Most people seldom think of their shrubs during the winter. They assume that if the plant is rated as hardy for their climate, it should survive the season without any problems. While technically, this is the case, chances are a bit of planning and preparation will make sure that your shrubs have a stress-free winter.
Protect spring-blooming shrubs
I have Encore® azaleas in the front of my home. They put on a lovely show each spring and fall (the two bloom cycles are why they are called Encores®.) While they are hardy in my Zone 7a west Kentucky, I've found that sometimes extra cold weather conditions freeze the spring flowerbuds before they have a chance to bloom. When extra cold weather is forecast, giving the azaleas a bit of extra winter protection ensures me of having both seasons of blooms. I keep a few thrift store comforters folded in my garage and when unseasonable cold weather is coming, I first make sure the shrubs have adequate moisture by giving them a good long drink. Properly hydrated shrubs tend to survive adverse conditions better than those lacking moisture. The hydrated branch tips are healthier and will have a smaller chance of frost burn if they are watered properly. I cover the azaleas with the old comforters, making sure that they come all the way to the ground. A couple of stakes driven into the ground nearby, keeps the fabric from touching the leaves and protects the plants as well. These insulated tents can stay in place several days, or until the temperatures moderate and will protect the spring blooms.
Rodent damage is another winter problem
Another problem shrubs have in the winter is rodent damage. When snow falls, rodents such as rabbits, squirrels, voles and mice tend to eat the bark of your trees and shrubs, this can weaken or even kill your expensive landscaping. They tunnel under the snow, or just under the surface of the ground and chew the bark and twigs of many trees and shrubs. This not only weakens the plant, it makes it easier for insects to move in later. The easiest way to prevent rodent damage is to construct barriers. Hardware cloth wrapped around trunks and buried about a foot underground often keeps most rodents at bay. Squirrels however, will simply climb over the barriers. Keeping alternative foods available often deters them. A little corn can go a long way toward keeping Mr. Squirrel away from your shrubs and trees. Rabbits and mice tend to respect the barriers. Pulling mulch away from the trunks of your trees, raking dead leaves and grasses and generally keeping a clean garden also repels rodents since they have fewer places to hide.
Protect evergreens from drying winter winds
Evergreen trees and shrubs never fully go dormant, so gardeners should be aware that they need extra moisture than deciduous trees and shrubs. Winter winds and cold temperatures can dry out branch tips and cause dieback. The best way to prevent damage to your evergreens is to quit pruning them from mid-summer on. Also don't fertilize after mid-summer either. Both practices stimulate new growth and going into winter, you do not want tender new growth that can get nipped during a cold snap. Wrapping young evergreens with burlap is another way to protect them. It gives another layer of protection from drying winds and cold. Evergreens also need ample water during the winter, so make sure your plants are well-hydrated before a hard freeze is forecast.
Ice storm damage probably needs a professional
All trees and shrubs will need some help if heavy snow or an ice storm happens. Heavy, wet snow can break limbs or split the bark or wood. Ice is actually worse than snow and an ice storm can affect how your garden looks for decades. We had a huge ice storm in 2009 and the area is still recovering. The image below is of my own orchard. If it is just snow, take a broom and knock the snow from the branches. The best thing you can do for an ice storm is prevention. Make sure that your trees have a strong central leader and that there are strong branch attachments. A good arborist can properly prune your trees and shrubs to mitigate the damage. During an ice storm, it is best to let Mother Nature take care of her own. Don't shake the trees, this can cause branches to snap. Don't turn water on them hoping to melt the ice, you'll end up making more ice. After the ice melts, it is best to contact a professional tree service to properly prune the breakage. If the broken branches are improperly pruned, insects and disease can further weaken your plants.
Plan ahead to protect your trees and shrubs
With a little planning and preparation, winter damage to your trees and shrubs can be prevented. Pay attention to your local weather forecasts and take precautions if severe weather is on the horizon. Remember that your shrubs need moisture in the winter to remain healthy and any damage that does happen should be dealt with promptly.