Sensible Winter Protection

It can no longer be denied: fall has arrived. The leaves are falling off the trees, some plats are getting frostbite, the nights are getting cooler: summer is far away. So, it’s time to think about protecting our plants for the winter.

Conifers with winter protection
Winter protection: a common sight in our region.

Winter protection is popular in my region, Eastern Quebec. Conifers are wrapped up like mummies and hedges covered with neon orange snow fences are numerous here all winter long. .

However, such protections are seldom necessary and can even seriously damage the shrubs they are meant to protect. If you have chosen plants that are well adapted to your climate and placed them in suitable locations, they should not need any protection.

Person spreading leaf mulch on a garden bed with a shovel
The best winter protection is to cover the roots with 3-4 inches (7 to 10 cm) of mulch. Photo:

Discreet Winter Protection

The most important thing for all plants is, of course, to protect their roots. Roots are the most delicate part of the plant, much more than the branches, the leaves or the needles. People who protect the branches and other aerial parts of their plants, but leave the roots exposed to the cold, risk seeing them damaged anyway.

The best winter protection is to cover the roots with 3-4 inches (7 to 10 cm) of mulch. You can buy mulch or use your own shredded fall leaves. Shredded leaves do not blow away and give excellent winter protection. I also suggest leaving the fall leaves in your flowerbeds on the ground. By falling at the base of the plants you want to keep, they help insulate the roots.

Winter blight on a white spruce
Winter blight on a white spruce (Picea glauca albertiana ‘Conica’).

For plants which are a little more prone to winter blight, such as conifers and rhododendrons, it is doubly important to ensure that their root system is well protected. They lose moisture in winter due to their leaves. Plants transpire and lose moisture through their leaves. But, since the ground is frozen in winter, they cannot absorb as much water through their roots. It is therefore necessary not only to apply a mulch, but also to water them in autumn if rain is lacking. Do so until the ground freezes.

Extra Protection

For shrubs or conifers that are at risk of bending under the weight of snow (especially pyramidal cedars), the first line of defense is to avoid locations subject to rapid snowfall, such as under a roof overhang. If necessary, push a sturdy, neutral-coloured stake into the ground, on the less visible side of the plant, and tie the plant to the stake with a sturdy, discreetly colored wire or a transparent net. Do not overtighten! (You see a lot of people damaging their shrubs by wanting to straighten them too much). Just wrap them gently, that’s all. When this work is well done, you should not even see the difference.

Styrofoam rose cone
In the past, it was customary to mound roses in the fall and cover them with a rose cone. Photo:

Roses: A Special Case?

In the past, it was customary to mound roses in the fall and cover them with a rose cone… but that was at the time of the hybrid tea and grandiflora roses , which were not very hardy. Nowadays, these roses are less and less cultivated, having given way to rustic roses. And the name says it all: a hardy rose bush is hardy! So cold-hardy, it doesn’t need winter protection.

Burlap winter protection in front of conifers
It is only necessary to protect freshly planted shrubs from dominant winds. Photo:

Freshly Planted Evergreens and Shrubs

The only time visible winter protection can be useful is on newly installed plants.

Trees, shrubs and conifers planted in the fall did not necessarily have time to take root properly before the onset of cold weather. Mulch is useful to help them survive the winter, but is not always enough. It is therefore useful to protect them from the prevailing wind by placing two stakes on the northwest side of the shrub and attaching a piece of burlap or agrotextile (geotextile) to them. However, the fabric must not touch the plant, otherwise there is a danger of burning.

Some people prefer to set four stakes and surround the entire shrub , forming a sort of open tube. Leave the top open. It is essential that the plant can breathe at all times and that the heat can be evacuated. At the end of winter especially, there can be sudden rises in temperature. And that’s when plants tend to overheat. To this end, never close the top of your protection.

Good winter protection is essentially invisible. It can be easy and discreet and at the same time effective. It is a question of using common sense rather than embarking on heavy protection which will make your whole landscape ugly.

Garden writer and blogger, author of 65 gardening books, lecturer and communicator, the Laidback Gardener, Larry Hodgson, passed away in October 2022. Known for his great generosity, his thoroughness and his sense of humor, he reached several generations of amateur and professional gardeners over his 40-year career. Thanks to his son, Mathieu Hodgson, and a team of contributors, will continue its mission of demystifying gardening and making it more accessible to all.

3 comments on “Sensible Winter Protection

  1. Would it be possible to simply wrap the plants with the same material we use to protect the grass during the winter? Merci!

  2. Right plant, right place. As a card carrying member of the Zonal Denialists I can say, do your research carefully when selecting plants, learn the habitat it originated from for clues on best planting location. Your garden is full of microhabitats. I was able to grow bananas in Oregon, because I recognized that a dryer vent next to a gutter downspout on a southern exposure was just what it wanted. Get a minimum/maximum thermometer and put it in various locations. A house on a property can have 2-3 planting zones because of the “heat effect” from buildings. Of course, if you plant close to a building, you need to also know the full mature size of the plant.

    Great topic, as usual!

  3. So true. Gardeners always tend to kill with kindness. I use old broke terracotta or glazed pots as windbreaks for small conifers. Sunscald on new conifers is often an issue here so putting something on top of the snow to prevent the sun’s reflection onto the needles works well too. Old Christmas tree branches or leaves are good materials.

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