With all this heavy wet snow, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about trees. More specifically, what trees will withstand snow, and how should I deal with the damage my trees have sustained? The answer to these questions is not completely straightforward, but I will do my best to keep it neat and simple.
Generally speaking, there are certain tree varieties that perform well under heavy snow. These include Colorado Blue Spruce, Hawthorn, Bur Oak, Honeylocust, Kentucky Coffee Tree, and Linden. While these trees may have seen some breakage in these storms, it has generally been less severe than Cottonwood, Elm, Maple, Ash, and a host of others that I have piled by the curb.
Equally as important as good tree selection is good maintenance. I have often heard people brush off professional tree pruning services as nothing more than a waste of money – nature can take care of itself. Well, nature just took care of itself, and with devastating results. I have seen trees that normally bear snow quite well – Kentucky Coffee Trees and Honeylocusts – broken in this snow. On the other hand, we have several massive Cottonwoods here at the Nursery that sustained no damage whatsoever. The difference? Good pruning practices. We have our Cottonwoods pruned about every 2-3 years by a professional tree care company. It’s not cheap, but it kept our buildings safe and our trees healthy. I don’t want to imply that preventative maintenance can solve all your troubles, however it can mean the difference between a tree surviving a heavy snow with minimal damage or being killed under a heavy snow and potentially damaging a house, a vehicle, or worse, a person.
For shrubs and young trees, maintenance is still important, but there is more we can do to actively protect them during the storm. Periodically going outside and gently shaking the snow off branches can prevent the buildup of heavy snow that can snap limbs and bend trees to the ground. When shaking a tree or shrub, here are a few important tips to keep in mind:
- Shake gently. Branches become brittle in the cold and can be broken by too vigorous a shake.
- Don’t hit. Hitting branches with a rake or a broom can damage the tender young bark.
- Don’t expect the branches to just spring back upright. It’s cold, and until the air gets a little warmer, they may remain a little bent out of shape.
Finally, let’s talk about broken limbs and trunks. Generally speaking, broken limbs should be pruned back to the nearest major intersection (Removal cuts). This may mean removing more of the branch than just what is broken, but this type of pruning will have the best long-term health results for the tree. It is important on large branches to use the Three-Cut Method to prevent further damaging the tree. Watch out for overhead power lines, and know your limits. Call a professional tree service if needed.
Once all broken limbs have been removed, examine the trunk. If it has a split, there is a slim chance of saving it by bolting through the trunk to reconnect the two sides of the split. While it is certainly possible for the two sides to grow back together, it is unlikely to succeed. Even if successful, this type of repair typically only prolongs the life of the tree 6-8 years, and will be a weak point for the duration of the tree’s life. If the lead branch has snapped, there’s not much to do until the tree starts growing next spring. If two leads grow from the tip, remove one to establish a new lead branch. Trees with a double leader are far more prone to splitting in snow than those with a single well-established leader.
I am often asked if a sealant or paint should be used to dress the fresh cuts on a tree, and the resounding answer is “NO!” You can click here for more information on this practice, but to sum it up, trees heal themselves very well, and sealing the damage can actually impair the tree’s ability to self-heal. Often, parasites get trapped in the wood by the sealant. Do not apply alcohol or other disinfectants that are used on humans. Trees are our friends, but they are not people. If you want to apply something, the best thing I can recommend is winter water if the season is dry, and a good low-nitrogen fertilizer in the spring. I suggest Jirdon’s Tree & Shrub Fertilizer, AgriHouse O.D.C., Super Thrive, or Bayer Advanced Tree & Shrub Protection.
In the end, nothing is truly safe from snow; it is a part of living here in Colorado and Wyoming and we would be wise to learn to live with it. Even Colorado Blue Spruce, which seemed to go unscathed in these recent storms, were stripped of many of their branches in a blizzard in March of 2003, and trees that are notorious for breaking can be pruned and maintained to the point where they go untouched while their more snow-worthy brethren snap and fail. I hope this provides some peace of mind, or at least some good perspective. All that is left to do now is pick up, prune, and enjoy the snow.
Originally published on November 3rd, 2011. Updated on November 7th, 2011.