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Wrapping Trees For Winter Protection

Wrapping trees for winter protection is not an attempt to keep them ‘warm’ but has the objective to prevent or minimize three sources of winter damage: from desiccating winds, sunscald, and gnawing rodents. Even if the trees in the landscape have survived previous winters unscathed, a wise horticulturist would not try to stretch this luck too far. Winters in ND, SD, and MN are so unpredicatble and variable that even well-established plantings can get hit hard when least expected.

 Protection from Desiccating Winds:

Don’t wrap evergreen trees like a Christmas present with burlap. That has the potential to create more problems than it solves by eliminating too much light and packing the branches too closely together, which often breeds disease problems before the covering gets taken off in the spring. Instead opt for a buffer against the wind and direct sunshine on newly planted or smaller evergreens in this fashion:

Buffer a Tree

This burlap barrier would be oriented to buffer the winds and direct sunshine from the west or southwest, yet still allow the top to get sufficient sunlight and air. Using anti-desiccants have not proven to be effective in this, in spite of the fact they are still promoted and used by homeowners and professionals alike. The anti-desiccants simply do not have the staying power needed to see them through the long winter months.

Protection from Sunscald:

This is really an incorrect term as the sun doesn’t actually ‘scald’ the trunk or bark of the tree. Common on newly or recently planted trees, it shows up on the west or southwest side of the thin-barked trees the spring following the winter months. On cold winter days, the sun can heat up bark to the point where cambial activity is stimulated. When the sun is blocked by a cloud, hill, or building, bark temperature drops rapidly, killing the active tissue. The result is something like this:

Sunscald

The sketch on the left shows the damage caused which will heal slowly if at all, while the sketch on the right shows the wound cleaned up by cutting the loosened and damaged bark back to where it is attached to the trunk cylinder. From there, normal healing will begin taking place at the start of the growing season.

Rodent Damage:

Rabbits and voles are the major perpetrators of this damage. Rabbits can walk across the top of snow cover and nibble branches and girdle the trunk. Voles will work on the trunks of trees under the snow. The tree should be wrapped with either Kraft paper or hardware cloth up to the first branch, and from that point up, the branches sprayed with a repellant like Liquid Fence or Plantskydd. Both will also protect against deer damage in rural areas. Wrapping in this manner will also protect the trees from sunscald.

Wrapping a Tree Trunk

By being a little proactive in care for your woody plants, ND’s severe winters need not be a major concern. Little things can make a difference from one season to another, such as microclimate. If a particular tree or shrub just doesn’t come through the winter in a particular location no matter what care is provided, consider a relocation on your property where slight climatic conditions may make a difference.

Ron Smith, Ph.D.   
Horticulturist and Turfgrass Specialist
ISA Certified Arborist

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