Winter Storm Informaton

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Winter Takes Its Toll On Landscape Plantings

Ron Smith, Horticulturist and Turfgrass Specialisit

Since early November we have been overwhelmed with winter weather in the form of snow, freezing rain, high winds and penetratingly cold temperatures. If all this is having a negative effect on human moods and well-being, what kind of an impact could it be having on landscape plantings?

To start with the good news:

We now have an abundance of snow around the base of our woody plants, and in many places snow completely covers our herbaceous perennials. Snow is an excellent insulator, and this depth of snow will keep these plants from succumbing to the low temperature extremes. While the air can be a horrible 15 to 25 degrees below zero, the soil beneath the snow may be a comparatively balmy +20 to +25 degreesa big difference where cold hardiness is concerned. When plants die from low temperatures, it is usually because the root system has been damaged by extreme temperature. Some flower bud damage and leaf bud damage may occur above the snow line due to the extreme cold, but this damage is unlikely to be lethal to species well-adapted to our region.

Now the bad news.

The extensive and early snow cover has created havoc with the wild animal population across our region: the animals are hungry.

It used to be that a person would be concerned only about protecting young fruit trees and shrubs from the ravages of deer, mice or rabbits. Now almost every tree and shrub is fair game to these hungry natives of the wild. Rabbits can walk across the snow with impunity and chew on the tops of many species of trees and shrubs, in some cases eating them right down to the snow line! Other creatures simply take the buds off trees such as lindens, ash and maple. With the snow depth being what it is in most areas, the extent of the damage caused by voles will not be known until the spring thaw (a plant that is completely girdled by chewing will need to be replaced).

What to do?

There are four basic ways of protecting plants from damage by the animal population: exclude them, repel them, trap them or poison them. Putting up exclusion fencing or barriers made of hardware cloth is perhaps the most effective approach, but also the most difficult for the homeowner to implement.

Some repellents work by scent, some by taste. Scent repellents made with the urine of a predator--cat, dog, wolf, or human--can be sprayed on and around the area to be protected, and when the plant-eating animal arrives for a meal it will be driven away by the smell. Taste repellents, which are more likely to be readily available, repel the animal after it has tasted the plant material.

Both types of repellent must be reapplied about every two weeks.

Live trapping is sometimes effective, but creates the problem of properly removing and releasing the live animal in another area. As to poisoning, this should be done only as a last option, where absolutely necessary. Using poison can endanger pets and children, and disposing of the poisoned animal can also be a problem.

Winter is a far from finished assaulting our landscape plants. We will have to be on our toes (literally!) to try to prevent further damage from the animal population. It's probably too late to do anything now to protect plants from the wind, heavy snow and freezing rains that are typical of the remaining months of winter. Remedial pruning and plant replacement may be a necessity this spring.

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