulbs or plants at risk.

In freezing weather, there is only so much repair work that’s possible. Mostly we’ll have to wait.

This personal story is a common enough situation. Let’s look at prevention so that your (or my) next planting doesn’t meet with a similar fate, and then let’s fix what’s broken:

Plan with winter in mind

1. Look up! When you are planning to plant a shrub, tree or bed, notice what’s up there. In the case of a tree, be sure no overhead wires will impede its growth when it reaches maturity. In the case of a foundation, notice where the roof ends. Don’t plant anything under the overhang (because it won’t get any water). And don’t place shrubs where the snow and ice from the roof will slide off and crash down onto them some January day.

Best advice: 1. Start the “foundation planting” a few feet out from the house (so you can walk behind it to do repairs) and put plants several feet out from potential snow-dumping places.

2. Consider snowplowing, shoveling and blowing – difficult to imagine on a sunny day in June. Where do you, your partner, your neighbor, the snow-removal pro, or the highway department direct the excess snow? Near a driveway, often the best gardening options are (a) perennials or annuals so nothing above ground is at risk in winter, or (b) put beautiful containers, overflowing with lovely plants, into those positions every season.

3. Remember the wind. Learn what direction it comes from (typically from the west, depending on the layout of nearby buildings). Either arrange for or design a windbreak, or use plants that are less vulnerable to wind. Evergreens or any plant with a solid canopy are like sails – the wind hits them and can blow them over. Deciduous trees in winter are in less danger since the wind can usually blow through their branches.

4. Use winter protection of various kinds: Block the wind with fencing, a hedge, hedgerow, or cover individual plants with a shrub coat or shrub cover; for plants that are partially under an overhang or the edge or a roof, a teepee (boards or skids) will do; in some situations tall stakes or large tomato cages with flagging or neon paint – something that says “Plants are here”– could remind the snowblowing person to aim in another direction.

After damage is done

1. First, be smart, careful and safe: If a huge slab of ice is still hanging from the roof, don’t start pampering your precious Japanese maple underneath it. Wait.

2. Once the snow and ice have melted, you must immediately right any plants that have exposed roots. Cover the roots – tamp them down into the soil. Even better, you’d have saved bags of compost in an unfrozen garage, and replanted those roots in the nice, warmed product. Maybe you can stake the plant so the blow-over isn’t repeated.

3. Breaks can wait until late winter when we can see what we have. Don’t wait however if a broken limb is still attached to the tree or shrub and likely to continue ripping the bark further. Cut that limb off outside the branch collar, the best you can for now. Then get professional pruning advice if you have valuable damaged plants.

4. In spring, get professional advice. Go to Plantasia (March 22-25 at the Fairgrounds Event Center in Hamburg) or a home/garden show near you. Talk with a CNLP. And never make the same mistakes again. Do as I do – just make new ones!

Sally Cunningham is a garden writer, lecturer and consultant.

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