Should Trees be Wrapped in Winter?

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Robert Pavlis

Why do we wrap trees and shrubs in winter? It seems to be a northern tradition. Every fall we go out and wrap plants in burlap to keep them protected from winter weather. All the books and all the web sites tell us to do this, so it must be right? Let’s have a closer look.

Trees wrapped in winter
Should trees be wrapped in winter?

Why Cover Trees and Shrubs in Winter?

There are several stated reasons;

1) Keeps plants warmer

2) Reduces moisture loss

3) Keeps deer away

4) Protects from ice damage

5) Reduces salt damage

6) Looks good

7) Protects from sun

Let’s have a more detailed look at each of these reasons and then decide what approach we should use.

Keep Plants Warmer:

This topic has been dealt with in a previous post. See Are Wrapped  Trees Warmer in Winter for more details. Wrapping plants in winter does not keep them warmer.

Reduces Moisture Loss:

This topic was discussed in Keep Plants Warm in Winter . Reducing moisture loss is important for some plants and a wrap can reduce moisture loss.

Keeps Deer Away:

This is certainly true. Deer eat just about anything when they are hungry. They leave my Yew alone all summer and early winter. By late winter they come and have a meal. A wrap of burlap keeps them from eating the new growth from the previous year. I also cover some small shrubs with chicken wire if I suspect they will eat them (eg sumacs) until these plants get big enough to fend for themselves.

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The wrapping in the picture above looks silly–only the bottom of plants are wrapped. But it is a good way to reduce deer damage provided the wrapping goes as high as a deer.

Protects From Ice Damage:

People who live in the north understand the damage an ice storm can cause. In a few hours branches of trees and shrubs can be covered with a very heavy layer of ice. The weight of the ice can break branches or bend them dramatically. Most deciduous plants will recover and fill in the broken spaces. Some evergreens, especially upright evergreens like junipers can be so severely deformed that they never look good again.

Wrapping with burlap can prevent ice damage. It keeps the branches close together so that the ice can’t bend them over.

Salt Damage:

Salt spray from the road can be damaging to some evergreens. Covering them can help.

Looks Good:

In most cases, the covered plants do not look good. The above picture is an extreme example. To be honest most coverings make your front lawn look terrible.

Protect From Sun

Most shrubs and trees do not need to be protected from sun in winter, but there is at least one group of plants that will benefit from such treatment. Some of the newer yellow-leafed evergreens, brown very easily in winter from drying and sun damage. This is mostly an issue for 2-3 years after planting. Once the plant is well established it is less sensitive to sun and drying. So if you plant such evergreens it is a good idea to wrap them, in winter, for 3 years.

Issues With Plant Covers

There are clearly some good reasons for covering your trees and shrubs, but there are also reasons for not covering them.

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1) Moisture issues

2) Rodent problems

3) Sun scald

Moisture Issues:

Plant covers reduce wind and therefore reduce loss of moisture from the plant. The same covering however can also cause problems with too much moisture. Many plants that are native to cold regions of the world like to stay dry in winter. This includes most deciduous trees and shrubs, as well as all perennials. Excess moisture can cause them to rot.

Rodent Problems:

You have made a nice cozy spot for your plant and rodents think that is just marvelous. A nice place to spend the winter, and plant food to eat – better than the Holiday Inn.

Sun Scald:

Some coverings, like clear plastic, act like a greenhouse. When the sun shines the temperature increases significantly, and this can damage the plant. If the temperature gets too warm it can scald the plant. Lower warm temperatures make the plant think it is spring and they start to grow. A few days later it gets very cold again and the plant dies. Once a plant has cooled down for the winter it is best to keep it cold until spring.

Should You Cover or Not?

If plants are covered correctly, none of the above mentioned issues should be a problem. Covering plants does provide some benefit, however, I would suggest that except for the deer issue and the yellow leafed evergreens, very few plants need to be covered. If you don’t plant upright evergreens with very vertical branches, you really don’t have an issue with ice storms. If you select plants that survive winter in your zone you will not need to protect them. Spend a bit more time selecting your plants rather than spending time covering them each year.

I garden using a fairly simple philosophy. Make gardening easy and fun. Covering your plants is extra work. If you select a plant incorrectly and it gets damaged in winter or even dies, the solution is simple. Plant something else in it’s place. With many thousands of plants to choose from why struggle with a lemon?

