Winter Wear for Shrubs?

Last month,  before we had any snow (now we have about a foot!) I started to notice something that I notice every winter since I moved to upstate NY over 10 years ago…  Shrubs wearing clothes! No, I’m not crazy. Many arborvitae in the area have burlap wraps on for the winter months.  And other foundation shrubs are covered by burlap, A-frames, or a combination of the two.

Arborvitae along a busy state route wrapped in burlap for the winter.

Arborvitae along a busy state route wrapped in burlap for the winter.

Now the reason for these extra layers in the winter is to protect the shrubs from the cold, the wind and sun, the ice, the salt, or some combination of all these winter stressors.  Rather than embarrassing your shrubs all winter (can’t you just imagine what the other plants are saying about them!), if we think about the old gardener’s adage, right plant, right place, you should be able to avoid such a winter wardrobe for your landscape.

Arborvitae are hardy to zone 2 – so why in zone 4/5 do they need so much protection? They are susceptible to winter damage from dessication due to winter sun and winds on their south, southwest, and windward sides. They can also be  broken by heavy snow or ice, losing their ideal shape that many of the various cultivars are planted for. They are relatively salt tolerant, however, not highly, so they are not the best choice for being planted right along a roadway that is heavily salted in the winter.  If you think you have salt damage problems with some of your shrubs, the Morton Arboretum does a great job explaining the different types of salt damage and the symptoms and lists a variety of salt tolerant trees and shrubs to try.

burlapAnd what do we know about how arborvitae are often used in the landscape? If you don’t already know, a quick drive around whatever town you live in should show that landscapers and homeowners love using them for privacy, as living fences along the road or along their property in place of a fence. Often in very exposed locations where they are very susceptible to winter damage from the sun, wind, and salt spray.  When planted in more protected locations, and in more natural plantings, rather than straight rows, you can enjoy these popular evergreens year-round without the winter hassle or worry. We have a number of arborvitae planted on our property and I have never done anything to them for the winter, and they seem to be doing just fine! I think arborvitae have fallen victim to becoming so popular as hardy, evergreen privacy shrubs for landscaping that their susceptibility to winter damage when not planted in the right place is just overlooked most of the time – that is, until the winter arrives!

house with a frames copyThe second trend in winter-wear that I see this time of year is the A-frame. This is mainly over foundation shrubs, to protect them from heavy snow falling off the roof.  Again, this can be avoided if we take some time to think through landscaping the front of our house.  A line of yews is standard for the front of many houses around here. Evergreen and short, they hide ugly foundations year round. But if they have to be covered in ugly A-frames all winter – are they really worth it?  I think not.

tall a frames by door copyOne simple fix is moving shrubs farther out from the front of the house so the snow doesn’t fall so directly on them.  This also helps year-round, as having shrubs right against your house traps moisture, encouraging rot, or insect damage if you have wood siding.  Many houses I visit have shrubs right up against them – and moving them out for better air circulation is always one of the suggestions I make.

Think about using large structural perennials or ferns in place of shrubs.  Solomon’s seal is a great choice for shady locations.  It’s height is just about perfect for covering most foundations, and you don’t have to worry about it in the winter since it dies back.  The same goes for many of our taller ferns, such as Ostrich Fern or Goldie’s Wood Fern. Or try some Smooth Hydrangea.  These usually get trimmed back each year anyway – so a little winter breakage is no big deal! Shrubs such a Red-Twig Dogwood that have more open branching, are less likely to have damage from heavy snow, and can also be a good choice.  And their red twigs add a great pop of color in the winter. There are lots of great native plants that you can use – that don’t require a winter wardrobe. Many of which are highlighted on this very blog year-round! When landscaping in the summer, just don’t forget to think about how those plants will do in the winter as well.

If you want to learn more about winter damage, there are lots of great resources available, but this Minnesota Extension page about winter damage is a good place to start.

© 2012, Emily DeBolt. All rights reserved. This article is the property of Native Plants and Wildlife Gardens. We have received many requests to reprint our work. Our policy is that you are free to use a short excerpt which must give proper credit to the author, and must include a link back to the original post on our site. Please use the contact form above if you have any questions.

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  1. says

    Amazing! Although I cannot speak to the practice in your area, and have never seen it in the South, but the principal is the same everywhere. I often see people going to great lengths to try to protect things that have no business being planted where they end up. It leads to great frustration on the part of the owner and seriously compromised plants that are much more susceptible to disease, insects and mechanical damage. This is especially true if the owner insists on using non-natives. They begin their existence being stressed and every extra factor simply acts to make the problem grow. A good example for my area – a zone 7b – is the massive use of Japanese Holly. Although it can be an effective and pretty shrub if used in the right place, it fries when used in places like along paving (think parking lots and roads) and yet it is consistently being used n these areas and consistently performing badly. A better choice for these spots might be the native inkberry, but you rarely see it used.
    Alison Pockat recently posted..Take Stock Now for Spring Changes

  2. says

    I never quite got the winter wear either as I live in the Syracuse area….but I cannot plant arborvitae here because the deer will destroy it as they will eat it to the top and in to the main trunk stripping it of all the foliage…so if you don’t wrap them the deer will eat them…so I don’t plant them after all what good is a covered or shrouded shrub to birds who look for shelter.
    Donna@Gardens Eye View recently posted..Simply The Best-December

    • says

      that is a good point that I didn’t talk about – that the burlap can protect them from deer as well as winter weather. But I would rather just use plants that the deer don’t eat so I don’t have to worry about it.

  3. says

    We have many examples of these crimes against nature around here during the winter months. I can’t imagine spending so much time and effort protecting shrubs when there are so many wonderful native choices that don’t require such coddling! And those foundation shrubs. Around here there is only Chinese Azalea, Yew, and Forsythia groomed into perfect squares in front of every house. It’s so boring.
    Carole Sevilla Brown recently posted..The Holiday Wildlife Garden

  4. says

    The first image reminds me of some Christo instalations. At least Christo’s approach is to create ephemeral pieces of art.
    This would be hilarious if it wasn’t such a sad commentary on the irrationality of humans. We would do better if we tried to be in tune with Nature.
    Beatriz Moisset recently posted..Monarchs and their Enemies


  1. […] Do I need to wrap my shrubs in burlap for the winter? Last month,  before we had any snow (now we have about a foot!) I started to notice something that I notice every winter since I moved to upstate NY over 10 years ago…  Shrubs wearing clothes! No, I’m not crazy. Many arborvitae in the area have burlap wraps on for the winter months.  And other foundation shrubs are covered by burlap, A-frames, or a combination of the two. […]

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