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April - What To Do About Winter Damage

Karna Berg, Master Gardener

As we think beyond winter to spring, you may encounter winter damage to some of your plants. In this article, Karna Berg reminds us how to give your plants a boost going into winter and how to deal with winter damage in a way that will allow plants to recover and, ultimately, flourish.

April - What To Do About Winter Damage

As you adjust to the cold of our winter, are you already looking ahead to spring?  Before we know it, it will be here.  In April, we start uncovering a few plants, anxious to find them poking their noses out of the mulch and leaves.  Unfortunately, as we continue that process, we find plants that have not made it through the winter or have winter damage.  What do we do?


Hopefully, you watered your plants, especially trees and shrubs, as long as you possibly could in the fall. That gives them a better chance of making it through the winter.  And also, you provided your perennial beds with a nice blanket of mulch and leaves.  In fact, as the first snows hit us, we can carefully shovel some of that snow under the lower branches of our conifers to act as a cushion and help the branches stay upright when the ice or extremely wet snow falls on them.

While it is tempting to try to remove snow and ice from our plants after a heavy snow, it is generally not a good idea.  The only exception to that is for conifers.  If you can safely brush some of the snow off those branches, it will help them stay upright. 

But no matter our fall attempts to prevent winter damage and death, we usually have some of it when spring comes.  It’s just hard to avoid all damage, particularly with our erratic weather patterns that bring warm days in March to fool our plants.

So, what can we do in spring?  First, don’t take off the mulch and leaves too early no matter how tempting that may be.  Wait until all chance of severe cold has passed.  We all remember that late snowfall or cold.  Also, walking on our gardens and lawns too early can cause foot damage. 

Then, start to assess damage winter caused in your garden.  On trees and shrubs (often the plants that experience the most damage), remove dead, dry and damaged foliage.  If you find broken branches, cut them back to the stem or back to the first live bud you find.  Always leave a little distance from the stem or bud when you do this trimming.  And if a limb is bent down but doesn’t appear dead, it may be possible to prop it up and see if it recovers. 

Again, in our perennial beds, hold back from uncovering them too early.  But don’t wait too long or you’ll find pale green limp plants trying to get to the sun.  If you have covered your perennials with mulch and leaves, most have probably made it through the winter.  Now it’s important to remove those leaves.  If not, they will smother the plants and cause mold in your garden. 

Also, the dreaded jumping worms, which live mainly in the top two inches of soil, love those leaves and will feed on them voraciously.  Let’s not give them any reason to fall in love with our garden. 

Once you have babied a plant along, hoping it will come back to life but it doesn’t, just remove it from your garden.  Then plant a native plant in its place.  Our native plants are best at dealing with our Minnesota winters.  And are also great for pollinators.  

Remember, when fall comes, water a lot but don’t fertilize your plants.  Watch your use of salt during the winter.  Then, hope for the best and enjoy spring! 


Photo credits: Rebecca Finneran, MSU Extension (1), University of Minnesota Extension (2, 3)

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