Winter’s Wrath:  Protecting your Landscape for Springtime Success

When visitors enjoy the spectacular flowers and textures of a lush, mature landscape during a warm Michigan summer, the last thing on their minds is the blustery winter winds guaranteed to arrive in a few short months. In a climate like Michigan’s, winter’s coldest spells determine the success or failure of beautiful summer flowers and foliage.

Think Ahead

The first step to winter wind protection is planting the correct species. Michigan ranges from zone 4a to zone 6b on the USDA hardiness map, so selecting plants hardy to our growing climate is essential. Plants outside of Michigan’s hardiness zones can be added to the landscape for the summer months, but they will need to be brought inside for the winter months if they are to be replanted the following season.

Many landscape plants can benefit from being protected for the winter. While deciduous plants, such as trees with leaves, go dormant for the winter, evergreen trees or shrubs are most prone to winter burn, as they are still taking up water during the winter months. When the soil freezes and cold winds extract moisture from their needles, the plant can no longer replenish that moisture, resulting in winter burn.  

Newly planted landscapes are more susceptible to winter burn than mature landscapes. New plants send out new roots and don’t yet have a mature root system that will retain enough moisture to thrive. This, along with adjusting to a new growing environment – and possibly a different climate than it was originally grown in – means that tender plants will need help getting established. Taking the time to research winter care for these plants or consulting a landscape professional is time well spent to ensure springtime success.

Heavy burlap is a great choice to protect deciduous and tender evergreen plants. It is inexpensive and very strong. Burlap’s light brown color blends into the landscape and doesn’t retain heat, which prevents plants from sprouting early. For instance, certain varieties of hydrangea will not flower the following spring if the flower buds freeze and die during the winter months. It is best to wrap these and fill the wrapping with leaves to help insulate the buds. If you have seen a hydrangea that does not flower during its normal bloom time, there’s a good chance its flower buds froze the previous winter.

Landscape professionals can also apply an anti-desiccant spray to slow down the transpiration process of trees and shrubs when necessary during the winter months. This natural solution helps close the pores of the tree’s foliage and prevents winter burn by allowing the tree to stay hydrated and use less water extracted from frozen soils.

Wind fences are a great way to protect your landscape from harsh winter winds. Large landscape beds with trees or shrubs present can benefit from having a 6- or 8-foot tall wind fence erected to slow winds down. Protecting multiple plants in a bed with a simple screen is a very efficient way to approach winter care.

Steel T-posts are the most common way to install winter fencing. They are readily available, inexpensive, reusable and very strong. One downfall to these posts is they can damage underground utilities and sprinkler lines when installed. To avoid this hassle every year, homeowners can have professional landscape contractors install a comprehensive fence system that utilizes permanent sleeves installed in the ground, where round posts can slide into these sleeves for fence material to be attached. While the upfront cost is more, the annual installation of the fence is incredibly fast and your underground utilities are safe year after year.

Deer control is another essential wintertime consideration. As a deer’s natural food source becomes scarce, they eat accessible landscape plants they typically would not consume during the summer months. While plastic deer fence is a popular choice, it can become brittle over multiple years of use due to UV exposure. Metal fencing will last for many more years and can also help control rabbits and rodents.

The most typical landscape damage from rabbits and rodents during the winter months is called girdling. This occurs when healthy bark is eaten off the plant, which stops nutrient flow from the roots to the branches. This process will often kill portions of or even the entire tree or shrub. 

Along lakes, winds work to erode sandy beaches. To help minimize this, tall wood-slat fences can be erected to help keep beach sand in place. Homeowners who do not take this step risk their landscape becoming full of sand driven in by winter winds, and their groomed beach could also have a large accumulation of stones and debris in the spring. Erecting wind fences on a beach can save hundreds or thousands of dollars and time when spring arrives. 

Proper winter protection often starts with the selection and installation of a plant, shrub or tree. If the plant is hardy in your zone, it may require less winter protection depending on its environment. If it is a new landscape or sensitive plant material, homeowners will need to commit to a winter care program to help the plants thrive. Landscape professionals can help you protect your investment and ensure the vibrant springtime health of your home’s beautiful landscape.