Q. My corner lot privacy is protected by a hedge of 30 arborvitaes about 10 to 15 feet tall. They took quite a beating with the recent heavy wet snow. A few of the tallest were at one point bent down to the ground. After melting, some are still noticeably bent or leaning, but not split or otherwise damaged. Should I try to tie or stake them straight now, wait and see what happens in the spring, or consider them to be lost?
A. Arborvitae comes in all shapes and sizes, but many cultivars have a slender conical form that many homeowners prefer for privacy screens. Since arborvitaes are multi-stemmed, they are vulnerable to bent branches from heavy snow loads. What happens after a heavy snowstorm is that the weight of the snow sits on the branches and causes them to separate from the center of the plant.
Some homeowners are disappointed to see that when they shake off the excess snow from the branches, the arborvitaes are left bent. If the snow is heavy enough, it can cause the branches to break from the center. If you’re not careful, you could have a property with distorted arborvitaes come spring.
In my opinion, arborvitae should not be allowed to reach more than 10 to 12 feet in height. Cut the central leader of the tree back to another branch so the plant remains at its current height. Shape the shrub every year or so to a conical shape. The shape alone will greatly reduce snow load on lateral branches.
Heavy snow or ice can still cause branches or even the entire shrub to bend. One can avoid potential damage by wrapping the shrub with burlap in late fall or fasten a soft rope at the tip of the tallest branch and then spiral it down the tree. Secure the rope at the base of the tree, and remove it come spring.
If you’re hit with a snowstorm and your shrubs are not protected, the best approach is to clean off the shrubs as soon as the snow stops. Use a broom to knock the snow gently and carefully off the branches. The winter branches of most trees and shrubs become quite brittle during the winter months, making them more susceptible to breakage
In case the weight of the snow or ice has severely bent an individual branch, try carefully repositioning it by tying it to other branches within the shrub. Old pantyhose or soft rope are better for this.
Bent branches will often straighten up on their own as the shrub begins to grow in the spring.
If they do not straighten up, tie to stronger branches in an effort to train them back upright. If they don’t straighten up by mid-summer, you might have to remove the damaged branches.
Make sure to remove any rope used to train branches as it can eventually girdle branches and kill them. Lastly, if you cannot safely do the work from the ground or a small stepladder, it’s time to contact a professional arborist.
The Plant Medic, written by Ricky Kemery, appears every other Tuesday. Kemery retired as the extension educator for horticulture at the Allen County Purdue Extension Service. To send him a question, email [email protected].