By Lianne Nall
The snow is finally receding and we’re eager to return to our gardens to spy those first buds carrying a promise of leaves and color. Early spring in Tahoe, though, often reveals shocking devastation to gardens so carefully put to bed in the fall. Winter’s heavy snow and powerful winds can wreak havoc on our trees and shrubs. But don’t worry — with patience, you can bring your garden back to life.
First, assess your trees and shrubs. If they were wrapped before winter, carefully unwrap them and give the branches a gentle shake to help them back to their natural shape. The accumulation of winter snow and ice on branches can add tremendous weight, which, when accompanied by winds, can lead to cracking, splits, and breaks. You’ll want to inspect for any issues, pruning away dead, dying, or broken branches so that the plant can focus on producing fresh, healthy growth. Pruning should take place about an inch from the trunk at an angle, always using sharp and sanitized tools to prevent disease spread and further damage.
Trees that are bent over from the snow’s weight can be gradually straightened by tying a rope around the bent part of the tree and, in weekly increments, pulling it upright.
Perennial shrubs may initially appear crushed from the weight of the snow. They’ll usually bounce back to life once the snow has completely receded. Keep in mind that snow is a natural insulator, protecting plants from the spring freeze-thaw cycle, and refrain from helping with snow removal.
You may be saddened to find that rabbits or voles have munched away at the bark of your shrubs and trees under the snow, leaving girdled branches and trunks. There’s a chance you can save these plants if more than 50% of the circumference bark remains. Shrub branches, like those of dogwood, viburnum, and ninebark, grow from the base, so you can prune the damaged branches all the way down to the healthy bark near the base. The plant will usually resprout and grow back over a few years, sometimes even flowering in the first year after pruning.
Rodent damage to trees is more concerning as water and nutrients from the soil must travel up a single trunk to the photosynthesizing foliage via the phloem just inside the bark. If a tree is 100% girdled, the leaves and branches above the damaged area will be cut off from food transfer, and the tree will not survive. If the trunk is only partially girdled, it may recover. Try fertilizing with a slow-release organic fertilizer, and watering deeply and consistently throughout the growing season to avoid stress. Liquid seaweed extract, when added to the soil, is another way to help with recovery, encouraging new growth and stronger cell walls.
Fertilize trees and shrubs. Add a slow-release organic fertilizer such as Biosol Forte to your soil to help feed your plants. As they break down, these fertilizers become readily accessible to the plants’ roots. Using a hand rake, scratch around the dripline of your trees or shrubs, loosening the soil. Take a handful of the fertilizer and work it into the soil, then re-cover with the loosened dirt.
Mulch. Spreading a thick, 2- to 3-inch layer of organic mulch, like Gromulch, throughout the yard — up to but not touching the base of trees and shrubs — will help to retain moisture, maintain soil temperatures, and suppress weeds, all while providing biological advantages as the mulch breaks down over time.
Lawn revival. When the snow recedes and the turf is no longer wet, rake well to remove pine needle debris and matted, dead grass. Sunshine, warming temperatures, and aeration with a spading fork or motorized plugger will naturally encourage rapid lawn rejuvenation. You may find winter vole damage where the rodents have tunneled under the snow and along the surface of the grass, feeding on the turfgrass shoots. The damage is usually short-lived once the snow melts as the voles seek out safer areas to hide and eat.
Annual spring fertilization and overseeding will renew your lawn after a long winter compressed under the heavy snow. There are several techniques to choose from, and our favorite involves creating a mixture of mature compost such as cow manure with Kellogg Topper Soil and grass seed. Once the area has been raked and aerated, cover the area with a thin layer of the mixture. Water both morning and late afternoon daily until you see signs of germination, then reduce watering to once a day until grass reaches a height of 2 inches, and resume a regular watering schedule.
Before you know it, your garden will be back to life, ready for new planting. As always, check with the folks at Villager Nursery and Tahoe Tree Company for their expert tips.
~ Lianne Nall and her family have been a part of the Tahoe community for the past 20 years. A West Shore resident, she’s experienced both delight and challenge gardening in our unique ecosystem.