Jan 25, 2015

Plunging temperatures, frost, bitter and disruptive winds, sleet, hail and snow: winter can be a difficult season for humans and surprisingly difficult for trees too. The cold weather has consequences for trees, shrubs and plants. A mild Atlanta winter which doesn`t bring snow can still deliver unpredictable weather in the form of winds and rain, or freezing temperatures, which create problems. So, what is the cold weather effect on trees?

A single weather event – such as a destructive storm or instance of heavy snowfall – can cause obvious visible damage. But sometimes, damage of a worse kind can occur after prolonged spells of rain which often leads to waterlogging, the saturation of soil with water. Waterlogging of the soil stops air getting in, and therefore prevents oxygen from reaching roots.

Of course, the health of trees can be affected in any season, with drought and sun also contributing to damage. But in colder, wintry weather, these are the main dangers:

Frost tends to affect the top of trees and shrubs where the freezing is most intense. Frost damage can cause some trees to lose buds, foliage, flowers and fruits. Frost crack, meanwhile, can occur when a tree grows early in the fall or during the late spring period and a freeze harms vulnerable tree tissue. Frost crack causes serious damage primarily to thin skinned trees like maples.

Beware, too, late spring freezes – a late frost can cause damage, particularly after a mild winter and then after spring tree growth has started. This is because new tree tissue is exposed to harmful conditions and might be water soaked, resulting in even more freeze damage.

Snow can cause freezing damage, but also provides a risk of what is known as mechanical damage – simply the sheer weight of snow resting on, and eventually breaking, branches.

Hail mainly leads to bruising and abrasion on trees especially as new leaves develop, by causing tiny scars on young foliage. This damage might escape the naked eye to begin with but becomes very noticeable as the tree leaves develop.

Freezing conditions can lead to what is known as winter burn or sunscald and commonly plagues conifers, causing needles to burn. Sunscald can take hold in winter when the temperature is above freezing during the day and below freezing at night. Frozen roots can particularly affect newly planted seedlings, and after periods of lengthy freezes. Those with frozen roots can wilt and decline.

Quick temperature changes are also a problem as trees prefer temperatures which change gradually. A sudden decrease cuts through that period of acclimation and can leave a tree stressed or injured. A rapid hard freeze can do that.

The extent of the damage inflicted by winds is proportionate to wind velocity. Stronger winds can snap and break twigs and larger branches. Gales have the potential of more serious damage, even uprooting some trees.

Ice can also cause damage to tree branches. Significant ice damage generally doesn`t happen until the layer of ice on a branch is around half an inch thick for 24 hours.

If that does occur, branches are liable to snap and quite violently too – the sound of this happening is similar to that of a rifle shot.

Thankfully, Atlanta has not experienced a major ice storm for around 15 years. The downside of this fact is that another is overdue, so preparation is advisable. If such conditions are forecast, consider tree trimming – remove or reduce the length of branches over the roof. In general, the longer the limb the more susceptible it is to damage, and pine trees are particularly vulnerable.

If in any doubt about your ability to tackle this yourself, don`t. Instead consult a tree company which can advise on tree pruning and, in serious cases, tree removal. This is where 404 CUT-TREE can help by offering a complete tree service in Atlanta and the surrounding suburbs, including Sandy Springs, Marietta, Roswell, Alpharetta, Decatur, Dunwoody and Duluth.

Of course, cold weather is not limited to typical `winter` problems: temperatures above freezing can also cause difficulties. Heavy rain, for example, can affect the top of smaller and younger trees by breaking fragile shoots and branches, but the real danger is through soil saturation and flooding. This is because soil filled with too much water doesn`t have enough air for roots to thrive, resulting in root rot. Red oaks are particularly vulnerable in Atlanta, and red oaks are by far the most common trees to uproot.

In severe cases of weather it`s easy to attribute damage to the previous day`s snowfall or storm. However, after a period – several weeks – of consistently cold weather and temperatures, it can be more difficult to detect damage. The symptoms of weather damage are often similar to the kind of damage caused by disease, interference by pests or insects or nutrient deficiency – this isn`t helped by the fact that some symptoms might take weeks or even longer to show up.

When inspecting the trees in your yard or garden every few days or weeks to check on their health, don`t necessarily blame damage on other factors. The weather may not have appeared particularly destructive in the sense of a one-off event; the overall season can take its toll.

Winter weather cannot be avoided – it is guaranteed to occur, to some degree, each and every year – but by understanding the risks it brings to trees, the damage it can do, and the symptoms to look out for, we can at least be prepared to deal with any problems.

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