Winter is tough on plants. A snowless one exposes the soil to extreme temperature fluctuations that can damage the roots of trees and shrubs and actually heave perennials right out of the ground. Too much snow, especially the heavy or icy variety, snaps limbs and may even topple whole trees. Add to this drying winds, road salt, hungry animals, and even bright sun, and it’s a wonder plants make it through the winter at all.
Choosing the hardiest plants for your particular location will eliminate much winter loss. ‘Reliance’ peach, for instance, is a tough variety that can be planted instead of ‘Elberta’ or ‘Red Haven.’ (If your spot is really cold, forget peaches altogether and stick to apples and pears.)
Proper site selection will save a lot of headaches, especially when establishing evergreens. Brisk winter winds and sunlight intensified as it is reflected off snow can pull moisture from leaves and needles faster than it can be replaced. Plants such as holly, hemlock, rhododendrons, and laurel should be grown in filtered sunlight. They can be protected from wind and from browsing animals by installing barriers of snow fence or staked burlap.
Not all plantings can be perfectly situated, so often it is necessary to afford them some winter protection. First and foremost, make sure plants are healthy as they head into winter. Keep watering all plants as late into the fall as possible, especially the evergreens. Plant roots grow and take in moisture long after the air temperature drops below freezing. Fall feeding should be done with a low-nitrogen fertilizer so that new growth is not stimulated. Use mulch where you can on all plants. Many perennials favor the lightness of salt marsh hay over a heavier bark mulch. Apply hay 8 inches thick over all beds. It is weed free and easily removed in the spring.
Sunscald, caused by rapid heating and cooling of bark, can kill a newly planted tree quickly. Protect against scald by wrapping the trunk with tree wrap or burlap. Be sure to remove the wrap in the spring because it may harbor insects.