Dakota Gardener: The waiting game

Joe Zeleznik
NDSU Extension
Joe Zeleznik, NDSU Extension forester

So far, this winter has been great for hoarfrost photos.

I don’t quite understand the meteorological conditions behind its formation, but it’s been beautiful. Close-up, the ice crystals weave intricate patterns. From a distance, we see trees and forests that are silhouetted in a white cover, standing out against the background.

I see some parallels between the trees themselves and the hoarfrost. Looking at an entire tree, I envision the strength of its wood, supporting a crown that holds a network of branches, twigs and summertime leaves. But those same twigs and leaves are small and flexible, and more susceptible to breakage than the larger branches.

We’ve already had several snowstorms and blizzards this winter. The one in mid-December was especially bad, starting with a thick layer of ice. After that came the heavy wet snow. Finally, the light fluffy snow came and eventually the storm moved on further east.

Three weeks later, my driveway is still covered in ice. Even the salt that I’ve applied doesn’t seem to be making much of a difference.

How are the trees doing with all of these challenges?

Most trees have weathered this just fine, while others sustained a good deal of damage.

Generally, trees that hold their leaves into the winter have had it the worst. Both the ironwood trees and the ponderosa pines in my own yard are still bent over from the extra weight of that ice and snow. Surprisingly, though, the spruce are still pretty upright.

I’ve been debating what to do here. Should I knock off that snow and ice? Would pruning out the deformed branches be a good approach? Heck – can I even reach the top of that 25-foot-tall pine tree?

Remember, “do nothing” is always a management option. It just has its own set of consequences.

I don’t know if the leader on the pine tree will straighten out next year, even if I remove the snow. The stem could be permanently kinked, which would provide some visual interest, for sure.

What would happen if I cut out that bent-over leader? While a new leader will certainly develop, I worry that multiple leaders will form. Such a situation on a conifer can be a structural nightmare. Quite simply, the connections are weak and more susceptible to breaking in the future.

The leader of this ponderosa pine tree is bent over, potentially causing future structural problems.

Apparently, a lot of multi-stemmed arborvitaes and junipers were nailed by that storm as well. They’re bent over and sometimes going in different directions. Is there any hope of salvaging them, structurally?

Recovery might be possible, though it’ll likely take a couple of years.

First, the stems will have to be drawn back together and supported with some type of strap or flexible material such as a bungee cord. Wait until temperatures are a bit warmer – the high 20s or even 30s – and the stems are more flexible.

Second, wait. These trees will need support for 1-2 years as they put on new wood underneath the bark. Those extra tree rings will give the tree more strength and stiffness in the long run.

The support strap should be flexible, providing short-term support without digging into the tree’s stems. Check the straps every three or four months to make sure that they’re not choking off the stems. Loosen the straps as needed.

I wish there was a third step, but at that point, all you can do is wait. And hope that we don’t get another round of super-heavy snow and ice.