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Help Trees Recover From Ice and Snow Damage in Northern Virginia

winter ice damage on trees

“I wonder if the snow loves the trees and fields, that it kisses them so gently? And then it covers them up snug, you know, with a white quilt; and perhaps it says, “Go to sleep, darlings, till the summer comes again.” —Lewis Carroll, author

Trees, plants, and animals are all used to the changing of the seasons here in Northern Virginia. From the hot and humid summers to the cold and windy winters, nature is adept at surviving no matter the weather.

In some instances though, your trees can use a bit of a helping hand, especially when it comes to winter storms. High winds, ice, and heavy snow can all cause trees to split, branches to break, and large limbs to fall.

Below are some tips on how to prevent, spot, and treat winter storm damage.

Which trees are most likely to suffer snow and ice damage?

While pretty much any tree or shrub will sustain damage if the winds are strong enough or the ice and snow is heavy enough, some are more susceptible to winter storm damage, such as splitting or leaning. These include:

  • Fast-growing trees with soft wood (elm, birch silver maple, willows, etc.)
  • Bradford or Callery pear trees
  • Evergreen shrubs, such as arborvitae, juniper, and yew
  • Any tree that still has fall foliage

Prevent tree damage from snow and ice storms

As with most things, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. Ensure that your trees greet the winter months with their health intact. Proper watering throughout the summer, as well as inspection and treatment of any pests or disease, will go a long way toward keeping trees healthy.

In fall, trees should be professionally assessed and, if needed, pruned to remove dead, damaged or diseased branches that can pose a safety hazard during the winter.

Some other preventative measures may need to be taken as well, based on any issues that the tree professional may discover. Things to look for include:

  • Split trunks
  • Peeling bark
  • Broken branches
  • Signs of pests or disease

If you have a multi-stem tree or bush that is likely to split in a heavy snowfall or ice storm, consider wrapping it with burlap or using wide strips of cloth (like nylons) to tie the main stems together. (Just remember to remove the cloth and/or burlap in spring, or you will harm the plant).

Learn more about how to prevent storm damage and what is preventable in our earlier blog post.

How to spot tree damage after winter storms

Most signs of winter tree damage are easy to spot – split or broken branches, limbs on the ground, or an entire toppled tree are all possible outcomes from winter storms. If your tree is covered in ice or snow, however, the damage may be more difficult to notice.

A tree can be dangerous in these situations so be sure to assess the situation before you or anyone else (other than a tree professional) get too close.

Note if the tree is near or touching a power line. If so, keep your distance and contact your local power company. It’s possible to be electrocuted even without touching the tree, so extreme caution must be taken.

If the tree or any of the tree limbs are blocking a road or driveway, don’t attempt to cut off ice-covered branches with power tools. Branches are more prone to fall when they are heavy-laden with ice, and the ice makes the tree and its branches slippery and dangerous. Many injuries happen from falling ice and branches as well, so contact a professional to remove the tree or branches from the area it is blocking.

Speaking of branches, if any are broken and hanging from the tree, you might not notice it right away. Take a good look at your tree canopy (from a safe distance) to assess if there are broken branches or limbs that have not yet fallen. Note if any people or property might be harmed if the branch does fall, and contact a professional to remove it.

What to do when your trees are damaged by snow or ice

Note that we provide 24/7 emergency tree service and storm clean up. If this is the case, contact us at 703-397-8441.

The potential for injury is high when trees are weighted down by ice or snow or when they have been damaged from strong winds. Do not walk underneath the damaged tree if possible, and wear a hard hat if you go anywhere near it. We recommend that you wait until the ice or snow has melted off the branches before doing anything near damaged trees or shrubs.

If they’re small enough to easily handle, remove broken branches that have fallen a safe distance from the tree and are lying on the ground, sidewalk, deck, patio, etc. For smaller trees and shrubs, you can try to carefully prune out the broken or damaged branches that can be reached from the ground.

However, most trees and shrubs that are bowed over from the weight of snow or ice should be left alone. If they’re healthy, most should recover by spring. Keep an eye on your landscape and contact a professional to assess them in spring if you think that the damage is more extensive. There are situations where the tree is irreparably damaged and the only option is to remove it.

Some corrective pruning may be needed in early spring (before the buds appear) as well, especially if a broken branch tore off bark or if a jagged stump was left.

A tree should never be topped, as this can actually make the situation worse. See our article about tree topping for more information about how this can harm and eventually kill a tree.

What NOT to do with heavy snow or ice on your trees

Though you may think you’re being helpful, do not shake the tree (or shrub) or hit it to try to remove the ice or snow. This causes ice to fall (again, that’s dangerous) and breaks off already-fragile branches. It can cause damage to the tree that might not be able to be repaired.

Don’t try to melt the ice either. Some have attempted to spray their shrubs and trees with water to melt the ice or snow, but that water ends up freezing and making the situation worse.

You also should not use salt or ice melt products on your trees or plants. In fact, you shouldn’t even use it near them! It can seep into the ground where the plant intakes it from the roots – but the salt/ice melt is toxic to plants and will kill them.

To review…

While winter storms can often catch us off guard, there are several things you can do before winter to minimize the risk of tree damage. After a winter storm, clean up what you (safely) can, wait for the snow and ice to melt off the plants, look for damage, and if necessary, call in a tree professional for a professional assessment or for corrective pruning or removals.