Cover tender plants through the winter

Just like humans need a warm jacket in the winter, plants some plants need extra protection during the same time.

Protecting plants
Junipers, arborvitae and yews can be prone to winter burn so extra protection can et them through winter safely, especially when young. John Zvirovksi / The Sun

As temperatures start to drop further into the start of the winter season, we find ourselves thinking more and more about that hibernation concept. It is not that we feel like eating ourselves into oblivion and falling asleep like Rip Van Winkle, but the thought has occurred to me. It is that sense of finding a nice warm place to rest away from the cold elements of the outdoors. We sleep at night knowing we are comfortable and safe from the wild winds of winter. It is human nature to stay out of nature’s elements that we find irritating to the body and soul.

Plants are very much the same as we are in a sense. They go into a dormancy time frame, which allows them to endure the cold conditions of the winter season ahead. Their processes come to a halt and everything goes into a rest period until the temperatures once again warm and awake them from their slumber.


It is during this time period that some plants crave extra protection from the harsh winter elements. As you and I can imagine, it would not be any fun to be outdoors in the winter chill and wind without a jacket or gloves on. Many plants like to have that kind of protection also.

Most plants in our region rely on the winter snows to cover and insulate them from the temperatures and winds. I typically leave most of the dead vegetation on my gardens to catch the snow from blowing away and providing a much-needed cover. The deeper the snow is upon them, the more comfortable the plants will remain from temperature fluctuations and potential frost heaving. It is when the plants remain bare in winters of little snow that the most damage can occur from these extreme fluctuations. We may wish for a winter with little snow but there are just as many disadvantages to that scenario as when we have too much during the spring thaw.

In most of my beds, I just allow the leaves to settle in them from the surrounding trees. It is a cheap and natural cover that can be obtained in abundance. Some plants require greater protection like my hybrid tea roses. OK, I actually have over 20 of them in a rose bed. They are a very tender rose and must have extra protection in order to survive from year to year.

There are two procedures that are most commonly used for their survival. One of them is a bit extreme in my book but is preached quite often, and that is the act of "tipping." This procedure entails digging a trench alongside the rose bush 10 to 12 inches deep, actually tipping the rose bush into the trench, and then burying it under 4 inches of soil. The branches are typically tied together with twine or tape to keep them from getting damaged and the roots loosened to allow the bush to lie comfortably. In the springtime, they are then lifted from this position back into their growing standard.

The second procedure is to leave the plants as they are growing and cut the stems back to 12 inches. Mound dirt over the plant 8 to 10 inches high and then place a layer of leaves or straw 1 to 2o feet deep upon them. This protects the graft node at the base, where the roses produce their growth the following year.

Some prefer to use rose cones, crates or other sources of protection. These methods are also fine but just make sure they are ventilated as not to create a greenhouse effect inside that can damage the plants through temperature fluctuations. I have to admit, I take the easy way out and simply cut my roses back to a foot and bury them in a bed of 3 to 4 feet of leaves. I am truly grateful for my neighbor’s many trees that I can collect leaves from on an annual basis. They are free and very effective. I typically do not lose more than 5 percent of my roses per year using this method. Of course, if you grow hardy shrub roses, they do not require any protection as long as they enter the winter in a healthy state.

There are other plants that may require additional protection. Some types of evergreens may need some extra cover, especially if they have gone through a stressful year. The sure signs of a damaged evergreen exhibit itself in the browning of the needles in spring called "winter burn". This is caused by the winter winds drawing moisture from the needles themselves. Since the ground is frozen, the root systems cannot gather additional moisture to replace this loss. The final result will appear in damaged or dead needle tissues in March and April during an extended time frame of these conditions. Yews, arborvitaes and hemlocks are most prone to this type of damage but stressed junipers can also be affected.

All evergreens should be watered thoroughly in the fall to allow the plant to enter the coming season hydrated. New evergreens can also be at risk for winter burn, as they do not have an extensively developed root system for a few years to acquire the needed moisture.


Most articles will indicate plant materials that are prone to this type of winter damage should be planted in protected areas from direct sun and wind. But frankly, in our part of the country, there is no such thing as a protected side from the wind. It is harsh from all directions in our winters, and we like to refer to them as "breezy" days.

One of the most common practices for protecting young or damage-prone evergreens is to shield them from direct sun and wind. Place stakes around the item in question to the height of the plant. Then use a material to wrap the stakes, such as burlap. Materials in natural colors are best, as they tend not to heat up in the sun and alleviate temperature extremes surrounding the plant. Always keep the top portion open to allow for air circulation. It is this protection that keeps moisture loss to a minimum in our region.

Other trees may need protection also from the sun in winter. New or young trees that have a smooth bark should have a light-colored wrap around the trunks to prevent sunscald from occurring. These can be in a material or plastic tubing-type of wrap. Always use light colors to reflect the sun's rays to keep the temperature around the trunk stable. Some typical smooth-barked trees would be apple, plum, maple and honeylocust. When they are young, the bark is thin and tender and can be damaged by the heating up of the bark in the day and the quick cooling at night. These extreme temperature fluctuations can cause tissue damage in the trunk and result in bark splitting and scarring.

Just the thought of being a plant in my gardens through the winter months makes me take notice of some of their needs. These plants are very much like us in many ways, in the sense that they like to be protected and warm in nature’s harsh winter elements. We have blankets and heaters, and they have leaves, straw and snow cover to keep them insulated.

Now, as much as we would like to go into dormancy and not re-emerge until spring, life just does not allow me that luxury. At least it doesn’t until I am retired and can choose my environment on a seasonal basis. I typically refer to these people as snowbirds, but know that they are just plain fortunate! Now, I believe it is time to dig out that electric blanket!

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