Will My Garden be OK After the Ice Storm?

Many people are worried about what will happen to their trees, shrubs and plants after the ice storm. Its early spring and some plants have started to peak out of ground and buds have formed on trees and shrubs. Will they be affected by the ice storm? There are many factors that play a role in how bad the damage will be, but the quick answer is that plants are tough and most will survive just fine. Below is more information on what to expect.

Trees and Shrubs

Lost Limbs and Broken Branches

The ice storm lead to many branches breaking or cracking under the weight. You have likely started to remove those branches from the ground, but what about the tree? How well it recovers will depend on the type of damage, and how much.

For coniferous trees (evergreens like pine, spruce, fir), if the tip or the "leader" and up to half of the crown (the areas with green needles) has broken off, there is really good chance that the tree will recover. Any more than this will likely result in the tree dying.

For deciduous trees (trees that lose their leaves in the fall), they can take a lot more damage and still survive, up to 75% of the branches can fall off and the tree still has a chance to recover, although it may take up to 6 years to do so. With both cases, it ultimately depends on the health of the tree leading up to the ice storm, and the health of the tree as it recovers.

Bending or Leaning Trees

What if your tree didn't break, but it was weighed down by the ice and is bent over? Again, it depends on the species and how much bend, but generally most can take up to 60 degrees bend and still recover. If the tree is leaning and/or the roots have lifted, the tree should be removed.

The Ontario Ministry of Natural Resources and Forestry has put together a fact sheet on this for more information

Tears and Scars from a Broken Limb

If a large branch of a tree has ripped off, you want to prune the break point to protect the tree from further damage from disease or insects. For broken branches, prune back the branch to the stem or next joint with a larger branch. Make a clean cut at an angle that discourages moisture from sitting or accumulating. If it is a large branch, near or touching any utility lines, leaning towards a building or high up, do not take any chances and call a Certified Arborist. to do the work for you. Trees near sidewalks or roads may belong to your local municipality and be subject to bylaws, so best to contact them before doing any pruning.

If a branch ripped from the stem or a larger branch with bark, you will have to trim back the remaining loose bark to the point where it is firmly attached to the tree to prevent further damage from disease or insects. This can be done by carefully using a chisel to create a smooth edge. Wound paint or tar is not needed for these scars as the tree can heal itself. 

If a break has left more than 50% of the main tree stem cracked or broken, the tree will likely have to be removed. If the tree has had damage and is near any building, wires or other structure, your best bet is to contact a Certified Arborist to make a proper assessment to ensure safety. Be wary of cheaper quotes from uncertified people who lack the proper skills, insurance and knowledge to assess trees for potential damage or safety risks.

Leaf and Flower Buds

For those spring blooming shrubs such as Forsythia and Magnolia, the ice may have damaged some of the flower buds, so you will get less of a show when it blooms.  For those trees and shrubs that had fairly advanced leaf bud development, there may be less leaves come spring, but nothing that should hamper the overall health. For the most part, only time will tell the extent of the damage on buds and blooms, but the plants themselves should be fine and should recover nicely.

Perennials and Bulbs

Those perennials and bulbs that have yet to peak their heads out of the ground will be just fine. For those that have started to push out of the ground, they should be fine too. The highest risk would be to those that overwinter as low lying rosettes. like Cardinal Flowers or Coral Bells or those that have already started growing far above the soil level. The risk is not from the ice itself, but rather being incased in the ice, which can suffocate the plant and cause a build up of carbon dioxide, which can poison the plant. If the ice is only over the plant for a day or two, this shouldn't be a problem, especially if the ground is not frozen and can provide "exhaust holes" for the gases to escape. Because there wasn't a layer of heavy snow over the ice to block the sunshine, the plants were able to continue to photosynthesize and further reduce the risks.

How do I Reduce the Impacts of Ice on my Garden?

Ice storms tend to be nature's way of pruning dead, diseased or weak trees and branches. Keeping your trees, shrubs and plants healthy and well pruned can reduce the impacts of this ice storm, and prevent further damage in future ice storms. Here are some tips:

  • Do not shake off the ice from trees. Doing so can damage or break off tender buds and break brittle branches and stems. Let it melt away naturally.
  • Make sure trees are properly pruned before an ice storm hits. Having your trees properly assessed and pruned by a Certified Arborist is a definite investment in the future. Trees are valuable in so many ways, so keeping them healthy can be as important as keeping your car tuned up! It is also much easier and affordable to prune them before an ice storm, than to have to clean up a mess afterwards.
  • Maintain a 2-3 inch layer of natural wood mulch in your gardens. This mulch insulates the soil and plant roots, protecting them from sever weather events like ice storms. 
  • Choose trees types better adapted to ice storms. Hardwoods and evergreens tend to be better at handling ice, especially Oak, Hickories, Fir, Spruce, Red Maple, Yews, Black Walnut, Red Cedar, Ironwood (Hop Horn-beam) and Ginko. Softwoods and multi stemmed trees are more susceptible to ice damage and include types such as White Birch, Willows, Silver Maple and Siberian Elm.
  • Keep trees, shrubs and perennials healthy all year long. Stress caused by ice is much more damaging to plants that are already stressed from other conditions such as poor soil, over watering, poor drainage, insects or disease. A healthy plant will recover much faster and better.