As residents of the Toronto area, it should come as no surprise that winter can be harsh and unpredictable. While the many bitter months can be challenging for us, the unpredictability of the winter months can be particularly hard on trees. That is why it is important to know the types of issues trees face in winter and take proactive steps to prevent winter tree damage from happening.

Winter Related Issues

For trees, it is not necessarily the cold temperatures that do the worst damage. It is the ever-changing conditions of winter that wreak the most havoc on our treasured trees. Recognizing the possibility of damage is essential in working towards preventing it and maintaining healthy, vibrant trees. Here is a list of some of the most common winter-related issues:


Abrupt exposure to heat or sun in winter months can cause sunscald, which is essentially a large canker sore on the bark of a tree. Young trees are especially susceptible to sunscald as their bark is not as resilient as a mature tree’s. You may recognize the bark on your tree start to change color or texture, or even notice the formation of cracks in bark. While cracks and other trunk damage can occur from other sources, if the damage is more concentrated to the south facing sides of the trunk is it indicative of sunscald.

Winter Root Damage

The roots of trees do not typically go dormant as quickly as other parts that are above ground. This makes them more vulnerable to dramatic changes in the weather. If the roots are shallow or if there are cracks in the soil, the roots are more likely to be exposed to the elements and become damaged.  Root damage is not generally apparent until spring, when you might notice significant dieback (or no growth at all).

Salt Exposure

Salt exposure can severely damage evergreens, and especially White Pines. Road salt may be sprayed/splashed onto trees in your yard by vehicles passing by or from snowplows clearing the streets. You likely will not notice any damage until spring, when the needles begin to turn brown and possibly start falling off. If the soil around your trees has poor drainage the root system may also be at risk of salt exposure.

Food tends to be scarce for animals in the winter months. Deer, mice, and other rodents love to snack on the tender shoots and bark of trees. If left unprotected, these pesky critters can cause irreparable damage to your shrubs and trees.

Trunk Cracks

Fluctuating temperatures and midwinter thaws can be particularly detrimental to the bark on tree trunks. If you remember from elementary science class, water expands when it freezes. Different layers of wood in the trunk contain different amounts of water. As you can imagine, dramatic shifts in temperature means repeated expanding and contracting of the wood layers – thus trunk cracks occur.


Harsh, dry winds paired with exposure to winter sun rays can cause Winterburn on conifer needles and evergreen foliage. You will notice branch tips and needles start to turn brown. Dramatic decreasing in temperatures can exacerbate Winterburn, as well.

Damaged Branches Due to Heavy Snow, Ice & Winter Storms

Winter weather, as we have mentioned, can be incredibly unpredictable. From periods of heavy snowfall to sever ice storm and unrelenting wind, its miraculous that any tree survives the winter. Thankfully, trees are quite resilient! For the most part, healthy trees bend with the wind and weight of the snow. However, sometimes trees will crack or snap under additional pressure.

Preventative Measures

Being proactive and putting some preventative measures in place is the best way to mitigate tree damage in the freezing-cold winter months. With this list of practical tips and tricks, you can help maintain healthier, more beautiful trees straight through to spring.

  1. Stop fertilizing trees at least 6-weeks before the first fall frost is expected. The new growth brought about by fertilizing your trees needs an adequate amount of time to mature and harden off before the cold temperatures hit.
  2. Cover newly planted trees with a good layer of mulch as well as fill any cracks/breaks in the surrounding soil to prevent cold air or ice reaching the roots and causing irreparable damage. Mulch can also protect shallow roots from salt damage.
  3. Place protective barriers around trees to prevent damage from animals and other pests.
  4. Paint the southern side of tree trunks with dilute white (or light colored) interior latex paint to protect against sunscald and prevent frost cracks in the bark. Trunks can also be wrapped in paper tree wrap.
  5. Protect conifer trees from salt damage by wrapping in burlap or shrub wrap.
  6. When heavy snow accumulates on branches, you can gently brush it off to alleviate the strain. However, do not try to remove ice buildup as you will likely do more harm than good.
  7. It’s a good idea to inspect trees once their foliage has fallen for any cracked or otherwise damaged limbs and branches. These trees may need some extra care to prevent additional damage from occurring (to the tree, your property, or even yourself).
  8. For structurally compromised trees you may even want to consider installing a bracing and cabling system to help them withstand the extra weight of winter.

Time to Call the Professionals?

While trees generally survive winter fine all on there own, there are many things that can go wrong if the proper care and attention is not given to them. Tree care and maintenance can feel overwhelming if you do not have any experience. This is where the help of professional arborists come in. Sometimes a quick consultation is all you need to confirm if you are on the right track or not…and sometimes things are a little more serious than that.

Local Arborist always offers complimentary consultations for Toronto tree care services. Our friendly team has many years of experience dealing with the winter tree care. For questions about setting your trees up for the best success throughout the coldest months and preventing winter tree damage, give Local Arborist a call today.