Just Say No to Winter Protection

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Bonsai

Winter protection: could anything be uglier?

I don’t know if the “winter protection” phenomenon has hit your region or not, but where I live, it is everywhere. Just looking out my front window, I can see rows of shrubs, conifers, and yes, even trees wrapped up for the winter. Of course, I do live in an area with particularly cold winters, but the winter protection fad seems to have little to do with the cold per se. After all, my next-door neighbor completely covers his lilacs even though they’re perfectly hardy here. It’s as if a sort of fear of winter has overtaken local gardeners − I like to call it Winterangst and pronounce it with a German accent, which makes is sound so much better! − and they no longer trust Mother Nature to do her job.

Bonsai

This homeowner still protects a very large shrub for the winter. Aside from the ugliness factor, this must be a lot of work.

I see shrubs wrapped in burlap, plastic snow fence or geotextile and covered by wooden cages, barricades, and, of course, the granddaddy of them all: rose cones. These various shelters have come to be called “winter protections”, as if the word protection had somehow come to mean a structure of some sort.

Why do people install them? Mostly they seem to think that winter protections will indeed protect plants from the cold. That is, of course, utter nonsense: if it’s -20 outside the shelter, it will be -20 inside too. In actual fact, what these shelters actually do is to somewhat reduce the drying effect of prevailing winds. So I’m not saying they have no effect whatsoever, but… isn’t there a less ugly way of getting plants through the winter?

Of course, not only are winter protections ugly, they add a great deal to your workload: not only do you have to install them in the fall, but you have to remove them in the spring, doubling the work. And you’ll need to store them somewhere as well: yet another complication.

The Right Plant in the Right Place

Bonsai

I can’t imagine any plant I love so much I’d put this much work into protecting it!

As a laidback gardener, I abhor working for no good reason. So I naturally regard winter protection with great suspicion. I don’t see why all that work should be necessary… and in my opinion, it is often carried out for literally no good reason whatsoever. If I choose plants adapted to existing conditions on my property, why would winter protection be necessary at all? So I try to grow only plants that will like my conditions: the right plant in the right place, in other words.

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The hardiness zone is generally listed on most hardy plant labels.

That means, of course, choosing carefully. For example, I try to stick to plants that will adapt to my hardiness zone. I live in USDA zone 3 (AgCan zone 4), so I look for plants adapted to that zone and to colder zones, therefore zones 1, 2, and 3. If you live in zone 5, you would look for plants adapted to zones 1, 2, 3, 4, and 5. After all, why would you want to plant, say, a zone 7 plant in zone 6? One of these days a particularly hard winter will kill it, even if you wrap it up.

Since these days most nursery plants have a label indicating their hardiness zone, that should be easy enough, but… you have to watch out for “exaggerated” hardiness zones. For example, you’ll see most hybrid tea and grandiflora roses labeled as zone 5… yet they are really, depending on the cultivar, zone 7 or even 8 plants. Why lie so blatantly on the label? Because the supplier takes it for granted that you know enough to cover them with a mound of soil and a rose cone or other shelter, and they will survive in zone 5, for a few years at least, if carefully mounded and protected. Given my climate, I simply don’t grow hybrid tea and grandiflora roses, but stick instead to hardy ones (mostly shrub roses) grown on their own roots. (See No Winter Protection Needed for Hardy Roses for more information.) They come through even the coldest winters in fine shape.

Of course, cold hardiness is only one factor. There are many plants that are “hardy”, but don’t like having their branches exposed to drying effect of winter winds. Broadleaf evergreens especially, like rhododendrons and certain hollies and euonymus, as well as plants with flower buds that overwinter on the plant, like azaleas, will “burn” (suffer from wind damage) in windy spots, even if they are “zone hardy”. Even many conifers, including the ultra hardy Eastern arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis), will burn if you plant them where they’ll subjected to drying winds all winter. These plants will do better if protected from the winter wind, but you don’t need a wooden cage or geotextile wrap. Just plant them where they’ll be protected by other plants on the windward side (that would be the Northwest for most readers of this blog) and they’ll be in perfect shape come spring.

Of course, every now and then I goof: a plant I thought ought to be solidly hardy turns out to suffer seriously over the winter. If so, good riddance! I’d rather it die so I can pull it out and replace it with something that really is going to grow happily under my conditions.

One Exception

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A simple shelter on the windward side can be useful for freshly planted shrubs and conifers.

Even a laidback gardener like me will admit that there is one exception to the “winter protection is a waste of time” rule, a situation where winter protection may be the best option. That is when the plant was only recently planted and you suspect it has not yet fully adapted to local conditions. This is particularly the case with woody plants planted in the fall. They will probably not be well rooted by the time winter arrives and therefore not yet truly winter-ready. And certain plants, such as magnolias and rhododendrons, are very slow to root even if you plant them in the spring. So for these “recent inserts”, installing a very rudimentary protection (a wall made of 2 or 3 stakes installed to the windward side of the plant with burlap or geotextile stapled onto it will do) may well be a good idea… for the first winter only. By the end of the second summer, the plant ought to be well-established and no longer in need of special winter care.

Just Say No

For the reasons above, I say no to winter protection in most situations. And I hope you will learn to do the same.

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4 thoughts on “Just Say No to Winter Protection

  1. Good advice. If you visited, you’d see a few of these structures but mine are because of the deer. My neighbor feeds them – dozen at a time. So after watching them eat my blueberry bushes back down every years, I decided to try covering this year. We’ll see if it works or not. Thanks for all your good advice. 🙂

  2. Adam

    I’ve always been on the “no protection” team, even remembering Art Drysdale saying the same thing. If you have to cover an evergreen for winter, plant something deciduous then. Same for broadleaf evergreens, why are we growing them when we end up wrapping them and covering them. Right plant, right place. I live in London, ON (USDA 6a) and the only thing we may need to run out and do is knock some snow out of a shrub, cold and wind aren’t exactly major things down here. Yet there is one person in my neighborhood that jumped on the burlap bandwagon, and wraps his ‘Emerald’ Arborvitae (Thuja occidentalis) tight every December and takes it off in April. Yet one street over, a homeowner has big, gorgeous Oriental arborvitae (Plataycladus orientalis) a solid zone 6a (USDA) plant with zero protection, even after the last two winters where temps dipped into the -20s a few nights. I do understand the screen for salt, or a newly planted specimen. But in the city where that’s not an issue? Leave ’em be.

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