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Tender trees, shrubs need relief from weighty snow, ice

I recently drove to Seattle over Snoqualmie Pass. All along the road the trees were mantled in white that made them look like thin white candles. It was beautiful but it reminded me that not all trees can handle heavy winter snow with such grace.

Garden shrubs and trees are pretty tough under normal winter conditions. They can shrug off our average dry powdery snowstorms with few problems. However when we get a heavy wet snow or a huge dump like we had in 2008-’09 they are easily damaged by the weight of the snow. When this happens gardeners need to be ready to protect their most valuable plants.

Unfortunately you can do as much damage to the plant as the snow can if you just go out and start knocking the plants around to clear the snow and ice off.

Trees and shrubs vary in their ability to handle the extra weight of snow and ice. Conifers for the most part retain their flexibility and usually bend harmlessly with the weight. Stout deciduous trees will handle all but the heaviest loads. The trees to watch are those with long, thin branches or those that hold their leaves or seed heads through the winter.

The best tools to use to clear trees are a light but long pole or grass rake. I use a 7-foot bamboo plant stake. Start at the ends of the longest and tallest branches where the greatest tension has been created. Gently tap the branch until the snow releases then work your way back toward the trunk. Watch for branches that are crossed and relieve the overlying branch of snow first. Once the main branches are clear, work on the side branches. Be sure to wear a tight-fitting hood unless you like snow down your neck. A hard hat isn’t a bad idea either in case a branch does break.

Ice covered branches can be tricky to clear. The ice is much denser and heavier than the snow making the branches stiff and much more brittle. A light coating of ice can do serious damage. Start by gently tapping ice from the branch tips all around the tree and then work your way to the center of the tree. This takes the weight off gradually. Dig branches out of snow banks rather than pulling them.

Sometimes it’s the aftermath of a big snow that can cause the damage. Some of the worst damage from the 2008-’09 winter was caused by the compaction of the snow well past the time it fell. As it compacted on the ground, the weight literally pulled the branches off low weeping trees like Japanese maples and cherries. The best thing to do for these trees is gently dig their branch tips out right after a snow and keep them clear. Just be careful not to step on other plants as you try to rescue the tree.


Pat Munts is a Master Gardener who has gardened the same acre in Spokane Valley for 30 years. She can be reached by e-mail at