References:

1) Photo Source: Buffalo Spree–A Magazine of Western New York

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Robert Pavlis

I have been gardening my whole life and have a science background. Besides writing and speaking about gardening, I own and operate a 6 acre private garden called Aspen Grove Gardens which now has over 3,000 perennials, grasses, shrubs and trees. Yes--I am a plantaholic!

40 thoughts on “Should Trees be Wrapped in Winter?”

  1. I live in SC. I planted small seedling trees (Poplar and Oak) in my yard in late August. The trees are probably anywhere from 6 inches tall to 16 inches tall. I have a wire round fence around each of them (about 12 inches in diameter) I have also wrapped them (the metal fencing, not the tree itself) in burlap. Is that good for them? and also should I just leave the burlap on them throughout the winter? It the beginning of November now.

    Reply
    • Provided the wire wrap keeps rodents out – the burlap is adding no value. Keep it on all winter or take it off – makes no difference.

      Reply
  2. Hi. I live in Denmark and I agree with your views that what really counts when you cover above ground plant parts, is protection from wind.
    But why are there so many recommendations to cover the ground above the roots of a plant? If you cover say 1/2 m2 around the stem of a tree with hemp mats, spruce branches or similar, how can this protect the roots? If you have had -5 celcius for a couple of days, my thinking is that the ground cover will not be able to insulate the roots from the surrounding cold soil. But then again, covering the ground must be based on generations of trial and error.

    Reply
    • The center of the earth generates heat, which travels up through the soil. When it gets to the surface it is lost to wind and air. By covering the ground you trap more of the heat in the soil. Snow does the same thing. Ground that is snow covered is always warmer than open ground.

      Reply
  3. Hi, I live in NJ but in a mountainous area so my zone is closer to 5 than 6. I get lots of wind and snow. For the last two years I have staked and burlapped my Schipp Laurels. At 50+, this is alot of work so my nursery said to put the stakes further out instead of individually wrapping each one. This turned out to be a disaster as the weight of the burlap (and wind) was tipping the stakes. So I just took all the stakes out and wrapped the burlap directly around each schipp Laurel. I had a previous neighbor who did this and it seemed fine but then I’ve read the burlap shouldn’t touch the plant. If I removed the burlap now I can’t get them re-staked and covered but I don’t want to ruin them either. Any advice? Thank you!

    Reply
    • Staking farther from the plant is the best way to stop wind burn. Sounds like you stakes were too small.
      Nothing wrong with burlap touching the plant.

      I’d leave one completely un-wrapped and next spring you will know if you really need to wrap them.

      Reply
    • Depends on your climate. If the trees are wrapped – that is the wrong way to do it, and it can be removed any time. If it is used as a wind brake – there is no harm in leaving them until spring.

      Reply
  4. Robert – any advice on desert Rose plants potted in arizona winters? zone 9 and 10.

    A few are too big and heavy to move much.
    Nite time temp here in December – January, about low 40’s.

    They are on a outside covered porch /patio..not heated

    Reply
  5. What about Hydrangeas? I am in Zone 5b. Tip die back over winter is supposed to be why most macrophyllas won’t bloom here. I’m trying to figure out what to do to get more blooms. Or any blooms, really. I had ONE bloom on 6 plants t his year; 3 different cultivars. I’ve been putting a wire mesh cage around the plant, and filling it with leaves once it gets really cold out. Thanks.

    Reply
    • The cold is killing the buds – wrapping does not increase the temperature.

      Zone 5 is too cold for most, if not all macrophyllas – grow something else.

      Reply
  6. In Master Gardeners class a few years back, we were told that sun scald is when the morning sun touches frozen bark and the cell walls burst, causing a lesion for bacteria to enter and was the reason you saw so many young city trees in zone 7 Oklahoma die, because they didn’t get wrapped.
    We were told that older trees can bounce back from that, but I don’t remember being told how old a tree needs to be. I have been wrapping my Chinese Pistache for the 10 years I’ve had it.
    This year we had an ice storm that pulled all of my paper tree wrap down, so I just hung some bright colored fabric to loosely cover the trunk from the morning sun.

    Reply

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