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Ice accumulates on trees after a winter ice storm

Last night a period of freezing rain moved through the Shenandoah Valley. The temperature dipped just below freezing in the early morning but fortunately the ice didn’t accumulate much before it warmed up and everything began to melt off. We were lucky this time! Ice and snow buildup can sometimes cause major damage to trees and shrubs in the landscape, especially if the ice is thick or the snow is wet and heavy.

Heavy wet snow lay on the trees.

Heavy, wet snow lay on the trees.

While we were in Vermont over Christmas and New Year’s, we had two nice snow storms. The first came a few days after Christmas. The temperature was above freezing when it started so it began as rain. In the afternoon, the temperature began to drop and soon the rain shifted over to snow. The flakes were huge and wet and beautiful! This snow came down fast and accumulated quickly. Soon everything was covered with a blanket of heavy snow.

Glad my brother-in law brought the plow to dinner!

Glad my brother-in-law brought
the plow to dinner!

Because the snow started out very wet and the temperature dropped quickly, the snow became frozen to the branches of the trees. Generally, snow doesn’t accumulate heavily on deciduous trees because it typically falls through the branches to the ground below. This particular snow just seemed to stick tight to the branches which allowed even more snow to accumulate on them. My sister’s birch tree beside her house became so laden with snow that it bent almost to the ground. The hemlock off her deck was bowing pretty low as well. Luckily these trees were pretty resilient and they bounced back up when they were relieved of their burden of snow.

Snow accumulated on all the tree branches creating a beautiful winter wonderland. Thanks to my nieces for the pictures!

Snow accumulated on all the tree branches creating a beautiful
winter wonderland. Thanks to my nieces for the pictures!

The second snowfall was light and fluffy.

The 2nd snowfall was light and fluffy.

The second snowfall began on the evening of New Year’s Day and continued through the next day and night. It was really cold during this time with a high of 16oF and a low of -5oF. The contrast between this snow which was light and fluffy with tiny snowflakes and the previous snow was striking. This snow took a long time to accumulate because the flakes were so small. Even though it snowed steadily for more than 24 hours, we only got about 10″. It was beautiful!

This fine, light snow mostly fell right through the branches of the trees and what did accumulate was blown off in the slightest breeze. When the wind blew, we would see clouds of snow drifting through the woods. It reminded me of the yellow clouds of pine pollen blowing in the wind at our house in the spring! Cleaning off the cars was easy – Scott, my clever brother-in-law just fired up his leaf blower and voila – clear in a matter of seconds!!

A rhododendron droops under the weight of the snow.

A rhododendron droops under
the weight of heavy snow.

Most snowfalls in our area aren’t this light and fluffy and our landscape trees, shrubs, and woody perennials can at times suffer damage due to heavy snow or ice accumulation. One of the best ways to minimize storm damage to your trees and shrubs is to keep them properly pruned and thinned.

Even with that they can still become weighed down by ice and snow and we are often asked what to do for trees and shrubs in the aftermath of an ice storm or a heavy snow.

With snow accumulation, if it’s not too heavy, you can sometimes take a broom and gently brush the snow from the branches. It is best not to shake the branches as this can cause breakage.

Euonymus covered with a layer of ice.

Euonymus covered with a layer of ice.

In the case of ice accumulation, it is always better to let the ice melt off naturally. If you try to knock it off you will usually do more damage to your trees and shrubs and it’s also very dangerous. The same holds for a heavy, wet snow.

Most trees and shrubs will bounce back after the snow or ice melts off so it is usually safer to be patient and wait until they thaw out.

Once everything melts, you will be able to see if any permanent damage was done.

The most important thing is to be safe!

  • Ice buildup on a Japanese maple.

    Ice buildup on a Japanese maple.

    Don’t go near trees or branches that have fallen on power lines.

  • Watch for large broken branches that are hanging precariously and could fall in a gust of wind.
  • Assess the damage to determine if it is something that you can handle yourself or if you need to call in a professional tree service for help. Large limbs can be extremely heavy (hundreds of pounds) and dangerous!
  • Broken branches are one of the most common problems. Avoid any trimming or pruning that necessitates getting up on a ladder. This can be extremely dangerous especially if there is snow or ice on the ground.
  • When using a pole saw or trimmer, be mindful of any telephone or power lines and stay well away from these. It’s very easy to lose track of where they are in relation to where you are cutting! Better yet, leave this pruning to a professional.

Click for more tips on dealing with snow and ice damage.

Happy New Year everyone!

Until next time – Happy Gardening!

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