Assessing Winter Storm Damage in Your Garden: A Comprehensive Guide

Assessing Winter Storm Damage in Your Garden: A Comprehensive Guide

As the ice gradually melts away, many gardeners find themselves faced with the daunting task of assessing the damage inflicted upon their beloved gardens by the recent winter storm. While the initial urge might be to rush outside and inspect the damage, safety should always come first.

Safety First

Before stepping outside to evaluate the aftermath of the winter storm, take a moment to ensure your safety. Ice and debris might still be falling, making the outdoor environment hazardous. If you have large trees and limbs that appear to be posing a physical risk and you are uncertain about how to proceed, it is best to call a certified arborist. Safety should be your top priority.

Assessing Tree Damage

Trees are often the most prominent and vulnerable elements in your garden. Assessing the damage to your trees is crucial for their recovery and long-term health. Here are some key questions to ask when evaluating tree damage:

1. Is the Tree Generally Healthy?

Start by assessing the overall health of the tree. If the tree is otherwise healthy, not posing a hazard, and hasn't suffered significant structural damage, it is likely to recover with proper care.

2. Are Major Limbs Broken?

The size of the broken limbs matters. Larger broken limbs are harder for the tree to recover from. If most of the main branches are damaged or gone, the tree may have a reduced chance of survival.

3. Has the Leader Branch Been Lost?

In some tree species, the leader branch is crucial for upward growth or desired appearance. Losing the leader branch may affect the tree's aesthetics and growth.

4. Is at Least 50 Percent of the Tree's Crown Intact?

A good rule of thumb is that a tree with less than half of its branches remaining may struggle to produce enough foliage to sustain itself in the coming growing season.

5. What is the Size of the Wounds?

Evaluate the size of wounds where branches have been broken or bark has been damaged. Larger wounds in proportion to the limb size are less likely to heal, leaving the tree vulnerable to disease and pests.

6. Are There Remaining Branches for New Growth?

Check if there are remaining branches that can form a new branch structure. The remaining limbs will grow more vigorously as the tree attempts to replace its missing foliage.

Depending on your answers to these questions, you can decide whether to proceed with light pruning of damaged limbs, call a certified arborist for heavier cuts or removal, or wait and monitor the tree's progress over the coming weeks and months. Avoid topping the tree, as it can lead to further issues.

If you plan to prune, be aware that you may need a Pruning Permit from the city for street, private, and heritage trees, depending on the situation.

Patience is Key

While it may be tempting to make quick decisions about the future of your garden, patience is crucial when dealing with the aftermath of a winter storm. In the days and months ahead, you'll need to be a patient gardener to fully understand the effects of the recent cold snap and ice storm. Here are some specific considerations:

Broadleaf Evergreens

Your broadleaf evergreens may start to recover as the last remnants of ice melt away, but they might partially defoliate later. This doesn't necessarily mean your plants are beyond saving. Many bent trees will straighten themselves as the ice disappears, while others may require staking or tying off. Avoid manually shaking ice off limbs, as it can cause further damage.

Damage to Conifers and Deciduous Trees

Damage to conifers or deciduous trees may not be immediately apparent. Pay close attention over the next several weeks and months. Remember that the first sign of distress doesn't have to mean the end. Well-planted and cared-for trees, especially younger ones, are resilient.

While winter storms can take a toll on your garden, they can also wreak havoc on structures like greenhouses, low tunnels, and raised beds. These essential elements of your garden require special attention when assessing the damage caused by a winter storm. In this guide, we will provide you with valuable insights on how to evaluate and address winter storm damage to these structures.


