ice covered tree

Freezing rain, ice storms, and heavy, wet snow can strike at any time during the colder months, causing extensive damage to trees, shrubs and landscape plants. While you can’t control the Dayton weather, there are some things you can do to prevent the worst of the damage. And knowing what to do after ice or snow has covered your trees can go a long way in helping them recover.

Assess the Danger

Before going near an ice-covered tree, take a close look for these signs of a dangerous situation –

  • Is the tree touching or near a power line? If so, stay well away and contact your local utility company. Even if you’re not touching the tree, it’s possible to get electrocuted.
  • Is the tree or any of its limbs blocking a road or driveway? Don’t attempt to cut down the tree or cut off ice-covered branches with power tools. The ice will make it extremely slippery and dangerous – ice can be dislodged by vibrations and branches are more prone to breakage while covered with ice. Falling ice and branches can cause serious injury so call in an experienced professional to take care of it.
  • Are there any broken branches hanging from the tree? It’s not always obvious that a branch has been damaged, especially when covered with ice, so take note of anything that looks like it’s “not quite right”. Broken limbs can fall without notice, causing extensive damage and/or injury.

Carefully Clean Up What You Can

Always be careful working around trees that are weighted down by ice or snow; only go underneath the tree if absolutely necessary (and if you have a hard hat, wear it). It’s usually best to just let the ice or snow melt before doing anything under or near damaged trees or shrubs.

But for smaller trees or shrubs where you can reach damaged branches from the ground, you can carefully prune out the damaged parts. Remove fallen branches lying on the ground, sidewalk, driveway, patio, etc. if they’re not too big.

Leave the Rest For Later

Most trees and shrubs that have been bowed down by the extra weight of ice or snow will recover by spring. If they haven’t straightened out by then, have a professional assess whether or not they can be saved. Sometimes, the only solution is to remove the tree entirely.

If the broken branch has torn bark off the tree or left a jagged stump, the tree will need corrective pruning. Trees are dormant during winter so this work can be left until later in the season. However, it’s best to have it done before spring bud break.

Never have a tree topped! Doing so only weakens the tree and leaves it open to more damage in the next storm. If a tree is so damaged that topping seems to be the only option (usually when more than 50% of the tree is damaged), then it’s better to have the tree removed instead.

Some shrubs with extensive damage can be cut to the ground in spring. See our article on rejuvenation pruning for details.

What NOT To Do!

Don’t shake the tree/shrub or hit it with anything. Doing so will only result in falling ice, broken branches and irreversible damage to the tree or shrub. I’ve seen people trying to rake or knock snow off trees that were bent over from the weight of frozen snow – it didn’t end well (for the person or the tree).

Don’t try to melt the ice by spraying the plants with water. The water will just turn into ice and compound the problem.

And never use salt or ice melt products on or around plants – the compounds are toxic to plant tissue and will kill your tree or shrub.

Preventing Snow and Ice Damage to Trees and Shrubs

Prevention is always the best course of action, although it won’t always eliminate winter storm damage.

Before winter arrives, have trees professionally inspected and any defects addressed. Things to look for include:

  • Trees with more than one main stem (central leader) and those with multiple stems (such as a clump of birch)
  • Narrow branch crotches
  • Broken branches
  • Split trunks

Proper pruning can help to address some of these issues, but in other cases, it may be necessary to remove trees if they’re considered to be dangerous. Multi-stemmed trees and some other problems can be resolved through cabling, although even cabled trees can split (mostly above the cables) if there’s too much ice.

For shrubs that are susceptible to damage, consider wrapping them with burlap or tying the main stems together with wide strips of cloth (pantyhose work well!). Just be sure to remove everything in spring.

Trees and Shrubs Most Susceptible to Snow and Ice Damage

Some trees and shrubs are more likely to suffer from ice and snow load than others. For example, fast-growing trees with soft wood, like elm, birch, poplar, silver maple and willows can be damaged by the extra weight of ice after an ice storm. And Callery (or Bradford) pears have a bad habit of splitting and falling apart.

Evergreen shrubs like arborvitae, juniper and yew can be split apart by heavy snow or ice loads, and you’ll often see tall arborvitae hedges leaning over in all directions.

If we get an early, wet snow or ice storm, trees that haven’t yet dropped their foliage will be worst hit, with many sustaining catastrophic damage.

In Summary

Not all ice or snow damage can be avoided, but taking preventive action will minimize the harmful effects of winter storms. After an ice storm, it’s best to let trees and shrubs recover on their own or, if there’s significant damage, call in a Certified Arborist to evaluate and correct the problem.