Tree Care In Winter

Winter Tree Problems

During the winter season, the northeast often experiences its share of inclement weather. The lush fall colors go dormant, giving way to frequent snowfall, icy conditions, and rapid temperature fluctuations. This presents a slew of challenges for the trees located across our region. Even species that are more acclimated to the frigid climate are not immune to its effects. Here are some common problems that can afflict your trees during the winter months, and some tips for how you can go about preserving their health.

Winter Drought

What Is Winter Drought

arborvitaes affected by winter droughtWinter drought, which is also referred to as winter drying, winter desiccation, or winterkill, is a foliage disorder that commonly afflicts evergreens in the northeast. Winter drought occurs when a tree loses more water than it is able to absorb, typically due to the soil either being completely frozen, or too cold for water to be properly absorbed throughout the tree’s roots. It is most common on warm and windy days following especially cold weather. When impacted by winter drought, evergreens lose their moisture, resulting in the death and desication of their foliage, and in more severe instances, their buds.

What to Look For:

The results of winter drought tend to become evident in the spring. As an afflicted evergreen resumes its growth, the affected foliage will begin to turn brown. On narrow-leaved species, this browning occurs on the tips, while on broad-leaved species, the browning occurs on the tips, and along the margins of the leaves. If the evergreen’s buds have been affected, dieback in the tree’s twigs and branches may occur.


There are a number of ways that you can go about managing the effects of winter drought. By regularly fertilizing, pruning and watering your trees throughout the spring, summer, and fall, you help to maintain their health, and vigor. A healthy tree is more likely to sustain itself throughout the winter months. It is especially important to assure that evergreens are well watered in the late fall. As winter approaches, and the temperatures begin to plummet, this helps your trees retain their moisture, and stave off winter drought. You may also mitigate winter drought by laying down mulch around the base of the tree. This can prevent your soil from freezing, and greatly reduce soil moisture loss.

The wind is another concern. Dry wind causes transpiration, moisture loss in your trees, sapping them of their water, and causing them to dry out. Fortunately, there are a few tools that you can use in order to offset it effects, including windbreaks, and anti-transpirants. Windbreaks minimize the impact of wind on your trees. Whether personally constructed, or supplied naturally by surrounding trees and shrubs, windbreaks act as a buffer from the wind and sun. This further reduces moisture loss, and shields trees from battering winds. Applying an anti-transpirant spray such as Moisturin or Wilt Pruf will also help to restrict transpirational moisture loss. Anti-transpirants are compounds designed to reduce the loss of water vapor in trees, a natural process referred to as transpiration.

Altogether, taking these precautions helps to safeguard your trees from winter drought. In the spring, be sure to assess your trees for winter drought, and remember to always have any dead or decaying limbs removed by a professional arborist.

Cold Stress

What is Cold Stress?

The winter season is often bitterly cold, with temperatures constantly shifting throughout the day. The dry air and the constant chill are enough to leave us huddled indoors, reaching for a hot cup of cocoa. But while we are able to retreat from the frigid climate, seeking shelter within the comfort of our homes, the trees that dot the northeast must endure the elements. Cold stresses are what result when a tree is impacted in some way by the winter elements.

tree with cold stressWhat to Look For:

Trees exhibit cold stress in a number of different ways. Sharp temperature fluctuations can create stresses within a tree, causing cracks to appear in the bark. This type of cold stress is commonly referred to as frost cracking, or southwest injury (since frost cracking generally occurs on the side of the tree that receives the most winter sunlight).

Another type of cold stress is concentrated around late tree growth. If a tree’s growth occurs late in the fall, it becomes especially vulnerable to sudden early frosts. In the event of an early frost, tiny ice crystals form on the tips of new branches. These can cause severe frost damage, rupturing the cell walls of the freshly grown tips, and causing them to die back the following season.


effect of winter drought on treeIt is difficult to predict when frost cracking will occur, but in the event that it does, most trees will attempt to repair themselves by mending any wounds that they sustain. Although this serves as a temporary salve for the tree, it still leaves it vulnerable to further cracking. By wrapping the bark of your trees in cold weather blankets during the fall, you reduce the chance of them experiencing any frost cracking at all. Anti-transpirants such as Moisturin and Wilt Pruf can assist in the prevention of frost cracking as well, and help to restrict moisture loss in your trees.

In order to avoid late tree growth, wait until after your trees have gone dormant in the fall to have them pruned. Pruning them too early in the season can promote new tree growth, and leave any new branches that form susceptible to frost damage. Once in their dormant state, they may be safely pruned. This benefits your trees, as the period between late fall and the end of winter is one of the best times to have them pruned.

Weak Limbs & Branch Breakage

What is branch breakage?

broken branch in need of pruning

Broken branches should be pruned to avoid risk and prevent disease.

During the winter, tree limbs harden, and become more brittle, leaving them susceptible to storm and wind damage. Branch breakage occurs when a tree limb has become too weak to support itself, and it detaches itself from the tree.

What to Look For:

Look for any limbs that seem to be dying back, or not producing any new growth. If the branches, or leaves have a brown or copper tinge to them, it could indicate disease. Any dead or decaying branches are vulnerable to breakages as well, and should be removed at once by a professional arborist.


In order to prevent your trees from experiencing branch breakage, be sure to keep them well maintained throughout the year. By properly fertilizing them, and making sure that they are watered and pruned, you will help your trees remain healthy and vigorous. Pruning is especially important, as it allows you to detect, and remove any weak or vulnerable limbs that may be present in your trees.

These are some of the more common problems that afflict trees throughout the northeast during the winter months. If you have any additional questions about how you can help care for your trees, or you would like to have your trees assessed by one of our certified arborists, call 978-948-2222. Or you can also fill out our online contact form.


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