  • Check for Structural Integrity: The first step in assessing greenhouse damage is to ensure its structural integrity. Look for any signs of damage to the frame, such as bent or broken supports, loose or missing bolts, or dislodged panels. A compromised structure may not only jeopardize your plants but also pose safety risks.
  • Inspect Glazing Materials: Examine the glazing materials, whether they are glass, polycarbonate, or plastic film. Look for cracks, holes, or shattered panels. Damaged glazing can affect insulation and temperature control within the greenhouse.
  • Evaluate Ventilation and Heating Systems: Ensure that ventilation systems are functioning correctly. Blocked or damaged vents can lead to poor air circulation, which can result in mold and mildew growth. Additionally, check heating systems to maintain a stable temperature during cold spells.
  • Assess Plant Damage: Examine your plants for cold damage, frostbite, or broken branches caused by the storm. Prune damaged areas to encourage new growth and prevent the spread of disease. Consider relocating sensitive plants to a warmer area within the greenhouse if necessary.
  • Clean Up Debris: Remove any debris, snow, or ice buildup both inside and outside the greenhouse. This will help prevent further damage and allow natural light to reach your plants.
  • Reinforce or Replace: Depending on the extent of damage, you may need to reinforce damaged sections or replace parts of the greenhouse. Consult with a professional if the damage is severe.

Low Tunnels

  • Check Tunnel Structure: Inspect the framework of your low tunnels for any bending, breakage, or shifting. A compromised structure may collapse under the weight of snow or ice.
  • Assess Cover Material: Evaluate the condition of the cover material, whether it's plastic, row cover fabric, or polyethylene. Tears or holes can expose your plants to the cold, affecting their growth and health.
  • Remove Snow and Ice: Safely remove snow and ice buildup from the tunnel to prevent additional stress on the structure. Use gentle techniques to avoid damaging the cover material.
  • Inspect Plants: Carefully assess your plants within the low tunnels. Look for signs of frost damage or excessive moisture. Prune damaged portions and provide proper ventilation to prevent mold and disease.
  • Reinforce and Repair: Reinforce any damaged parts of the tunnel structure and repair or replace cover materials as needed. Proper maintenance will extend the life of your low tunnels and protect your crops.

Raised Beds

  • Check Bed Edges: Examine the edges of your raised beds for any signs of shifting or damage caused by freezing and thawing cycles. Loose or damaged edges can lead to soil erosion.
  • Inspect Soil: Assess the condition of the soil within the raised beds. Cold temperatures and heavy precipitation can compact the soil, affecting drainage and aeration. Consider amending the soil as necessary.
  • Prune Plants: Inspect your plants for winter damage, including broken branches or frostbite. Prune damaged areas to encourage new growth and maintain plant health.
  • Clear Debris: Remove any debris, dead plant material, or fallen leaves from the raised beds. This will help prevent disease and pests from overwintering in your garden.
  • Mulch and Protect: Apply a layer of mulch to protect the soil and plant roots from extreme temperatures. Mulch also helps retain moisture and reduce weed growth.

In Summary

Assessing and addressing winter storm damage to trees, greenhouses, low tunnels, and raised beds is crucial for the well-being of your garden. Regular pruning, inspections, maintenance, and timely repairs will help you safeguard your structures and plants from the unpredictable nature of winter weather. By taking these steps, you can ensure that your garden remains resilient and productive throughout the year.

If you have any questions about plant health or care, please call our store in Albany.

Additional Resources

  1. Master Gardeners of Northern Virginia (MGNV): Their article, "Assessing and Dealing with Snowstorm Damage on Trees", delves into how heavy snowfall can cause significant damage to trees and shrubs, emphasizing the need for careful removal of damaged wood. Explore more on their website: MGNV.

  2. Ramsey Minnesota Master Gardeners: In the article titled "Will My Tree Make It? Assessing and Preventing Damage From Winter’s Snow and Ice", they discuss the impact of snowstorms on trees and shrubs, including how to assess damage and the steps to take for recovery and prevention. Learn more at: Ramsey Master Gardeners.

  3. Bedford Area Master Gardeners Association: Their piece, "Assessing and Dealing with Snowstorm Damage on Trees", provides insights on how to address tree and shrub damage post-snowstorm. More information is available here: Bedford Area Master Gardeners.

  4. Michigan State University Extension: This resource, referenced in the Ramsey Master Gardeners article, titled "Addressing Ice Storm Damage to Trees", provides expertise on handling ice storm damage specifically to trees. This resource can be found at: MSU Extension.

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