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Winter care of trees and shrubs

Martyn Cox / 02 January 2012

We might think trees and shrubs are as tough as old boots, but harsh winter weather can take its toll on these plants, especially those that have been recently planted.

Gardener pruning tree in winter
Protect trees and shrubs during winter with a few simple measures

Fortunately it’s easy to safeguard these plants with a few simple tricks. At the same time, take your secateurs and tackle any trees and shrubs that need some formative pruning to keep them within bounds or improve their shape.

Newly-planted trees and shrubs

Bare roots trees or shrubs that are planted in the autumn or over winter are vulnerable to winds. Before they have had a chance to anchor themselves in the ground, plants can be rocked backwards and forwards, resulting them becoming loose. Regularly check any plants that have been recently planted and firm them back in place if necessary.

Dry soil and wind scorch to evergreens are others problems caused by chilly blasts. 

To safeguard plants, protect them with a temporary shelter. It’s easy to build. Simply drive four or more tree stakes into the ground around the plants and then attach a length of wind break netting to the outside, making a cage-like structure. Galvanised U-staples, available from DIY stores, can be used to secure the material against the posts.

Mulches will help retain moisture and prevent soil from drying out too quickly, but are best applied over the soil of newly planted trees and shrubs in autumn or mid to late spring, while the soil is still moist and warm.

Find out more about the benefits of mulching

Established trees and shrubs

Check the tree ties and stakes of trees and shrubs that have been planted for some time. Windy weather can cause these to loosen, which will damage the bark as it rubs against the tie – tighten if necessary. At the same time, see whether any ties need slackening. As a trunk expands, ties can restrict growth by biting into stems.

As a rule, stakes should only be left in place for about 18 months. Their job is to help the tree to establish in the soil and not support it for the rest of its life – if a tree is not firmly anchored after this length of time, then there may be something wrong with the tree or the way it was originally planted.

Fleecing exotic trees and shrubs

Prepare plants for winter. Wrap architectural bananas, palms and ferns in sheets of horticultural fleece, held tightly in place with twine – a 3in layer of well-rotted manure around the base will protect the roots. Drape fleece over callistemon, campsis, clianthus and other less hardy wall shrubs if frost is forecast.

Dealing with snow

It may look pretty, but excessive snow settling on the tops of shrubs or on bare branches can cause them to snap. Shake it off gently or knock the branches with a cane to stop the weight causing damage.

Containerised trees and shrubs

Pay particular attention to plants in containers – group them together to help insulate each other, stand them on pot feet to ensure excess moisture can escape and encircle with bubble-wrap. Listen to the weather reports and turn the greenhouse heater on if necessary.


Winter is a great time to trim any deciduous trees and shrubs. Stripped of any foliage you can see the network of branches clearly and identify any wayward shoots or those that spoil the shape of the plant. It’s also a good time to tackle overgrown shrubs, thinning out a congested mass of branches to improve the shape and allow air and light through. 

At the same time, improve the health of your plants by removing any dead, diseased or dying branches.

Check variegated evergreens

Check variegated evergreen trees and shrubs to see whether any have produced branches that have reverted back to the original green form. Known as reversion, this is a problem with many popular plants, especially variegated holly, euonymus and elaeagnus. Apart from looking unsightly, green branches contain more chlorophyll than variegated ones and will grow more vigorously, having the potential to eventually take over the entire plant. To stop this, take a pair of secateurs and snip off any green shoots at the main stem or base of the shrub.

Find out more about winter gardening


The opinions expressed are those of the author and are not held by Saga unless specifically stated. The material is for general information only and does not constitute investment, tax, legal, medical or other form of advice. You should not rely on this information to make (or refrain from making) any decisions. Always obtain independent, professional advice for your own particular situation.